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Illuminating Texts

Bringing What Is Hidden to Light:
Jane Addams and the 2006 Jane Addams Children's Book Award

Susan C. Griffith

Susan C. Griffith, a member of the Jane Addams Children's Book Award Committee for the past three years, now serves as its Chair. She is an Assistant Professor, English Language and Literature, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. There she teaches children's literature and writing in the elementary school to preservice teachers.

In 1953, through its educational affiliate the Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA), the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) became the sponsoring agency for a children's book award brought to them by WILPF member Marta Teele, who, in the aftermath of World War II, conceived an award for children's books that promote peace (Chalmers). The award, fittingly named the Jane Addams Children's Book Award (JACBA), has been given annually since that time by a committee of WILPF members who are educators, librarians, teachers and children's literature specialists.
Books honored by the Jane Addams Children's Book Award recognize excellence in rendering themes of peace, social justice, gender equity and world community in literature for children. They invite young readers to think creatively and humanely about injustice and conflict. They encourage young readers to stretch their imaginations beyond the concerns of their individual and family lives so that, widely at home in the world, they can grapple with its problems courageously and nonviolently (Jane Addams Children's Book Award).

The Jane Addams Children's Book Award reflects the accomplishments of its namesake who co-founded both Hull-House, Chicago's premier settlement house, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in the early twentieth century. Best known for sweeping, inspired social activism, Jane Addams also prodded, nudged, persuaded and pushed others to social action through a noteworthy body of published writing. With considerable effort during reflective periods carved from her prodigious civic responsibilities (Joslin), Addams wrote and published twelve books and over five hundred essays in her lifetime. Through this writing, she reflected upon education, the arts, labor, poverty, immigration, peace, war, family and community. Taken together, her work builds a radical vision of democracy as a complex, dynamic way of life—a way of life premised on the ideas that good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any one person or any one class and that "unless that good can be extended to all, we cannot even be sure it is worth having (Addams, Democracy, 9)."

Like her friend, pragmatist John Dewey, Addams found the origins of understanding life in the experience of living everyday life itself (Seigfried). She grounded her activism firmly in her own life experience and in her observations of the common daily experience of the working class and poor people who surrounded her. Addams told and reflected upon stories to explore and illustrate her understanding of the world. With a keen sense of narrative and drama, she naturally tethered her thinking to concrete and vivid events (Elshtain 17) to understand how dimensions of daily experience relate to larger, pressing social issues.

For example, in this vignette from Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams makes sense of her experience through composing a story. In doing so, she reveals the underside of child labor and highlights differences in outlook and power between herself and her neighbors:

Our very first Christmas at Hull-House, when we as yet knew nothing of child labor, a number of little girls refused the candy which was offered them as part of the Christmas good cheer, saying simply that they "worked in a candy factory and could not bear the sight of it." We discovered that for six weeks they had worked from seven in the morning until nine at night, and they were exhausted as well as satiated. The sharp consciousness of stern economics was thus thrust upon us in the midst of the season of good will.

Here, Addams recognizes the need to move outside her own experience to understand the children in front of her. Spurred by the disconnection between her own idea of the holiday season and the children's response, she gathers more information about the children's lives. With this in hand, she uses her imagination to make sense of what she's learned through story—a story that brings to light the hidden factual, emotional and political dimensions of the children's lives for herself and her readers.

Like this story of "Christmas candy that was not a treat," the 2006 Jane Addams Children's Book Award winners and honor books evoke emotion, spark imagination and provoke thought about social justice and world community through stories. The five works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry honored most recently by the Addams Award tell stories of the past and present about real and imagined events. These powerful stories illustrate the far-reaching effects of creative, persistent response to injustice, the painful constrictions of racism and sexism on individual lives, and the critical importance of relating individual and family lives to the world at large.

Like Addams' writing, the 2006 Addams Award winner for older children connects thinking about social justice to concrete, vivid events. Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the law that changed the future of girls in America (Blumenthal) chronicles the genesis and stormy history of the law best known for guaranteeing equal athletic opportunity to girls in the United States. The cartoons, anecdotes, featured quotations and clear language of this documentary make the story of a law more engaging than seemingly possible given the bureaucratic, relentless and tedious work required to initiate and maintain social justice through legislation. These lively elements also demonstrate that Title IX is not, and never was, only about athletic opportunity. Its thrust was broader and deeper. Its vision, and legal requirements, fall nothing short of equal opportunity for all girls and all women in all aspects and on all levels of education in the United States.

The heart and meaning of Let Me Play comes through the stories Blumenthal peppers throughout the chronology. Through stories of missed opportunities for stellar athletes like swimmer Donna deVarono and for struggling athletic girls who just wanted to play ball or run, Blumenthal magnifies individual losses and shows the cost to society at large. Image after image of last-ditch maneuvers to save the guts of Title IX , such as the following, show that gender equality requires relentless attention to detail as well as quick, inspired, resourceful thinking:

During a break in discussion he [Senator Jacob Javits] rushed from the meeting room to ask for help in quickly putting together the wording for . . . [a] proposal. Margot Polivy, a lawyer who represented AIAW, was there, as was Shirley Chisholm, the New York representative.
Unable to find a place to write in the hallway, Ms. Polivy helped scratch out the wording of the compromise using Ms. Chisholm's back as a writing surface.

Let Me Play not only reflects the narrative spirit of Addams' work, its content resonates with Addams' own call for public recreation. Addams saw public recreation as an "opportunity for varied and humanizing social relationships (Addams, "Recreation", 186), " relationships that lay the groundwork for civic participation in a "modern state . . . based not upon a consciousness of homogeneity but upon respect for variation. . . . (187)." In an argument crafted within the mores and laws of her time, she advocates for public recreation as an "open-air widespread opportunity for social intercourse when the boys are still young and full of initiative and enthusiasm (191)." She then pushes readers to see beyond present limits—and forecasts an impetus for Title IX—by adding "If girls were voting, I would of course say the same thing for them (191)."

Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (Haskins), the winner of the 2006 Addams Award for younger children, also reflects Addams' spirit and concerns in its content and style. This picture book biography written by the late Jim Haskins and illustrated by artist-activist Benny Andrews profiles civil rights activist and mail carrier Westley Wallace Law—a man who "delivered more than just the mail to the citizens of Savannah [GA]; he delivered justice, too (unp)."

Haskins creates Law's story from a series of telling incidents, much like those Addams incorporated into her essays and books. Each titled vignette adds information about actual circumstances of Law's life while revealing how each incident shaped Law's values, character and actions. Westley is the child of a mother who works for white families and sees him just one day a week (Savannah, Georgia, 1932), the charge of a caring grandmother who, when ignored and snubbed at the local department store, quietly, proudly and politely declines to buy his Easter outfit there (Easter Shopping at Levy's), and a young person who promises himself that he will work hard for his family and his people (His Grandma's Prayers).

Working tirelessly, courageously and nonviolently, W. W. Law went on from childhood to organize voter schools, sit-ins at lunch counters, wade-ins at whites only beaches, and kneel-ins at racist churches. He ultimately led the Great Savannah Boycott of 1960-1961, the black community's refusal to shop at any stores on Savannah's bustling Broughton Street until all establishments treated African-Americans with the same dignity that they treated their white customers.

Andrew's elongated, stylized illustrations in secondary hues knit together the fourteen episodes, giving dignity and warmth to the representation of Law's beloved community. Through careful attention to body posture and facial expression, they also convey the tension, motion and emotion of this community as it faced down racism with discipline and determination—emotion and tension so great that Law himself said he could never marry or have children because it would be too dangerous.

The Addams Award Committee named three honor books for 2006, two novels for older children and a picture-book collection of poems in Spanish and English for younger children. Unlike the 2006 Addams winners that tell stories of people and events from U.S. history, the novels and picture book are works of imagination. The novels are both historical fiction written as a series of narrative poems, and the poetry for younger children reflects on the meaning behind lively contemporary moments. All three resonate with Addams' concern for building a world where the good in society is extended to all.

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell and The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter, the two novels named Addams Award honor books for older children in 2006, are both told in the voices of adolescent girls. Each story unfolds in verse , poem after poem, building strength with striking images, telling incidents, vivid details and metaphors grounded in the cultures of their narrators. Both are labors of love, respect and passion, inspired by stories the authors heard from their husbands' extended families. In creating these stories, the authors, like Addams, bring to light hidden factual, emotional and political dimensions of the everyday experience of people: in the first, Native Americans in a government boarding school at the turn of the last century and, in the other, farmers in a rural area of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, during the mid-1960's.

Sweetgrass Basket takes place during Addams' lifetime at Pennyslyvania's notorious Carlisle Industrial Indian School (1879-1918), a U. S. government boarding school created to force Native American assimilation to the dominant white European-American culture. Told in the voices of two Mohawk sisters, Mattie's and Sarah's viewpoints alternate throughout the novel, highlighting the bond between them and the wedge of mistrust that threatens it as they squirm under the school's oppressive intentions and inhumane systems.

At the outset, Mattie, stronger in spirit than body, and Sarah, adrift with sorrow and loss, are on the train to the school. Sent off by their well-intentioned father shortly after their mother's death, they carry bread, cake and early apples for the journey. Lines, spoken by Sarah, the younger of the girls, foreshadow the novel's essential tension centered in the girls' relationship and establish the painful dissonance that informs all events and thoughts from that moment forward in the story:

If my satchel were not so heavy.
I could hold Mattie's hand, but it is filled with bread
and cakes and early apples Father placed in it for the trip.
If we had been hungry, we would have eaten and
my load would be lighter and I could hold Mattie's hand.
(p. 9)

The events of this story's few months are no surprise to those with any knowledge of the forced removal of Native American children to these government-sponsored schools: long hours of work; regimented routines; ready punishment; English-only and other white supremacist policies requiring suppression of all manifestations of Native American cultures. It is Sarah's and Mattie's eyes and hearts, singing with pain and love, that sear through the events, showing the personal costs of such egregious actions. It is the symbol of the sweetgrass basket that reveals just how these actions twist the meaning of the girls' culture.

Somewhere in the heavy satchel hoisted onto the train, against the wishes of their father, in opposition to the directives of the school, Sarah has smuggled a sweetgrass basket. Made for Mattie by their mother as a celebratory symbol of her passage into womanhood, the basket, their mother says, is a place "to keep womanly thoughts. (96)." When Sarah finds bloodstains in her own clothes as she undresses for bed, there is no one to make a basket for her, no place for her womanly thoughts. What for Mattie was a moment of pride and promise is only a burden for Sarah who struggles not to cry like a child every day she is at the school. When Sarah asks Mattie how long she will have to be a woman, Mattie replies, "Forever." Sarah cries and cries and cries again.

Hidden among clothes in a bureau drawer, the basket secretly makes the forbidden connection to their mother, their culture and their home. It waits to be discovered and, after Mattie runs away from the school, it is. In the hands of mean-spirited, single-minded school authorities the basket becomes a symbol of defiance and threat, is crushed and tossed aside. In the end, through genuine human kindness, it surfaces again and is a flickering symbol of hope for Sarah, who has lost Mattie both spiritually and physically.

Stunning physical loss is the pivot that triggers a series of losses in Pamela Porter's The Crazy Man. On her family's Saskatchewan farm, twelve year old Emmie chases her dog Prince from the path of the field discer driven by her father. Suddenly her foot lands right in front of the end disc.

Then everything gets fuzzy.
Dad's yelling and Prince
is barking and somehow
Mum's there
and my foot's dangling below my leg—red foot,
red leg, red dirt.

Emmie wakes later in the hospital to find she has lost more than her health. Her distraught father has killed her dog and walked away from her and her mother.

Told in Emmie's contemplative, questioning voice, The Crazy Man is a tender portrait of a girl, her family and their community. With economic circumstances tied to the weather and the inexplicable fluctuations of the market, survival at the best of times in rural Saskatchewan is nothing but hard work and luck. Left with "a critically injured child, no money, no crop, and bins full of wheat not worth a hill of beans (46)," Emmie's mother slips into depression followed by a grim determination to survive. This determination leads her to take risks: she decides to plant alfalfa and mustard instead of wheat and hires a patient from the mental hospital in town to seed the fields.

The presence of Angus, tall with a shock of orange hair, seeding the fields stirs up prejudice and intolerance. In the months ahead, Angus—in spite of his knowledge of farming and hard work—is called a mental case, referred to as a gorilla, unreasonably questioned for one theft, falsely jailed for another, and literally driven out of town and left without resources in a snowstorm. All the while, his gentle spirit and disarming ways have endeared him to his staunch supporter, Emmie and, in turn, to her mother who finally welcomes him as person at the family dinner table.

Emmie makes her way through it all, question by question, choice by choice. She seeks out her dad only to be disappointed that he makes no attempt to see her before he heads west with the railroad. With the support of a loving teacher, her drawings of Prince win first prize at the local fair. Her foot and leg begin to heal and, with a built-up shoe engineered by Angus, she is able to run again. As she makes her way, her story makes it clear that courage, open-mindedness, creativity, and acceptance are not just blessings bestowed on some—they grow, as they did for Addams, from the experiences of our lives and our responses to them.

The nineteen poems in Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para soñar juntos (Alarcón), the 2006 Addams Honor Book for younger children, are Alarcón's buoyant, hope-filled response to the ordinary matters that make up everyday life in a Chicano community. Through them, he celebrates "the connections children share with their families, communities and all living things (unp)." The concrete, fresh images of the thematically-connected poems echo Addams' ideas about the power, importance and rewards of working together to create a world built on respect for variation and association (Addams, "Recreation").

In "Iguales/The Same", Alarcón and illustrator Paula Barragán bring this idea to light in a simple, natural metaphor surrounded by a poster-like image of six children of many colors who fish in a river alive with swirls and bubbles of purple, green, brown and yellow :
[The Looking Glass gratefully thanks Lee and Low Books, Inc. for permission to reprint Francisco Alarcón's poems in this article.]


todos somos

como piedritas
del rio

cada uno
tan diferente

The Same

we are all
the same

like pebbles
in a riverbed

each of us
so different

The other poems use images as plain and natural as this to make their encouraging, philosophical points. "Una cebolla feliz/One Happy Onion," "Pesadillas/Nightmares," "Preguntas/Questions" and "Jardin familiar/ Family Garden" invite imagining a world where people live, work and dream together. They suggest thinking about questions, exclusion, hard work, families, homes and dreams, dreams and more dreams. They invite discussion not of the exact circumstances of the world, but of the ideas behind them. They encourage imagination and, in words Addams herself surely would have appreciated, they express the belief that underlies the purpose of the Jane Addams Children's Book Award for the past five decades:

Soñando juntos

un sueño
lo soñamos

la realidad
a sonamos

Dreaming Together

a dream
we dream

we dream

Reference List

Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. (Original work published in 1902).

---. "Recreation as a Public Function in Urban Communities (1911)." On Education/Jane Addams. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994. 186-91.

---. Twenty Years at Hull-House with Authobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan Company, 1925.

Alarcón, Francisco. Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para soñar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barragán. New York: Lee and Low Books, 2005.

Blumental, Karen. Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX/the Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. New York: Atheneum Books, 2005.

Carvell, Marlene. Sweetgrass Basket. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 2005.

Chalmers, Ruth. Personal face-to-face interview with Susan C. Griffith, July 25, 2005, New York City.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Editor. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Haskins, Jim. Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights. Illustrated by Benny Andrews. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005.

Jane Addams Children's Book Award. Available at http://home.igc.org/~japa/jacba/index_jacba.html. Retrieved June 19, 2006.

Joslin, Katherine. Jane Addams: A Writer's Life. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Porter, Pamela. The Crazy Man. Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2005.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. "Socializing Democracy: Jane Addams and John Dewey." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 29.2 (1999): 207-30.

Susan C. Griffiths

Volume 10, Issue 3 The Looking Glass 2 September, 2006

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"Bringing What Is Hidden to Light: Jane Addams and the 2006 Jane Addams Children's Book Award"
© Susan C. Griffith, 2006.
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