professornana (professornana) wrote,

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what is a book "about"?

Old English teachers never die. Well, we do eventually die. But the English teacher in me, at least, is alive and well. I still cringe when I see plurals being made with apostrophes. I correct the grammar of journalists (prepositional phrases using objective case pronouns, guys).

And I am appalled by the lack of understanding of a literary theme, even among graduate students. Ask them for a possible theme in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and you might just get something like "adventure," or "love." Even after I explain that a literary theme can be expressed in a complete sentence, there still seems to be some notion that theme and main idea are one and the same.

So, when someone whose work I admire, boils a book such as A FINE DESSERT down to a book "about slavery," I am puzzled. I think in this case it is not a matter of not knowing a literary theme should be expressed as a complete sentence. I think in this case, it is a slam against the book that has already caused so much uproar. I am pleased to see the rational and reasoned discussion about the book. But ration and reason is gone when a picture book depicting how a fine dessert is prepared and served over 4 centuries is said to be simply a book about slavery. It is not a book about slavery, folks.

The call for better books about slavery also pains me to a degree though I understand the genesis of the call. What I would hope is that instead there is a call for more diverse books. And that perhaps some of those books have diverse characters simply because the world of the book is diverse. And that perhaps books with African Americans are not always about enslavement.

We have a long way to go. The latest available statistics about diversity in books is not cheering in the least. So, when I tour the book exhibits at NCTE, I will be looking for more diversity in books. I will be purchasing more diverse books if they are available. I hope others do the same. I also hope others will hesitate when it comes to educing what a book is "about." As Chris Crutcher is fond of saying, "The OLD MAN AND THE SEA is not about fishing."
Tags: themes
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