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Book Review: David Ives, Monsieur Eek and Sundee Frazier, Brendan Buckley’s Universe…

April 15, 2010

David Ives
Monsieur Eek
New York: HarperCollins, 2001

Sundee T. Frazier
Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It
New York: Delacorte, 2007

In the last week, I’ve finished two different children’s books, both addressing the topic of prejudice. Prejudice is one of those topics that is hard to talk about with children, mostly because they seem to have a healthier attitude than adults. Most of the young children of my acquaintance are unclear on the concept of prejudice. They just don’t get it. At AJ’s school, they talk about it first in the library when they learn “don’t judge a book by its cover.” They move on to racism with Martin Luther King day programming. AJ’s reaction to learning about the history of slavery in this country was pure amazement. “Why would anyone let them do that?” Why indeed. We talked about fear and how that makes some people “judge a book by its cover” and think of someone who looks different than they do as less of a person.

Hearing AJ’s reactions to things like race, which he described as pure physical description without any of that other baggage that adults bring in (“He’s the boy with light brown skin and the black hair” is how he described his best friend, whoses family comes from the Phillipines; “she’s the girl with the dark brown skin and the fuzzy hair” is how he described a girl recently adopted by one of our neighbors from Ethiopia). I became hyper-aware of how my own descriptions, encouraged by categorizations like those found on the U.S. Census forms we recently received, bring with them a certain type of categorization that is at best not very useful and at worst harmful. I let his descriptions stand without comment, even though they sometimes made me a little uncomfortable for focusing on racial characteristics like “fuzzy hair” that in a p.c. world we try to ignore due to their past use by some as insults (e.g. “fuzzy hair”).

But AJ is nine, now, and can and should understand some of the less savory parts of our history and culture and how they affect the meaning of the language we choose to use. It’s not why we read either of these books. They just happened on us. But I’m glad we did, because it gave us a chance to talk about some of these issues I’ve been letting slide.

Monsieur Eek tells the story of a shipwreck near “the great coastal city of MacOongafoondson (population 21)” in 1609. The only passenger on the ship is a chimpanzee, who the islanders (who are afraid of the sea and mostly unable to read and can therefore only imagine the outside world) assume is a Frenchman because he is a foreigner and the French are foreigners and because he clearly speaks a language they do not understand. When they ask him his name, he says “Eek,” so he becomes Monsieur Eek. Because M. Eek is an outsider who looks and speaks differently than they do, they accuse him of assorted unexplained crimes and sentence him to the gallows. But not everyone in MacOongafoondson is against him. Emmaline (that’s EmmaLINE, not EmmaLEEN), a thirteen-year-old girl who knows the value of a good book and her best friend Philip, the town fool with a penchant for big words, defend him and nearly get sent to the gallows themselves. What ultimately determines Monsieur Eek’s fate is Emmaline’s impassioned plea for compassion and the value of trying to understand others. I don’t think I’ve given to much away, but I also don’t think I’ve captured the unique blend of humor and thoughtfulness which makes this book a joy to read. Ives is well known and respected as a playwright, but this is his first book for children. I hope it won’t be his last.

Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It deals more specifically with racial prejudice. Brendan is the 10-year-old son of a white mother and a black father. He likes tae kwan do, which he practices with his best friend Khalfani, and thinks of himself as a scientist and a budding geologist. He keeps a notebook called the “Book of Big Questions,” where he writes down things that puzzle him so he can explore them scientifically. He has recently lost his grandfather, his father’s father. He has never met his mother’s father, and she won’t talk about him. But when he runs into him by accident at a rock and mineral show, he discovers his missing history and learns the value of forgiveness and second chances and that even people who love you can be prejudiced.

This book was the assignment for the book group that AJ and I do together at the local public library. Unfortunately, we missed the discussion. I’m sorry about that, because I was intensely curious about the reaction of the other members of the group. The group is for 3rd and 4th graders. Many of them, if not most of them, seem to be advanced readers. But a few of them are not. Although the publisher’s guidelines suggest this book for grade 4-6, I’m not sure I would turn just any 4th grader loose with it. It’s a book that demands some discussion. These are difficult and complicated issues that author Sundee Frazier presents with sensitivity, but without hiding some of the uglier sides of life. As a parent, these are topics I feel like we should address together. We read the book out loud together, and I’m glad we did. AJ had a lot of questions, the kind that you want to make sure get answered.

Some of his questions were very difficult. “Why do black boys have a harder time than white boys?” he wanted to know after Brandon’s father, a policeman, told him he needed to be extra careful when he was out. We talked about how people sometimes made judgments based on what people looked like because they thought they looked different and got afraid. “Why are they afraid?” he prodded. This was tougher. “Mostly because they don’t know them.” I said. “It’s like how you used to be afraid of dogs. Once one dog jumped on you and you got scared. Then you were scared of all dogs because you didn’t know them and you thought they were all like the first one. But you didn’t let yourself get to know them because you were too busy being scared.”

“But now I’m not scared of dogs anymore.”

“Nope. Now you know there are good dogs and bad dogs and you take the time to get to know them before you figure out which is which.”

“Mom?”

“Yes, AJ?”

“I really want a dog.”

He’s sneaky, that AJ.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    April 15, 2010 10:39 am

    Interesting. I’ll have to look for them. I haven’t heard of either one.

  2. April 15, 2010 3:43 pm

    Are you saying it is “healthier” to characterize people by their looks if it’s done in innocence? Plenty of small children are hushed when they tell their moms to “look at that fat lady” or “that man with the funny legs in the wheelchair.” People are more than what they look like, as you observe.

  3. April 15, 2010 4:39 pm

    No, I’m not saying that. Or if I was, it’s not what I meant. I mean there’s a difference between description and judgment. AJ’s comments were purely descriptive — he was trying to explain to me which person in his class he was talking about. But it’s hard to explain how something descriptive is not appropriate because of its connection to judgment. Or, at least, it’s hard for me. Does that make sense? When AJ was younger, especially, I was loathe to even introduce the concept of judgment (in this context at least — I of course supported using good judgment when making decisions about things like whether or not to wear a bike helmet or play in the street. If he had gone around pointing at people and saying, “You’re fat!” we would have had this conversation a long time ago. But AJ is a stickler for visual detail. He was just trying to be accurate. He wasn’t trying to reduce someone to their visible attributes. He was trying to identify the person so I’d know who he was talking about. Skin color is a salient feature. He described a white kid in his class as, “the boy with yellow hair and pink skin.” The fact that it’s problematic to identify someone by their skin color, I felt, was an adult problem, not a kid problem. It should be a totally neutral category. I should be useful for description. But it’s not because of centuries of history he knew nothing about. AJ’s now past the age of innocence about race. It was time to have this conversation.

  4. April 16, 2010 10:31 pm

    Thanks for reading my book with such openness and a desire to help your son understand. Your example — as a reader and a parent — is inspiring and I hope encourages others to enter into these important conversations with their children.

    If you haven’t already seen it, you may be interested in Po Bronson’s book NurtureShock, and especially the chapter entitled (something to the effect of), “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” It’s very insightful, eye-opening, and will encourage you that you are on the right track.

    Here’s to a future generation that is less encumbered and more committed to justice for all,
    Sundee Frazier

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