Monday, December 10, 2018

Grace Lin

By Frank Boles
On November 27, children’s author Grace Lin spoke to a large audience in the Sarah and Daniel Opperman Auditorium in the Park Library.  Grace Lin is a nationally recognized author and illustrator, but her topic for the evening was not exactly what you would expect an author with her reputation would discuss. She discussed how she grew up wanting to be white, like her classmates, and eventually embraced her Asian heritage.
Grace Lin was born in upstate New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She and her two sisters were the only Asian children in their K-12 school classes. Grace desperately wanted to fit in, but slowly realized she was “different.” What finally made her realize this was her experience after the class decided to put on the play, “The Wizard of Oz.” 
Grace, like a number of other girls, very much wanted to play Dorothy. They would gather daily on the playground to practice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a successful rendition of which was seen as a sure ticket to being cast in the role. On the day of the play audition, Grace asked a friend if she thought Grace had a chance at the role. The friend responded, directly and with devastating simplicity, “of course not – Dorothy isn’t Chinese.”
Grace decided she wouldn’t be Chinese either. She refused to learn the language. She refused to participate in “Chinese” customs at home. At college at the Rhode Island School of Design she studied western art, and eventually studied art in Italy. Sitting in a cafĂ© one day in Rome, an Italian acquaintance asked, “so you’re Chinese, right.” Grace quickly set the man straight – she was American. When her companion looked puzzled, she went on to explain that her parents were Chinese. This led to another puzzled look, and to a question Grace had no answer to, “so okay, their Chinese but why did they immigrate to the U.S., and how did that change you?”
That question led Grace to discover a new sense of self. She could draw beautiful depictions of European art, but as she noted ruefully on the auditorium stage, “let’s be honest – look at my package.” She began to study Asian art, and also began to think about a career as an illustrator.
Like most struggling young children’s illustrators the road to her first book was torturous, but eventually she published The Ugly Vegetables, based on her own experiences with her mother. Unlike her upstate New York neighbors, who grew flowers around their homes, Grace Lin’s mother grew nothing but vegetables, Chinese vegetables.
The book was a reasonable success, and her publisher asked if she had an idea for a second publication. She most certainly did – a book about how her sisters learned about science, with sidebars that clearly explained the piece of science the girls were struggling to master. The publishers had several suggestions, the most important being that books about science that featured girls didn’t sell well – she should make the lead character a boy; a Caucasian boy. Lin didn’t mind too much the advice about what sold and what didn’t, which is certainly something a publisher would know  – but why a white boy?
The publisher was as brutally honest as Grace’s grade school friend. “Your first book was ‘multi-cultural.’ That’s fine, but if your second book is also classified as multi-cultural you will be pigeonholed as ‘merely’ a multi-cultural author.”
As it turned out another, much larger publisher, approached Lin about a book before she really began working on the science publication. Dim Sum for Everyone sold well, and true to her first publisher’s advice, “classified” Lin as a multi-cultural author.
Lin admittedly candidly that this classification caused a crisis in her own work. Was she a children’s author and illustrator, or an illustrator and author who worked with Chinese themes? Was she valued for her work, or for her ethnicity? For a period of time she refused to do another “Chinese” book, instead publishing volumes using animal characters. What she found, however, is that when she went on book tours, what parents and children showed up with to have signed was not her animal books, but her multi-cultural publications.
Perhaps the turning point was a signing at which she was approached by an Asian-American couple who asked for her autograph, and tearfully thanked her for writing books in which their children could see themselves and their lives. The children in Lin’s books looked like them. That moment brought back to Lin her K-12 experience; that Dorothy couldn’t be Chinese, and by implication Lin wasn’t like the other girls and had nothing to offer them.
Lin realized her unique contribution to children’s literature was not drawing animals, but embracing her ethnicity, and through that embrace allowing children growing up as she did to understand that they too were not only part of the American experience, but had their own enviable characters who looked just like them that other children would want to be.
In her award winning, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Lin tells the story of ten-year old Minli, who saves her village with the help of a dragon she befriends. What ten-year old wouldn’t want to save their village, with the help of a Chinese dragon? And any well-read ten-year old knows that while Dorothy has a lot going for her, what with being acquainted with a wizard, and a scarecrow, and a tin man, and a lion, there aren’t any dragons to befriend in either Kansas or Oz. For that story to be told, the school play needs to be set in China, and the lead character becomes Minli.
It was an evening of true learning for many of those in the audience, who saw the world through a very different lens.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

George Weeks: A Tribute

By Frank Boles

George Weeks, member of the Clarke Historical Library Board of Governors from 1993 to 2002, died Friday, November 30, in Traverse City. A walking authority on Michigan government and politics, Weeks began his career as a political reporter in 1954, covering state government for United Press International. He would eventually become UPI’s Lansing Bureau Chief. When William Milliken became governor Weeks first became Milliken’s press secretary, and later his chief of staff. At the end of the Milliken administration, Weeks resumed his career as a journalist, becoming a columnist for the Detroit News until he retired in 2006.
Both as a journalist and while working in the Milliken administration, Weeks had a reputation of being thorough, fair, and honest. He also loved Michigan history. Weeks is remembered for his book, Stewards of the State: The Governors of Michigan, which one source considered, “one of the all-time great resources in Michigan government and politics.”
Weeks, however, was responsible for a bit more gubernatorial history than that book. In the 1920s, the Michigan Historical Commission had published a four-volume set documenting the official messages of Michigan’s governors. The fiscal crisis that gripped Michigan and the nation led the Historical Commission to end the series, something George thoroughly regretted.
In the early 1990s, CMU’s President Leonard Plachta struck upon the idea of CMU renewing this series, and suggested that the Clarke Historical Library serve as the home for the project. George championed the idea. The result are volumes five through ten of the Messages of the Governors of Michigan. The first of these five volumes was published in 2003 and began with Governor-elect Fred Green’s 1926 victory speech. The final entry of volume ten, dated August 23, 2002, documented Governor John Engler’s remarks to the Republication Party’s State Convention.
George Weeks was a good man, a good historian, and, when he was in town for the Clarke Board meetings, he almost always had a few good stories to tell about the goings on in Lansing. I will miss him.
For a more complete obituary, please read the story about his death published in the Detroit News and posted at .

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"How long has it been since someone used that book?"

By Frank Boles

In late November National Public Radio aired a story regarding a children’s book about William the Conqueror, sold by a British bookstore after it had sat on the shelf for 27 years. Check out the article here. In the story author Sarah Todd Taylor is quoted as tweeting what she thought the book might be feeling: "The book held its breath. It had hoped so often, only to have that hope crushed. Hands lifted it from the shelf, wrapped it warmly in paper. As the door closed on its past life, the book heard the soft cheers of its shelf mates."
It is a charming story, and one that speaks clearly to those of us who live in “special collection land.” We seek out books not because they are guaranteed use through their appearance on the required reading list of a university course or a quick turnover because of being a New York Times bestseller, but because there is information in the book, information someone is going to be looking for one day. Some of the books we save are not very well written. A few of them are virtually unreadable. But even in those with confusing pages are located gems of history. Little nuggets that, in the right hands, are things of great value.
And like the book about William the Conqueror in that British bookstore, many of our books quietly sit on the shelf, waiting for that reader who needs what they possess. Public libraries rightly weed out books that just sit, assuming the space can be given to something the public is more interested in checking out. Special collection libraries take a perverse pride in those same books. They are unused, but not useless. Rather, they are simply waiting for the right person to walk into the reading room and say, I need to look at you. Waiting for that moment when their shelf mates can softly cheer the arrival of a soulmate who asks to see the book, knowing that they share something very important between them.
I sometimes wonder, as I walk through the stacks, if the books are quietly holding their collective breathe, wondering who I’m coming to look at this time. Being blessed with an identity card that swipes me into the stacks, I have occasionally just looked across the shelves, wondering what would happen if all the books the library houses suddenly started to tell their story. Steam engines would roll down the tracks. Mysteries would be played out. The voices of those long gone would be again heard. It would be a wonderful learning opportunity, although certainly a bit noisy.

'Tis the Season

By Frank Boles
As the end of the year approaches, many people who support not-for-profit organizations will receive more than your fair share of “holiday greetings,” with a gentle (or maybe not so gentle) request for an end of year gift. The first one I received arrived in today’s mail. The flood will follow.
There’s a good reason for this; 30 percent of all annual giving takes place in December. Willie Sutton allegedly told a reporter that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” This sensible, if in Sutton’s specific case illegal, approach to fundraising also applies to those of us who raise money for libraries. While we keep it legal, If 30 percent of all annual gifts are going to be given in December, we are going to be sending year–end invitations to donate, because that’s when the money is being given.
And yes, I’ve got my hand out too. The Clarke Historical Library plays an important part in documenting Michigan history, in documenting Central Michigan University, and in preserving the best in children’s literature. Through exhibits and speakers we sponsor, we play a vital role in the cultural life of campus, the community, and the state. We offer ways to learn that are very different from other campus activities. And like most special libraries, as times get tough and campus enrollments shrink, much of what we can do depends on the value others place in our mission and activities.
One example of how this works is the images of the Soo Locks found on our website.
In this fiscal year a bit more than 20 percent of the Clarke Library’s budget will come from non-university funding sources. The reality is without help we would be a significantly smaller, poorer, less capable shop. We would have less money to add key new items to the collection itself. We would have far less interesting and informative exhibits, many fewer speakers, and likely no longer be able to freely travel exhibits around the state. Things would change, and not for the better.
It would be grand to say that we have reached a happy turning point – that enrollment will increase (and with it tuition dollars), state support will soar and my years of begging on behalf of the library will come to an end. And we may have reached a turning point, but not a very happy one. With a rapid decline in the number of students graduating from high schools in Michigan, CMU enrollment is not likely to increase. And the chance of the state funding the resulting financial shortfall created by declining enrollment is not good.
If the Clarke Library is to remain active and vital, it is going to need outside help – help you give. It is the end of the year, and likely you will be thinking about supporting things you believe are important.  As you weigh the many options you will have, I hope you will remember what the Clarke Library does, how important that is, and go beyond appreciating what we do to partnering with us, through a financial gift.
Believe me when I say, we could use the money – and would spend it wisely.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I

by Bryan Whitledge

Sunday, November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War. Long-simmering tensions across Europe exploded into official declarations of war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Approximately 20 million people - military and civilian - died as a result of the war and nearly 24 million service members were wounded because the conflict. The impact of war stretched far beyond the battlefields of Gallipoli, Verdun, or Flanders. Thousands of young men from Michigan enlisted and made their way overseas.

In an era before satellite phones and internet video calls kept members of the service in contact with their loved ones, hand-written letters were the way those on the front sent and received news to and from home. Some of these letters have been preserved over the past 100 years. They give us a glimpse of what life was like during the Great War.

Letter from R. Wiltenburg
Private Lake sent a letter to a friend in Brooklyn, NY dated November 1, 1918 that shows how much caution men on the front took with daily activities. He mentions his desire for leave time away from the front to a place with “electric lights” that can be used at night time. This was different from his experience at the front, where, “if you light a match at night here, you will hear something singing in the air (and it is funny music).”

Another letter comes from Rudolph Wiltenburg of rural Ottawa County, Michigan, who wrote to his brother in December of 1918, after the fighting had ended but before all of the troops returned back to US soil. He wrote about the rumors that he would be returning soon and his plans after he was done in the Army: “Sometimes I think of going back to farming, and if the opportunity looks good, perhaps will. […] We may have a chance to get a little farm close [to] home and, as we talked [about], work it together.”

Plans for the future are common themes in letters from Doughboys. Dreaming of the future didn’t necessarily mean after the War was over and everyone returned home. Some of the dreams are like those of Alex Bayne of Grand Rapids, who sent a letter to his father in July of 1917. Bayne was recuperating from an injury, but that did not lessen his ambition to join an aviation unit. He wrote to his father, “I feel very lucky and also greatly indebted to Coty for making me acquainted with most of the men in his escadrille. […] They are the nicest bunch I’ve ever met and I’m certainly going to try and make good in school.”

During the War, the speed of letters crossing the Atlantic was quite slow and news was infrequent. Many servicemen note this in their correspondence. Alex Bayne closes the letter to his father in July 1917, “Don’t be worried if you don’t hear from me real often – the boats are uncertain and no news is always good news.” Private Lake, writing to his friend on November 1, notes, “I just received your letter dated September 11.”

Letter from F. Sigourney
It wasn’t just mail that crossed the Atlantic slowly. Fred Sigourney of Gratiot County, Michigan wrote a letter to his family chronicling his journey from New York to the front. He was aboard a ship for two weeks to reach French soil. Once on dry land, Sigourney traveled by rail and by foot through different parts of France for three months in preparation for combat. Only then did Sigourney’s unit start their march to the front. They arrived at the front on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice ending the fighting was signed. As Sigourney notes, the Armistice was a big deal for everyone – military and civilian alike: “We got news that the Armistice was signed and they rang the church bells enough to break them. Miss Margaret Wilson gave an entertainment in the opera house that night.”

100 years after Fred Sigourney witnessed the bells of the church in Domgermain, France break, we take a moment to reflect on the legacy of the Great War and the lives of all who were affected by it.