Tag Archives: Kathi Appelt

The Watermelon in the Room

How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

            Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.

“WHAT!?!”

Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.

All of this to-do over a watermelon!

But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.

For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.

My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.

A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.

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      And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.

Right there.

In the room.

The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.

What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.

The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.

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Picture Book(s) on the Subway

            A few weeks ago, Ken and I were all dressed up and heading to a party in the middle of Manhattan.  The occasion was my agent’s fifteenth anniversary party and I had in tow a picture book, Mitchell Goes Bowling, by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, that I wanted to get signed by the author. 

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I knew she would be at the party, and I had every intention of getting her to sign it.  (Confession:  I will haul a book thousands of miles in order to get a signature).

            At any rate, our stop was a ways off, so I decided to show the book to Ken while we rolled along the tracks. 

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            Our car was crowded and noisy, but that was okay.  I was only sharing it with Ken, who sat right next to me.  That is, I thought I was only sharing it with Ken.  At one point I stopped to show him a particular illustration that just made me laugh, but while we were pausing on that page, the young man on the other side of Ken said, “Hey, keep reading!” 

            Then another person chimed in with, “Don’t stop!”  I looked up, and all of the people in our end of the car were staring at me and smiling.  Without even knowing it, the book had drawn in at least a dozen people.  I didn’t need any more prompting.  I held the book up and read the last few pages. 

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          As I closed the book, everyone started clapping. Of course they did!  It’s a book that merits applause. 

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            I have had so many happy reading experiences in my life, and many of them have occurred while traveling, from all the books I read to my kids as we drove down the road, to the many books that I’ve read on airplanes, but that one on the subway made my heart sing. 

            Here we were, strangers, each of us wrapped up in our own worlds, each of us going our own ways, and each of us in the presence of that most wondrous of all literary accomplishments, a picture book, and in this case, a book that calls for a “steaming hot potato dance.”

            As we rolled to our stop, Ken and I waved to our fellow readers.  We had shared such a small moment, but also such a happy moment.  There are many glories in a picture book.  There is the wonderful economy of text.  There is the highly satisfying experience of the perfect match of text to art. There is the art itself.  But most important is the glory that comes from sharing it. Voice, as it turns out, is a most essential ingredient, turning a book into that fundamentally human enterprise–story.

            The members of our small subway cadre will likely never meet again in our lifetimes, but we will always be part of each others’ lives now because we did something together that people have been doing since the dawn of time—we took a story, we took the art of it, we put it all together, we went along for the ride.

            And that, my brothers and sisters, is what it’s all about.     

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                     Have any of you ever had an unusual picture book reading experience?  Tell us about it, why don’t you!

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My Oscar Dream

I wish I took more time to watch movies. I confess, I haven’t seen but a couple of the nominees for this year’s Oscar fest, but I’m going to be heartbroken if “Beasts of the Southern Wild” doesn’t scoop everything it’s nominated for.

If you haven’t seen it, see it.

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