Why Do We Build the Wall, My Children, My Children?
Is there any physical object out there that carries quite as much weight and symbolism as a wall? The other day I was weeding my library’s 900 section and I ran across these two books.
Yup. Two books. From the 60s and 70s. Talking about that bummer of a structure, The Berlin Wall. We’ll get it down someday, folks! Clearly I need to get better at weeding. Reminds me of the time I found Cooking the East German Way in the children’s section. But I digress.
The point is that we were talking about walls long before Trump came along. It’s gotten me to thinking about how walls are being portrayed in children’s books in 2019. Here then is a quick encapsulation of some of the walls I’ve seen, what they’re trying to say, what they’re actually saying, and what they should be saying.
Last year I wrote a piece called Trump Or Not? The Presidency and Current Children’s Literature. In it I speculated about various books for kids and whether or not the current acting president was on the creators’ minds when they wrote or illustrated various titles. The only book to appear on that list that involved a wall was Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book. In that title, the wall falls into the gutter, that part of the book in the center where the left and right pages come together. A book that is a far more literal translation of that title is The Wall: A Timeless Tale by Giancarlo Macri and Carolina Zanotti with art by Mauro Sacco and Elisa Vallarino.
An import from Italy, the book is very much a fable. In it, a king decides that too many people in his kingdom look different. To combat this problem he banishes everyone different to another side of a wall. But once he realizes how much he needs other people he finds an appreciation of diversity. The book is not a perfect metaphor by any means, but it has some neat elements. For one thing, there is literally a pop-up wall right smack dab in the center of the book. For another, the people are depicted as a range of wonderful thumprint-sized colors, sort of like what you’d get if Ed Emberley had been raised overseas. Due to the fact that every person the king calls back is of use to him, it’s an odd little duck of a book. Fun to read, though, no question.
Of course, one of the oldest wall stories crops up in our very nursery rhymes. Humpty Dumpty is an interesting case. Children’s books have treated the story of the eggman in a variety of different ways. And according to the book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack, the first Humpty Dumpty wasn’t a person or even an egg but a cannon. Specifically, one used by the Royalists during the English Civil War of 1642-51. According to the book, it was Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass that was the first instance of anyone depicting Humpty as an egg. And here I always assumed the rhyme was some kind of ancient egg-related riddle.
Of course, you can’t have a Humpty without a wall. The wall, however, can stand in for a host of many things. The most famous recent example would be Dan Santat’s standout After the Fall, in which Humpty has to deal with the aftermath of anxiety. This year we’ve a very different wall to contend with. Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall by Derek Hughes is illustrated by Nathan Christopher. This is one of those books that looks like a European import on first glance. Then, when you realize the creators are Minnesotan, you try desperately to figure out how on earth such a wacky little book ended up with a publisher as large as Penguin.
In this book, a wall looms over all the nursery rhymes and fairytale characters until one day a brave egg determines to climb it. He does . . . and falls. But since one of his pieces bears a contented smile it inspires others to follow his example and scale the wall on their own. And, like The Wall: A Timeless Tale, this isn’t really a metaphor for our own wall drama at the southern border. For one thing, the King in this book looks more like the lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson and The Crypt Keeper than our President. But it is possible that in the grand scheme of things it has things to say about the necessity of scaling the walls around us that others use to pen us in.
If you wish to escape metaphors and deal with reality, A Sky Without Lines by Krystia Basil, illustrated by Laura Borràs, looks at borders and walls with a bit more specificity. Though countries are never named, it seems pretty clear that this is a book about Mexico and America. Arturo, the child protagonist, is separated from his beloved older brother and father because they’ve gone to seek work on the other side of a wall. Arturo’s love of his brother is honestly heartbreaking. So much so that when you read about his desire to fly because the sky itself has no lines and borders, you go with it.
Finally, if you read my interview with Mitali Perkins yesterday then you know that she has a new picture book out this year called Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border. Illustrated by Sara Palacios, the story concerns a family that goes to the border wall between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California for the La Posada Sin Fronteras celebration. The kids in this book desperately want to give their abuela the scarf they made for her for Christmas. Trouble is, she’s on one side of the wall and they’re on the other. But once a year visitations can occur. Kirkus found the book too cheery, considering the serious subject matter while PW loved it and gave it a star. For my part, I can see how very difficult it is to write a story about that wall that isn’t just another metaphor. Kudos to Perkins and Palacios for giving it a go. Nothing they’ve done makes the situation seem any better than it is.
I know for an absolute fact that I must be missing other 2019 titles where walls are discussed. Can you think of any? Let me know!
Filed under: Booklists
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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