02 February 2007

So Far From Dover-Sherborn

Yesterday Newbery-winning author Linda Sue Park wrote about how she had learned of heated discussions on Yoko Kawashima Watkins’s So Far from the Bamboo Grove in a Massachusetts school from being invited to speak at that school about her own When My Name Was Keoko.

Understandably, Linda Sue had mixed feelings about her own novel about children’s experiences on the Korean peninsula in the 1940s potentially being treated as a response (and refutation?) to Bamboo Grove--especially since she admires Watkins’s book. She asked the Child_Lit email list about people’s thoughts on the situation. I replied there, and (always eager for blog material) have somewhat amplified my remarks here.

This discussion has been developing for a couple of months here in the western suburbs of Boston. Many of the news stories about it have been in the local sections of the Boston Globe, so it hasn't gotten wider coverage.

For several years, as I understand it, Watkins has visited the upper-class suburban schools of the Dover-Sherborn district to talk about how her early life fed into her writing of So Far from the Bamboo Grove. The lesson plan included little historical context for understanding her work, which is about a Japanese family’s experiences leaving occupied Korea at the end of WW2. The lesson was only about autobiographical writing--in the language arts curriculum, not in social studies. Because Watkins has spoken every year, it’s a shared experience for kids in this town.

Some parents, including some Korean-Americans, were upset at the book’s portrayals of Koreans, the lack of context for understanding the conflict in the 1940s, and some reported teasing of Korean-American kids in the school with references to the book.

From a larger demographic perspective, I think this protest will one day be seen as evidence of the Korean-American population on the East Coast growing in number and growing more vocal. And it’s a reminder of the complexity of multicultural literature: when this book was first included in the curriculum, I suspect administrators saw it as “Asian,” without a whole lot of regard for how different Asians might view the same events.

Folks (including me, explaining one side of the issue in a discussion with a writing colleague) have made an analogy between that lesson plan and reading a story about a German family escaping from occupied Poland at the end of WW2, and then being surprised if students come away with a bad impression of Poles and Russians. Of course, this past season we did see a fable about the Holocaust written from the point of view of a German child: The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

Everyone agrees that Watkins herself speaks of her life and the book from an anti-war perspective, and that her visits have been well received. The school administration first decided to suspend the Bamboo Grove lesson plan because there was no immediate way to provide kids with more context. But all along I’ve seen administrators and teachers talking about how they were looking for a way to include the book again. There are serious concerns on all sides of the issue, and so far everyone seems to recognize others’ concerns.

More comments on the issue are available from Bookshelves of Doom, the AS IF blog (twice), and Monica Edinger's Educating Alice. Some of the comments about Bamboo Grove’s historical inaccuracies seem to miss the fact that the book is historical fiction, not memoir. On the other hand, part of its appeal, especially in the context of Watkins’s school visits, is its close link to the author’s own childhood experiences. That’s the sort of wrinkle that makes this controversy both sui generis and interesting in wider ways.

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