07 October 2009

Lacking Moral Lessons

A Washington Times column headlined “Children’s Books Lack Moral Lessons” by Julia Duin has prompted a lot of complaints from other authors, publishing pros, and people who have higher opinions of SCBWI conferences (some of which I help to run).

I don’t expect much good from the Washington Times, the capital’s far-right-wing newspaper. Back on 27 Feb 2002, it ran a story on the SCBWI Midyear conference in New York. That article is off the paper’s website, so I can’t tell who wrote it. But the reporter managed to mention Laura Bush, who wasn’t there, and not mention Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, the keynote speaker.

Duin covers religion for the Washington Times. I imagine that beat might be awkward, given that the paper was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-declared Messiah, and is heavily subsidized by his Unification Church. Duin occasionally has to cover Moon’s activities, though apparently doesn’t always have to note his stake in the paper. Indeed, Media Matters noted one odd moment just last month when Duin sniffed at a Muslim speaking at the US Capitol without mentioning that the son of her employer had done so as well.

Apparently Duin is a respected reporter in that field, but I think her biases are evident, especially in her columns. This isn’t the first time that she’s complained about not finding enough “virtuous” children’s books on the market. I don’t accept any Washington Times writer as a reliable judge of “virtue”—there’s the paper’s whole Confederate nostalgia thing, to begin with. But I can accept that tradition is important to Duin.

However, in reading the latest column about children’s books it becomes clear that its real fuel is Duin’s “fury” at how “editors’ eyes glaze over when I presented my ideas” at SCBWI events. She also complains about not being able to hand proposals and manuscripts to those editors instead of submitting by email, though I can’t imagine she’d be so upset if an editor had enthusiastically invited her to email. And since Duin once edited her newspaper’s culture page, I wonder how she reacted to people pressing manuscripts or résumés on her at public appearances.

Duin’s emotion surfaces as her complaints about children’s books become patently wrong and self-contradictory. She says that “Everything [for young readers] is fiction, of the ‘problem books’ variety,” yet among those books “A lot are about the supernatural, particularly vampires.” The “problem book” genre (apparently her out-of-date understanding of “edgy” YA fiction) is at the opposite pole from supernatural romance. Then she complains that “Very few [new books] speak in moral terms,” but the examples she admires are two best-selling, widely imitated series published in recent years.

The column becomes a bit pleading as Duin laments that among today’s children’s book, “Few are retold classics,” and concludes that “The discerning parent and teenager will have to seek meatier stuff from previous centuries.” Pleading because Duin’s own published book for young readers consists of “retold classics” from “previous centuries.”

As Duin wrote in her earlier column, “In 1998, I published a collection of Victorian fairy tales called Knights, Maidens, and Dragons.” That’s actually the title of her 2004 Xlibris (i.e., self-published) reissue. This book originally came out as Waiting for True Love: And Other Tales of Purity, Patience, and Faithfulness from Chariot Victor/Lion Publications, whose other titles include The Great Dinosaur Mystery and the Bible.

The stories in Knights, Maidens and Dragons are rewrites of fairy tales embedded within Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel novels. It might indeed make sense to rewrite parts of those books: in Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books, Deborah O’Keefe recalled, “I was too obtuse to notice Johnston’s racism and the gross Negro dialect she created.” However, I’d think that plucking the currently acceptable bits out of “classics” should take one out of the business of knocking other people’s “political correctness.”

Then again, I don’t expect consistency from the Washington Times.


Anonymous said...

It is actually quite common for Moon's print media to stoke his agenda and not mention the outlet's ties to Moon. UPI does it quite regularly.

"True Love" is a constantly used term by the Moon organization to describe what they promote.

However, they do not practice what they preach. The UC swindles widows in Japan. The claims have topped a billion dollars for these scams.

Their "messiah" doesn't adhere to "True Love" in his own family.

You'd have ask the members how "True Love" was being promoted when 700 of them busted up a newspaper in Korea and threatened the life of a reporter.

Gail Gauthier said...

I think she shot herself in the foot with that article. She comes across as bitter and disappointed. Also, as you pointed out, not very knowledgable about children's books.

I wonder who put the headline on that article, because it hit upon only a small part of what it was about.

J. L. Bell said...

If the essay ran in the newspaper, then the headline may have been added by one of the Washington Times editors, reflecting a common conservative rant rather than the content that followed. On the other hand, an accurate headline—“My Lousy Times at Writing Conferences”—might not have caught many people’s attention.