Lemony Snicket’s Particularly Unfortunate Event

Last week at the National Book Awards, Jacqueline Woodson, who is African American, won for Best Young People’s Literature. Immediately afterward, Daniel Handler, who is Lemony Snicket, made a watermelon joke.

A video is here, and this transcript was made by David Perry:

Woodson: Thank you for your love of books, and thank you for changing the world.

[music]

Handler: I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.

And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, “This guy’s ok! This guy’s fine!”

Alright

[cackle]

Alright, we’ll talk about it later.

I first learned of this alleged joke by following a Twitter link to a Horn Books blog entry by Roger Sutton titled, “Being a White Guy in Children’s Books.”

Sutton touches on issues of diversity and male privilege in children’s publishing, but also suggests: that Handler is guilty of “overreach,” as if there were some less objectionable version of this particular joke; that Handler mistakenly thought he was “cool enough” to pull off such a joke, as if another humorist might have had better luck at it; and that Sutton, or any other white male, can’t complain too much because they could have easily “fallen into the same trap.”

I strongly disagree with all three of these implications.

First, take a look at the structure of Handler’s joke. At its core is an observation that’s only ironic or amusing to someone who buys into an infamously offensive racial stereotype, and which anyway has nothing to do with Woodson’s literary accomplishments. This was not a risky joke that hovered just beyond Handler’s comedic reach, as Sutton implies. This was an unfunny statement that would have been equally inappropriate to the venue no matter how Handler could have told it.

Is Sutton at least right that the joke might have worked in a different context if only Handler were “cool” enough to pull it off? I don’t know whether Sutton is using “cool” as that Fonzie-in-a-leather-jacket mix of confidence and style that lets some people get away with breaking the rules, or as a euphemism for…something else.

Either way, let’s assume a “cool” comedian like Chris Rock were able to make a successful joke about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy. So what? That would be entirely irrelevant because Daniel Handler is not Chris Rock, and because the National Book Awards are not an HBO comedy special.

So if it’s not the joke that failed, or the insufficient “coolness” of the joke teller, then what exactly is the trap that Sutton thinks Handler fell into?

I’d like to posit that this was a classic example of filter-fail.

We all have thoughts we would never say out loud—and I mean all of us humans, not just white males like Daniel Handler, Roger Sutton, and myself. Our senses of humor are built over a lifetime, based on personal experience, and influenced by the society we live in, largely beyond our conscious control. Once you hear a racist joke, it can never be unheard. Luckily, our brains come equipped with filters. When we know a joke is wrong, hurtful, offensive, and unfunny, we can choose not to pass it along to other people.

Handler’s contextual disclaimer emphasized how aware he was that a watermelon joke would be too toxic for him to write into a book, so it’s mind-boggling that he would opt instead to say it out loud to an auditorium full of people—not as an off-the-cuff remark that reached too far and fell flat, but as a story that took months of planning and reflection beforehand.

On the basis of a private conversation that we have no other record of, Handler believed he had Woodson’s permission to tell a racist joke about her, and that such permission would keep anyone else from being offended. No matter how cool you might be, there is no way to ever pull that off.

If Daniel Handler’s internal filters had been working properly, telling him which jokes can be shared with others and which should be smothered, none of us would ever need to know that Lemony Snicket is amused by such things as watermelon allergies among people of color.

But now we do.

Is Sutton right to worry that he himself might suffer a filter-fail under similar circumstances? Or that this is in any way a problem exclusive to white males? Is it wrong for him to empathize with Handler? Is it wrong for me not to?

I am holding Handler to a higher standard than other people, not because of Handler’s gender or skin color, but because he is a professional humorist who writes for children. I also write humor for children, and only wish I could do it half as well as Handler can. He has long been an idol and role model for me, especially in the way he has developed his literary voice and professional persona. I want to do what he does.

But while I can see myself making any number of embarrassing gaffes if I were given a microphone in a public setting, I can’t imagine ever joking about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy, or finding humor in such a situation.

It’s personally horrifying for me to think that a watermelon joke could come from the same quirky wit that has produced books that have made me laugh out loud. I won’t be able to read those books quite the same way as before.

And for me, that’s just from the second-hand offense I feel on behalf of other people, a tiny fraction of the outrage and betrayal expressed by Nikky Finney and other commentators who experience racism in their daily lives, and who reasonably expected a literary awards presentation to be a safe zone.

To Handler’s credit, he owned up to his filter-fail in a series of tweets and pledged $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, with additional matching funds of up to $100,000. Not that he can pay, buy, or donate his way to forgiveness, but it is refreshing to have at least some attempt at restitution.

We need diverse voices so that our children internalize actual viewpoints instead of ugly stereotypes. That way they can grow up to tell jokes about all the great stories they’ve read, rather than the hateful old jokes of the past.

An Armchair Tour of Utah

Utah_border_signI am a devout armchair traveler. I love poring over maps and guidebooks and photo-rich coffee table books of places I will probably never be able to visit. I read histories and quick facts of places all over the world, and many of my favorite fiction titles are favorites because I fell in love with the setting.

Back in 2010, Sheela Chari wrote a post on our blog about reading and writing in Boston. I loved the post so much that I kept wishing others would post about their hometowns or favorite destinations as well. And then I realized I could share my own home state with kids who are armchair travelers, too. Join me as I take you on a tour of the great state of Utah through books (and a few websites, too).

UTAH HAS DINOSAURS

Have you ever seen dinosaur fossils still embedded in rock? You can in Utah! Several times I’ve stood before the “Dinosaur Wall” inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall at Dinosaur National Monument. It’s just inside Utah near the Colorado border. And you can find out more about the Dinosaur wall at the National Parks Service website.

But you can also read more about Utah’s dinosaurs in Dinosaurs of Utah: and Dino Destinations by Pat Bagley and Gayen Wharton or Dinosaurs of Utah by Frank Decourten.

Also check out the middle-grade picture book, Dinosaur Mountain: Digging Into the Jurassic Age, by Deborah Kogan Ray.

UTAH HAS RAILROADS

In Utah in 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads joined together to create the first transcontinental railroad. You can read a fictional account of the journey in The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West by Kristiana Gregory. And check out more about it at the Golden Spike National Monument’s website.

 

 

UTAH HAS A SALTY LAKE

Did you know that the Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere? Did you also know that the only things that can live in the lake are some varieties of algae, and only brine shrimp and brine flies can tolerate the salty water enough to feed on the algae? I live close enough to the lake that sometimes I can smell the briny waters…which isn’t always the nicest smell in the world. But the stark beauty of the lake takes my breath away, especially at sunset when the colors light up the sky behind Antelope Island, the largest of the lake’s islands. Though geared for younger readers ages 6 and up, you can read more about this lake in The Great Salt Lake by Mary Schulte, or check out more on the web. (Oh, and yes, there really are wild bison on Antelope Island! I’ve seen them myself and they truly are amazing to watch.)

UTAH HAS NATURAL BEAUTY

Utah is home to five national parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and six national forests. It has some of the driest snow on earth, making some of the best powder for skiing at one of its fourteen ski resorts. From the western deserts to eastern mountains, from the northern forests to the Southern red hills, there is enough natural beauty in Utah to keep you busy for a lifetime. Read more about Utah in some of these fiction and nonfiction titles:

Utah (2nd title in the From Sea to Shining Sea series) by P.J. Neri

Utah: The Beehive State (Guide to American States series) by Janice Parker

Utah: The Beehive State (Blastoff Readers series) by Blake Hoena

Ghost Horses: A National Parks Mystery by Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson

The Maze by Will Hobbs

UTAH HAS PIONEERS AND NATIVE AMERICANS

Salt Lake City was founded by Mormon pioneers in 1847, and they settled much of the rest of the state, too. Some great historical fiction can take you back in time to the pioneer era of Utah. The most well-known and well-loved is The Great Brain series of books by John D. Fitzgerald. Also try Charlotte’s Rose by Utah native A.E. Cannon or All is Well by Kristin Embry Litchman.

Before the pioneers, however, Utah’s native population flourished. It was home to five Native American tribes. One, the Shoshone, is highlighted in the fictional novel, The Legend of Jimmy Spoon by Kristiana Gregory.

 

UTAH HAS INVENTORS AND OUTLAWS

Ever heard of a television? Well, it was invented by Philo Farnsworth, who was born right here in Utah. Read more about him and his invention in TV’s Forgotten Hero: The Story of Philo Farnsworth by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson.

Utah is also famous for its infamous outlaw, Butch Cassidy. Yep, he was born here, too. See the book Butch Cassidy by Carl R. Green and William R. Sandford for more about him.

UTAH HAS A WORLD WAR II INTERNMENT CAMP

During World War II the U.S. government relocated thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. One of these camps, named Topaz, was located in Utah near the small town of Delta. Over 11,000 people were processed through this camp between 1942 and 1945, when the camp was dismantled. Not much is left of the site now except the barbed wire fence and the restored recreation hall, but visitors are welcome to tour the site and some of the buildings that were sold and relocated to nearby areas. Though not a proud moment in American history, I am grateful to the authors of the following books who have shared information about this internment camp and the effect it had on those who lived there: Journey to Topaz by Yoshika Uchida and Children of Topaz by Michael O. Tunnell.

Also see the historical fiction novel about two boys on both sides of the Topaz fence, Missing in Action by Dean Hughes.

UTAH HAS AUTHORS

If you keep a close eye on children’s literature, you may notice that there are a lot of Utah authors. And I mean A LOT. We also have more than our fair share of children’s and YA authors showing up on the NYT Bestsellers List. I’m not sure why that is—it must be something in the water here—but I’m proud of the many talented Utah writers I call my friends and neighbors.

Though there are many books by Utah natives I could highlight, I thought only one would be appropriate here: Palace Beautiful by Sarah DeFord Williams. The book is set in Salt Lake City and the author lives in Utah as well. It follows two timelines in history, so you can see Utah’s capitol city during the 1980’s and during the Flu Epidemic of 1918. This is a beautifully written book and a great place to end our armchair tour of Utah.

I hope you enjoy your visit to my homestate. And please leave a comment if you know of a middle-grade book about Utah or set in Utah that I may have missed. Happy armchair travel, everyone!

 

Elissa Cruz enjoys living between the mountains and a big, salty lake in Utah.  When she is not busy with her husband and five children, she is busy writing middle-grade fiction or helping other children’s authors in her capacity as ARA for the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Hope you’re all doing great! It’s been about two months since my last post and I can’t believe how much has happened since then. On this site for instance, we have had thirty-four different posts and added thirteen new members. I wish all of our newbies the very best of luck and hope they enjoy writing here as much as I do. Also, hope you all enjoyed the huge welcome-aboard gift-basket like the one they sent me when I joined. In all honesty, I’ve never seen anything so extravagant. Between the chocolates and roses and over $2500 in gift certificates to all of my favorite stores, I didn’t know where to turn first. But, I digress. Let me get back to the reason why I’m here and why they pay me the big bucks, and that’s for my posts.

As you all know, well, the three of you who read my posts anyway, I usually have trouble deciding what it is that I want to write about whenever my turn rolls around. I mean, those months sneak up on you pretty fast. Well, this time, I actually knew what I was going to write about and had it all planned out, but then something happened that changed all of my plans, when I saw in the news that R.A. Montgomery passed away this week. For those of you who don’t know R.A. Montgomery, he was one of the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

choose

Now, for those of you who don’t know, or who lived under a rock for the 80’s and 90’s, Choose Your Own Adventure is an interactive series of books which allowed you to determine the path of each story by making choices about what you wanted the main character to do.  An example is:

If you want to fly over the volcano, turn to page 83

If you want to emergency land into the lake, turn to page 116

I would dog-ear so many pages, trying to retrace my steps to go back and try the alternate path, that my book collection was called the kennel. I loved the series and anxiously looked forward to each new one that came out. I would run in to the bookstore, scour the shelves and grab each new one and beg my parents to buy them for me. I devoured them. I loved the aspect that each book was in a different setting or even a different time, but still had the familiarity of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, because each book starred ME! That was the hook for me. They came out and said YOU are the star, making it easier for me to place myself in the shoes of the main character. I could be in outer space, back in time, fighting pirates or battling ninjas, each book had a different and exciting hook to offer. During the course of its run, the series expanded to 230 books, selling and sold a total of 250 million copies worldwide.

journey under the sea

As I got older and moved around a lot, I lost some of them, but always had the fondness for the books. When I started to have kids of my own, I went out and got them all again and now have just about a complete collection. I went through them again, and the magic I felt as a kid, was still there. I am happy to say, my daughter now loves them just as much as I did. We also bought a Choose Your Own Adventure movie about the abominable snowman, where we could choose different paths for the characters on the DVD to take, which was a lot of fun.

choose movie

His death hit me because of the role that series had in my childhood.  Like everybody, I had a few books that always stayed with me and can bring me back to that time. That whole Choose Your Own Adventure series will do it for me. I have other books that I will name as my favorites, but as a series, there was nothing better to me than Choose Your Own Adventure. Even now, I’ll occasionally pick one up and start reading again and love hearing my daughter read. I’m transported back immediately to how I felt in that bookstore when I would see a new copy on the shelf.  And as for the rest of you, if you haven’t ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, what are you waiting for?mystery of the maya

R.I.P. R. A. Montgomery and thank you for so many fond memories through my childhood.

Now, you get to choose what you’d like to do!

If you would like to leave a comment, please scroll below.

If you’d like to leave without leaving a comment, then you have suffered a gruesome, horrifying fate and will have to start the story over.

maya screenshot

Until next time!

Jonathan