Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

21 MAY, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Masturbation, and the Beloved Author’s Response

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“Dear Judy, I want to ask you a very important question…”

In 1879, Mark Twain delivered a brilliant satirical lecture about masturbation, mocking the cultural hypocrisies around a practice so prevalent, so natural, yet so condemned. Nearly 130 years later, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach traced the perilous religious roots of these hypocrisies. But the most poignant reflections on the subject come from those that suffer from such stigmas most acutely and with the least social support available: children. It’s no surprise, then, that kids whose parents and teachers either don’t address the subject or shroud it in censorship and condemnation would look for solace elsewhere.

Generations have found such solace — as well as a comforting sense of being less alone and less abnormal in their unwitting normalcy — in the books of beloved author Judy Blume, who has tackled many timelessly tricky subjects in her young-adult novels, including masturbation in the 1973 classic Deenie. But Blume addresses the subject directly in a chapter of the wholly excellent Letters to Judy (public library) — the same wonderful vintage compendium that gave us children’s moving letters to Blume about being queer.

Judy Blume signing a copy of Deenie (photograph by Mariah Jasmine Bonifacio)

In one letter, 13-year-old Nikki sends an itemized list of questions that might appear amusing at first glance, but is, upon closer inspection, emblematic of a profound cultural failure — a failure to inform, and an implicit failure to comfort by normalizing the very thing that is so natural and common yet so capable of instilling a soul-shattering sense of isolation in children made intentionally unaware of this prevalence:

Dear Judy,

I read your book Deenie. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was to know that I’m not the only person to do what Deenie does. You are the only person who has ever mentioned anything about this. So could you please answer my questions.

  1. How did you find out about this?
  2. Is it a kind of disease?
  3. How did I know to start doing this?
  4. Am I weird?
  5. How many other letters have you received saying that other people do this (if any)?
  6. Approximately how many people do this?
  7. Is what I do going to harm my insides (like by not letting me have children)?
  8. Am I a fag?

I hope to hear from you very soon. Please!

Blume targets the source and addresses the parents who make such anguishing and unnecessary spirals of anxiety possible, relaying a story at once heartening in showing that kids will always find a way to pursue their curiosity, and heartbreaking in revealing the outrageous acts of censorships of which adults are capable in their efforts to curtail that boundless curiosity:

When you are choosing books about sexuality for your kids make sure that there is an honest discussion of masturbation included. Chances are, they’re not going to want to talk about it with you, but just finding out that it’s okay will be a relief for them.

A young man wrote that he didn’t get a good night’s sleep during his adolescent years. He tried to train his mind before he went to sleep to think about mathematical problems. He tried to concentrate on them so he wouldn’t have erections, or worse, wet dreams.

When Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was published I met a woman who told me that her son had been given a copy for his twelfth birthday. She read the book first but before giving it back to him she cut out two pages. “How did you do that?” I asked. “With a scissors,” she said. When I asked why she had cut out those two pages she told me that she didn’t think her son was old enough to read about wet dreams or masturbation.

Last year I met her son. He is twenty-four now. I asked him if he remembered the book. “Sure,” he said. “And I always knew that my mother had cut out those pages even though she told it was a printing error. So I went down to the public library and I read the rest of the book there.”

Another 13-year-old, Jolene, speaks to the precious gift of Blume’s books in pulverizing that sense of isolation and aberration:

Dear Judy,

I have read all of your books. They helped me not to be afraid and they answer my questions. I thought I was different but I’m not. In your books are things I would never bring out in the open with my mother. Like in your book Deenie — she touches her special place. Well, I do that too, but I always thought I was the only one.

14-year-old Barbara is on the same page:

Dear Judy,

My mom and I have a very open relationship. But the one thing I cannot bring myself to mention to anyone is masturbation. I know (and your books helped me to understand) that it’s not bad. Just something about it is really embarrassing.

In this heartbreaking letter, 12-year-old Heather offers another account of the traumatic and toxic cultural narrative purveyed to children about one of the body’s most natural physical experiences:

Dear Judy,

I want to ask you a very important question. Okay, I’ll start from the beginning. When I was little, about four or five, I started touching my special place. And I got a nice feeling. I had a baby-sitter during this time. Her name was Donna. And she knew that I touched my special place. She said that if I kept touching it, it would get big, then it would bleed, then it would fill with pus and pop! Then I would have to have an operation. So I stopped touching it.

When I was going into sixth grade I started again. And one day this stuff came out of me. My mom said it was discharge and that it’s normal. But I’m scared to even touch my special place now. I think it will pop. This is serious. I told my mom and she told me that Donna was just lying but I’m still scared. Can you explain what happened? Please answer this letter as I am very scared.

Blume addresses the all too pervasive issue:

Yes, there are still myths about masturbation! The stories that Donna told Heather were frightening and destructive. A grown man wrote that his adolescent years were “a quiet hell of silent suffering.” He said that he thought it was the fact that nobody ever talked about masturbation that led him to believe that he was the only disgusting, degenerate pervert in the world.

I never heard the word masturbation when I was growing up. Yet at twelve I knew I had a special place and that I could get that good feeling by touching it. I talked about it with some of my friends, who had also discovered that they had special places. I never found anything relating to my early sexuality in books, so there was some comfort in finding out from my friends that I was not alone.

For an added delight, complement Letters to Judy with Amanda Palmer’s tribute to Judy Blume, from the altogether fantastic collaborative record An Evening with Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer:

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20 MAY, 2014

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Rare and Soulful 1984 Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”

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A bittersweet tale of transformation and self-transcendence through a single act of kindness.

From Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger — who also gave us those impossibly imaginative illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz — comes a rare 1984 illustrated edition of The Selfish Giant (public library), one of the five short stories in Oscar Wilde’s 1888 collection for children, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.

The story was written at a pivotal time in Wilde’s life: professionally, it was wedged between his foray into professional journalism in 1887 as editor of The Woman’s World and his only novel, the 1890 classic The Picture of Dorian Gray; personally, it was nestled between the peak of his marital troubles and his intense love affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

In that turbulent context, it is perhaps befitting that Wilde would gravitate toward something soulful, symbolic, and ultimately bittersweet: When the selfish giant bans the children from playing in his garden, Spring refuses to come and the garden sinks into an unending winter. One day, the giant is awakened to discover that the children have found a way to sneak in through a hole in the wall. He is gripped with regret over his surly behavior and vows to demolish the wall, but as he emerges from his castle to welcome the children, they all run for their lives — except one little boy in the midst of trying to climb a tree. Rather than scold, the giant helps the child climb the tree and gets a hug and a kiss in return, which melts his heart. But then, the giant disappears, only to come back many years later, as an old man returning to die under the tree, covered in white spring blossoms.

It’s a simple yet immeasurably sweet story — the story of transformation and self-transcendence through one’s own single act of kindness, and Zwerger’s subtle yet infinitely expressive illustrations add beautiful dimension to Wilde’s wistful hopefulness.

Zwerger’s The Selfish Giant is long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found online and at some libraries. Complement it with Oscar Wilde on art, then revisit Zwerger’s enchanting reimaginings of Wonderland and Oz.

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14 MAY, 2014

Where Do Babies Come From? A Sweet and Honest Primer on How Reproduction Works by Illustrator Sophie Blackall

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How to answer the question that stumps every grownup.

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that continues to stump grownups — but no longer has to.

Complement with Blackall’s wonderful The Mighty Lalouche and peek inside her singular mind through her fantastic conversation with Debbie Millman.

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