Recently I blogged about U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and his visit to a local community health center, where he read a couple of books to children assembled for the event. The very first reader's comment on my article, made before the comment thread disintegrated into liberals and conservatives calling each other stupid, was from Jane Yolen, the author of one of those books.
"How do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms?" by Yolen and Mark Teague, is a story of lovable dinosaurs who learn not to do naughty things like shove stinky socks into the back of dresser drawers, and Johnson did a respectable job reading it.
But Yolen's comment makes it clear she is not keen on having her work and young fans used as props by a senator whose policies and politics, she believes, harm children.
"I wish he would help kids and not cut those programs that help them, rather than just reading a book chosen for him, and written by a progressive Massachusetts liberal like me," she sighs in her comment.
(The media event also provided publicity for the literacy program Reach Out and Read and the Access Community Health Centers; in my original story some people still accused Johnson of hypocrisy for posing for photos with these programs' young clients given his zeal for an agenda that jeopardizes their funding.)
Curious to hear more, I sent Yolen a note through her author's website. Yolen, 72, who has been compared to a modern Hans Christian Andersen, has written more than 300 books and won many prestigious awards, including two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the Skylark Award, and a National Book Award nomination. Her series of picture books about mischievous dinosaurs acting awfully much like mischievous children are favorites.
To my surprise, Yolen wrote back promptly. She was in Scotland at a writer's retreat, she told me, where it was evening. But we had the following online conversation before her bedtime (bedtime is something else she has written a dinosaur book about.)
Capital Times: I'm delighted that you saw my story and commented on it. May I ask how you found it and what prompted you to respond?
Jane Yolen: Google alert. Most of the time it is years out of date, and usually totally uninteresting. But this time, it pointed me to your piece, and I was alternately amused, bemused, and annoyed. Not at the writer of the article, but at the co-opting of my book for a politician's photo op.
CT: What had you heard about our senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, before you read my piece and what concerns you about the idea of him reading one of your stories to children?
JY: He is a Republican junior senator associated with the Tea Party. And that makes me think that either he is 1. A True Believer in the Tea Party NoNothingness which frightens me or 2. Kowtowing to it for votes which possibly frightens me more. Since the Tea Party (and alas much of the Republican Party these days) are the ones behind the notions of breaking unions, throwing librarians out of their jobs, and defunding education, I think it is more than a tad bit disingenuous for such politicians to be out in libraries reading books to children who will have no libraries to visit if we listen to the Tea Party.
CT: Did he seem to understand the moral of your story about the dinosaur correctly? (In my article I quote him telling children that they will make their parents very happy by following the "lessons" the dinosaur teaches them about cleaning up after themselves, putting their toys in neat rows, and not shoving dirty laundry to the back of drawers.
JY: It is a book that is not just about manners, but as they say in Britain is also taking the micky out of regular manners books. The dinos in the books are really children who can be naughty and natural and charming at one and the same time. And their parents who still love them even when they have their moments of outrageousness.
CT: Is it exciting when celebrities or politicians read your books like this? Which others have done so?
JY: Not exciting at all. I'd rather the parents were reading to the children. Or the librarian. The children don't care about the politicians. (Though I did spend eight hours in a recording studio with Kevin Kline when he was doing the voice over for a children's movie that I wrote. And THAT was a kick.)
CT: Perhaps you could come up with a question for the senator you would like to ask him?
JY: Senator, why are you here reading this book? Did you choose it or was it chosen for you? Are you surprised that it was written by someone who finds your political stance anathema? Do you care?
CT: The senator said that he read "Curious George" books to his three children except that when his son was four or five he started reading him the Wall Street Journal. Any comment about what could happen to a four-or five-year-old child raised on the Wall Street Journal?
JY: My youngest child's favorite book at that age was "Peterson's Bird Guide." Bird-watching with his father was his most passionate interest at the time. If you have a struggling reader, you go where the child is, not push books on them in which they have no interest. He's still a passionate birder and now an award-winning nature photographer.
CT: Have you ever thought of writing a story about politicians or politics?
JY: I have political people in a number of my novels, though they tend to be kings or viziers or the like. For my political bona fides: I was a delegate from Massachusetts pledged to McGovern in the '72 Democratic Convention, among other things. I'd like to add -- as a non-Christian, I find it appalling that self-proclaimed Christians don't follow their own religious precepts: Matthew: "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Yes.
And that was the end of our online conversation. Because it was late overseas, I didn't get a chance to tell Yolen that I knew the answer to one of her questions for the senator: Johnson did not choose to read her book, it was selected by someone else for him to read, as things often tend to be for politicians. I can safely report, though, that he seemed to enjoy it.
I'll end this post by disclosing that I have been an admirer of Yolen's whimsical children's books for a long time. My favorite is "Owl Moon," a lyrical tale about a little girl who tromps through the silent, snowy woods at night with her father to look for a majestic (and magical) swooping owl. If, like me, you get sick and tired of all the nastiness in the world of grownups and politics, you'll find it a lovely escape.