This particular version of my Zena Sutherland Lecture is a fabrication or, at best, a fabulation. Either way it is entirely false. Yes, I did give the Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago on May 1, 2015, but it was not as properly cured and marbled as this updated edition. So, for the sake of the great Zena Sutherland, let’s pretend that every word you are reading is exactly every word I spoke on that lovely occasion. Thank you in advance for indulging me in this artifice.
But why this gussied-up version? Well, I am notorious for writing an entire speech on a Post-it note and then never even using that sticky scrap of paper as a guide while I extemporaneously rattle on, believing in some egomaniacal way that I’ll manage to connect the dots-of-thoughts and say something significant on the subject of children’s literature. One final statement: I have great respect for Zena Sutherland and her immense work (for years I taught my graduate students out of her Children and Books), and I do apologize if this effort has failed to properly honor her legacy.
(As you enter this portion of the speech you should brace yourself for some old-fashioned cursing. Very un-Piglet of me. Do forgive.)
Please engage your imagination to begin here, onstage with me in Chicago, where after a charming and generous introduction by Linda Ward-Callaghan, I took to the podium and thanked one and all. I had every intention of standing before the audience and delivering, in a proper professorial tenor, my thousand prepared words, but I got off on the wrong foot. To set the scene from my point of view, the podium surface before me was cluttered with an assortment of extraneous stuff: there was a backup hand-held mic, the jagged metal mount for an outdated stationary mic that had violently been kinked over to one side, a thumbnail volume of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a previous speech on the harmonics of the zither (which I declined to deliver), and a crushed paper cup, along with a tube of lipstick and a tissue with a lip print pressed on it that resembled the animated hand of Señor Wences. I held my mic in my left hand, and as soon as I placed my speech down on that uneven landscape of podium compost my few typed pages began to slide this way and that on the irregular surface. Right away I began fussing with the pages in an effort to stabilize them. From prior talks I knew this sliding speech would cause me to lose my place each time I lifted my eyes to address the audience and then I would look like a dunce as I constantly paused, standing like a bent-over question mark, to track down the next sentence as if I were sorting through a box of mismatched buttons. (I’m one of those who cringe while watching other people mime such an awkward, painfully self-conscious search for their next line — so there was no reason the audience should show me their mercy.) But worse, deep inside I honestly dislike giving a prepared speech because I prefer to look the audience in the eye and feel the crowd and surf their level of interest and their mood and then, like a drum major, I march around the stage while speaking off-the-cuff and riff on my PowerPoint images while trying to remain ever mindful of my theme and do my best to corral my thoughts and tie them all up neatly in the end. In this case my theme was based on “the self as double,” or how I take personal stories and facts and transform them into fictions so that I am both “Jack” the writer and “Jack” the character — the sort of chameleonic duality you might find in the art of Cindy Sherman/Frida Kahlo/Rembrandt van Rijn/Andy Warhol, which is intentionally self-absorbed for very resonant reasons.
Anyway, The Horn Book was going to publish my speech so I had dutifully written a short one (to spare them), but the moment I set my speech on the podium it slid off to one side and sailed across the stage floor. Right then I was struck with the gut feeling that I despised my speech. I didn’t trust it one bit—it was neither smart enough nor clever enough, and it represented me poorly. It was an insult to Zena Sutherland. So I stepped on a page of it and said to the audience, “I don’t care to deliver this speech, but I do like speaking to audiences.” Now, having been in the audience plenty of times, I have seen dozens of people who should not venture off of their prepared speeches and go rogue but should just keep their heads down, read at a reasonable rate of speed, take a few questions at the end, and leave the stage with their dignity intact.
But not me. Right away, and without a moment of pre-thought, I launched into a story about Jerry Lewis — so here it is.
* * *
Mr. Lewis was receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College, and I was a professor at Emerson and chosen by the administration to be his handler for the occasion. I knew he wasn’t going to be easy because he showed evidence that he still had something of the Rat Pack in him: even though he was flying in from Los Angeles at around three in the morning, he had demanded that his hotel room at the Copley Plaza be supplied with eight cases of Heineken — just in case a wild party broke out. So the morning after he flew in I was in the back seat of a white limousine when we picked him up at the hotel. I hopped out and held the limousine door. He emerged from the hotel lobby, and the first thing I noticed was the color of his face — it was the earthy red color of a boiled beat. He looked as if he were going to have a stroke — an angry stroke. A tall man in casual dress got in the limousine as well. I noticed that the man was holding something in his hands that looked like a polished wooden shoebox.
“This is my man,” Jerry said loudly, and pointed toward him. The man nodded at me. I nodded back. I had not been told that Jerry would have a companion.
“See that box?” Jerry shouted. He pointed at it as if his finger were a dueling pistol.
“Yes,” I swiftly replied.
“Open the box!” Jerry snapped at the man. He was loud and impatient, and when his man didn’t move quickly enough, he snapped a second time, “Jerry said open the goddamned box!”
The man coolly removed the top and tilted the box toward me so I could see into it. A portable telephone, the size and heft of a brick, was held in place by a cushion of foam rubber.
“That’s my goddamned phone!” Jerry yelled in my ear. “And that’s my man whose only job is to carry my phone!”
I nodded. The man nodded. “Great,” I remarked in a small voice that I hoped would send Jerry a conversational volume clue.
I must have turned him down too low because he went mute and seemed to doze off for the short drive to the open stage door in the rear of the Wang Theater, where we exited the limousine and entered the green room.
I wasn’t sure how to start up a conversation with Jerry, but thought it was my job to do so. “The French think you are a genius” is all I could think to say, and knew I shouldn’t say. Just then Jerry bailed me out by hollering, “Would you like to see my heart-bypass scars?”
Before I could respond, he ripped his white shirt open like a superhero about to take flight. “Look!” he ordered. “Like fucking train tracks! Right?”
His chest looked as if it had been crudely sewn up after an autopsy.
“Right,” I confirmed in a whisper, then glanced over at Jerry’s man. Maybe he could give me some advice on managing Jerry because I sensed that Jerry was going to spin out and go to a bad place, and if he went bad then I’d be the target. But Jerry’s man showed no expression. He stood there as unmoving and quiet as one of those Easter Island statues — with the box, just in case Jerry got a call from some Rat-Packing party buddy.
Suddenly he shouted directly into my face, “I’m thirsty. Really fucking thirsty!”
“We have water,” I said delicately as I raised my arm like Vanna White and gestured toward the bottles of water on ice in a plastic punch bowl.
“That crap is only good for watering the lawn,” he replied loudly. “I want a beer! I have a fucking kink in my neck and I need a beer to unkink it.” He moved his neck around as if it were a universal joint between his head and his shoulders.
“It’s Sunday,” I meekly informed him. “Liquor stores are closed because of the blue laws.”
“Blue balls!” he hollered back and tossed his head left and right while continuing to holler, “I said get Jerry a beer!”
I detected a little bit of the high-pitched, nasally voice from the Nutty Professor in his last demand. “Nothing is open,” I said calmly, wondering how he might respond.
Jerry swiveled to his right. “Man!” he cried out. “Open the door and kick this idiot professor out and only let him back in when he brings me a beer!”
His man opened the door and nodded toward the outside world.
I did as I was instructed and marched outside, where I found myself in a parking lot close to Kneeland Street, which borders Boston’s Chinatown. Right away I started running while putting together a crude plan. I was in a blue Armani suit, white shirt, and some kind of cat-scratch-looking Armani tie. In a moment my shirttail was flopping out and my tie was over my shoulder and my pant cuffs were catching on the toes of my wingtips and I could hear the seams ripping. I pulled my pants up and ran as if I were wading through a stream. I kept running. There was a cheap restaurant I ate at on Beach Street called The Golden Coin and a drunks’ bar across the street. The Golden Coin did not have a liquor license so I would stop at the drunks’ bar — buy a few beers and take them back with me.
But this was Sunday morning in Boston and the Puritan laws were still time-honored: no liquor sales on Sunday. I was panting when I arrived at the drunks’ bar door. It was propped open with a fetid mop head, and by the time I walked into the rank, yeasty darkness of that puke-palace I had my wallet out and cash in hand. The bartender was washing glasses and I yelled out, “I need a six-pack of beer for Mister Jerry Lewis.” I put forty dollars on the bar.
I left with the beer in one hand and reversed course and breezed like animated blue and white laundry across the road and parking lot. I know I was cursing worse than Jerry between gasping breaths. I was not a runner. I was rumpled. When I reached the back of the theater, to my surprise, there were three closed doors. I kicked them all. “Open up!” I shouted. “I’ve got the goods.”
Jerry’s man opened door number one, and looked me up and down as if I were a morals agent. Jerry stood in the back. His shirt was buttoned. His face was still boiled looking.
“I got it,” I said, still panting, and proudly held up the six-pack.
“Give my man a beer,” he ordered.
I did. The man twisted the cap, and the beer gave out its hissing death gasp. He handed it to Jerry. “I hate to drink alone,” Jerry announced. “Man, give him one too.”
“I can’t go onstage with beer on my breath,” I said. I was going up for tenure, and beer-breath was not a quality the tenure committee was searching for.
“Screw them!” he growled back. “I’m your boss now. So drink!” He nodded to his man and the man twisted a beer cap off.
“Cheers,” Jerry said. “To never drinking alone.”
I agreed with that and drank the beer straight down from being so thirsty and nervous. Jerry drank his back too.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked in a voice that really was an order. “Go on. What do you do in this shit-hole school besides chase coeds?”
“I write books,” I replied. “Picture books.”
“Name one!” he shot back, as if I had been lying. His man handed us two more beers.
“Rotten Ralph,” I replied, and before I could say another word, Jerry’s face went demonic, as if he was going to do a Linda Blair three-sixty.
“What kind of fucking shit is that!” he hollered. “Are you shitting me?”
“No,” I said, totally confused by his response. I looked at his man. He was back to his Easter Island pose. I was backed into a corner.
“Don’t you know I’m Ralph Rotten?” he shouted with beer spitting out of his mouth and sprinkling my glasses. “Did you steal my character? I swear if you did…” He swiveled his head as sharply as a hawk and hollered at his man. “Call my lawyer. I’m going to sue this bastard.”
The man opened the box and held the brick-sized phone to his ear.
I honestly didn’t know anything about his Ralph Rotten character. I’d never heard of it. I thought he was just pulling my leg in order to entertain himself and his man. But it was soon evident he was not faking it.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lewis,” his man said. “There is no signal.”
Jerry frowned. Then he stepped forward and poked me hard in the chest. He was like my angry doppelgänger come to life. “I’m Ralph Rotten! You got that?”
“Yeah,” I said, shaken, and stepped back.
“Did you make any money off your phony stolen book?” he questioned.
“No,” I replied. “Not really.” I had made seven hundred and fifty dollars from the advance and spent it all on rooming-house rent and pencils.
“Well, I’m going to crush you!” he said vengefully. He turned toward his man. “Two more beers,” he ordered.
I quickly finished my second and took the third as Jerry glared at me. His eyes pulsed with every beat of his laboring heart. How could I not know that Rotten Ralph was the double of Ralph Rotten? How was it possible that I wrote a book that was the mirror opposite of his character? Was I the Pauper to his Prince? The Jekyll to his Hyde? The saccharine Norman Bates to his evil Norman Bates? This serendipitous doppelgänger bond was all I could think about while Jerry snorted around in anger and I stood before him trapped in the vacuum of my own thoughts.
Then there was a rescuing knock on the door. “It’s show time,” announced the stage manager.
Jerry and I marched up a set of stairs and onto the stage, where we took our assigned seats. He turned to me and with an unexpected wistfulness whispered, “Dean Martin and I did this place decades ago. People were lined up around the block to get in. Those days of barnstorming a theater town are all gone,” he added sadly.
Right then I realized I knew nothing about how hard he had worked, traveling from theater to theater on a circuit as he built his reputation and his career. Even his Ralph Rotten television character must have been hard work, and through my embarrassing ignorance and arrogance I knew nothing about how he had become the growling, hollering, swollen-faced, unhappy Jerry. Maybe it was the beer working on my sympathies, but I now wanted to know him better. I kind of wanted to be his pal, and I figured he’d see the soulmate humor in me being Rotten Ralph to his Ralph Rotten.
In the meantime, administrators gave glib speeches. When it was our turn, Jerry and I stood up and solemnly walked to the podium. I said my lines, “By the power vested in me, I bestow this honorary degree upon you…” and I put the cheesy purple and yellow ribbon with the brass foil-over-plastic medal around his neck. We shook hands, then I returned to my seat. His man walked out and handed Jerry’s speech to Jerry, who set it on the podium. All he had to do was read it. But he got about three lines in and paused. He looked up from the page, made a few cracks about being a comedian in the golden age of comedy, and then looked back down at the speech as if it were a box of mismatched buttons he was sorting. He hesitated, and I knew right away he had lost his place on the page, and suddenly the great Jerry Lewis — France’s golden boy, my new friend, and the Ralph Rotten doppelgänger of Rotten Ralph — was adrift without a directorial cue. So he did what he probably always did and used his get-out-of-jail-free card. He threw his head back and popped his arms up into the air and let out that joyful, crazy Nutty Professor laugh. The crowd roared in recognition and approval and they stood and cheered and whistled and clapped, and he laughed some more, and then amidst the applause he waved goodbye and walked across the stage with his new Nutty Professor PhD toward a curtain that his man was holding aside. Then, just before he disappeared, he turned and pointed at me. He smiled and mouthed something. I couldn’t make it out, but I think he said, “I’m going to kick your rotten ass!”
I smiled back and tipped my flat cap to him, and then his curtain dropped. He went with his man out the back door of the stage to the white limousine and was gone. I never again heard from him, his lawyer, or his man, and I’m sorry I have not. As nutty as it sounds, I think I was destined to be his rotten double.
A year later I had James Earl Jones onstage for his honorary degree. He had a speech as thick as a sandwich and he started to give it. Then he lifted his eyes from the page and took off his reading glasses and went rogue. “Oh, no,” I thought as he went way off-road and into the deep woods and told some Hallmark anecdote about life lessons and then he looked down at his speech and there was that box of mismatched buttons before him. But did he panic? Nope. He raised his arms high and wide and sucked in a tremendous bellows of breath and roared with great resonance, “May the Force be with you!”
Everyone stood and cheered and whistled and he waved, walked off stage, and vanished into a white limousine. After the graduation ceremony I went to the podium and got the speech. It was some script his agent had sent him. Clearly, the entire “May the Force be with you” act was preplanned. That was the speech. Very clever, I thought. The Master was teaching me a lesson.
So, dear reader, I stood at the Zena Sutherland lecture telling these twin stories, and because I didn’t have a get-out-of-jail-free phrase I could holler to the rooftops (aside from “Can I get back to you on that?”), I had to get myself enthused to deliver what I knew was a dead fish of a speech.
“Well, let’s endure my prepared speech for a few moments,” I said reluctantly to the audience. I bent to pick it up off the stage floor. As I did so, I spied Roger Sutton in the front row, and he looked back at me with the Easter Island man gaze. I was dead in the water. The air had gone out of the room.
* * *
The (Real) Zena Sutherland Lecture
A Pair of Jacks to Open: Fact and Fiction
I will not talk tonight of what I don’t know, but of what I do know — which is me constantly talking about me, or all-me-all-the-time. As Thoreau said in his essay “Life Without Principle,” he is resolved to give the reader a good dose of himself. I find no argument in Thoreau’s insistence that he simply represent himself, and his own thoughts, and experience, instead of attempting in a lecture to tell people what they already know, and what they want the lecturer to confirm. Apparently, because he spoke his own mind, he was soon unpopular on the lecture circuit and took a handyman job for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Thoreau, as I continue to merely lecture on how I write what I’m thinking, and how I come to create books, I too may find myself spending more time weeding the garden.
There comes a time in a young person’s life when they look into a mirror and ask, “Who am I?” The moment that question is asked is when the young person pulls back a curtain and enters the stage where their life is played out…and the first attempt to define one’s character is to put on all the various costumes in your family, and after the family is exhausted, the costume shop radiates outward into infinity.
By this time in a young reader’s life, Pooh and Toad of Toad Hall and other characters that live in charming stories have begun to lose their influence on a young person who is suddenly aware that they are filled with self-inflicted complications and battles for independence that have to be sorted through. If the young person is optimistic, then they think there will be answers to the “who am I?” question. What they don’t realize yet is that the question of “who am I?” is only the reflective background chorus of life whose role is to constantly comment on the classic foibles and conflicts that appear as dramatic action in the foreground of life.
The “who am I?” question itself, confrontational as it may be, will always only be an echo to the dramatic action. Yet “who am I?” can be a solid citizen companion that helps us ponder and sort out our good actions from the bad, the moral from the immoral, and the gold from the lead. Good children’s literature is where a questioning young reader holds a sincere book in their trusting hands and reads with abandon in order to invent and define themselves, and to learn how to discover and reflect upon the infinite truths about themselves that they can trust and refine for the rest of their lives.
That said, the high bar of good literature makes my job as a writer for young, inquisitive readers a very demanding job — a challenge to be well considered — and for me it all begins with me: Jack on Jack. If I don’t read books that tunnel deeply into me to discover what is genuine, commanding, and emotive within myself, then I cannot write books that do the same for the best and most impressionable young readers. I often write about myself, or write invented variations of myself, using portions of myself as core characteristics from which I can then extrapolate. I attempt to write books that transform a piece of paper into some golem that comes to life. But first, I have to be the golem, and the tablet that brings me to life are the books I read. So here is a short list that over the years has contributed to transforming me from being an obdurate, unknowing creature to a human who asks the question, “who am I?”
(Everyone has their own list.)
The Catcher in the Rye—Salinger
Half a Life—Ciment
The Bell Jar—Plath
A Clockwork Orange—Burgess
Brave New World—Huxley
In Youth Is Pleasure—Welch
This Boy’s Life—Wolff
The Car Thief—Weesner
Sex and Death to the Age 14—Gray
Borrowed Finery and Desperate Characters—Fox
To Kill a Mockingbird—Lee
And, the bowsprit of American Literature, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale—Melville
And the list travels well beyond this very small sample.
It is said that you cannot serve two masters: the past self and the present self. It takes me a full day of reflection to understand an hour from the day before, and thus I fall behind each day, which is why I expect it will take a lifetime of effort to attempt to understand my own youth. It is difficult to live in the moment when so often I am either obsessing on the past, or drifting away on some reverie, or dreaming, or recalling and parsing something of great importance. It seems that life for me is structured in such a way that I only understand the punch line of a joke long after I’ve heard it.
A book is great if it strengthens the articulation of my inner life and is neither a mere accounting of facts nor a fantasy that appears like smoke and disappears like smoke. A great book, a book that adds to self-reflection and understanding, is different from an amusement: an amusement is meant to distract us from ourselves, where a great book is meant to open the honeyed cells of the inner life and freely nourish new thoughts.
I know that it is politically correct to say that all books exist for a reason, and to that I reply with reason that for me all books are not gratifying, or uplifting, or reverie-inspiring — or even amusing in the most base way. In writing so often about myself it is the “exploration” and “reflection” that result in the greatest knowledge to me. In Dead End in Norvelt there are yards of historical facts larded with details, but these are the crumbs of the story (nutritious as they may be), just as it is crumbs that mark the way for Hansel and Gretel to find their way home. We all know that only when the crumbs are removed does the real story begin, and it is the characters whom we fear for, and not the crumbs. The same with Dead End in Norvelt. The boy, Jack, is taken with a collection of historical facts, which is valuable knowledge, but it is the vast humanity behind the facts, his friendship with Miss Volker, and the heartbeat of his family, and the community values that fill him and float him just as hot air fills a balloon and the wind takes it away.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us move on to all the Jack-on-Jack books, the double-shots and double-takes and doppelgängers, where I and my characters live as one.
My first pairing of Jacks was with the Jack Henry books. First, I never should have changed my last name to Henry for the five volumes of family short stories: Heads or Tails, Jack’s New Power, Jack on the Tracks, Jack Adrift, and Jack’s Black Book. But I was thinking of my family and friends who populate the books, along with my retooled action and invented dialogue (by this writer) that might offend them. So I shied away from using my own last name, and once Heads or Tails was released I regretted it immediately. What I like about the Jack books is that I can write as if I am the voice of the chorus — the “who am I?” — of the books. I have years of hindsight behind me, so Jack is teeming with articulate insights that I’ve allowed him to discover in the moment but that actually took the real Jack years to discover and refine. But both Jacks are me. Judge and Jury. Accused and Accuser. Captured and Released. The Action and the Reflection. I really enjoy my other Jack and turn to him whenever I feel a little dull. He always says or thinks something with a kind of insightful energy that reignites my own. When I write about my life in my journal, I’m always more interesting when I speak in his voice.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. I am not Joey Pigza. He is an invented character with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I’m merely ADD, or attention deficit disorder. I can sit still in a chair all day and sideways-think of nothing but random thoughts. Writing a book, for me, is like trying to decode the Enigma machine as I sort pages of random notes into properly sequenced sentences and paragraphs. If Joey only had ADD there would be no action to reflect upon, so I added the hyperactivity so he can bring action to the surface of the book, and reflection can remain the chorus that comments on the action — enough action for four more Joey volumes, ending with The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza.
The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. Nature vs. nurture is the theme of this book based on my twin uncles, Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh, who, I was told, preserved (taxidermed) their own mother after her death. I am not a twin to them, but they are the twin stars in this novel. It was my aim in writing this book to write a gothic novel with the purpose of asking the reader to reflect on the question: “What is more frightening: truth or fiction?” The nonfiction center of the book is about the American eugenics movement and basically how white supremacy was taught in schools across America as part of the science curriculum. The eugenics movement introduced laws in this country against immigrants, endorsed the sterilization of women (especially on Native American lands), and spread their corrosive eugenics white supremacist creed with such effectiveness that Hitler was impressed by their ideals. And we know how his belief in a pure white Germany terrified and damaged the world.
So the core canvas of the book is about academic and applied racism in America, and then around that core canvas I built a gilt gothic frame of a story — the story of my uncles taxiderming their mother — and so the question posed to the reader is: Which is more gothic? Which is more inhuman? Taxiderming your mother, or the state-sanctioned suppression and hatred of nonwhite races in America? As it turns out, taxiderming your mother is pretty tame compared to Hitler’s Final Solution.
Imagine my surprise when so many people of all ages come up to me and say, “I really admire how you invented that eugenics movement.” They have the book’s central point all backward, which breaks my heart. The gothic fiction is about the uncles, and the eugenics movement is the horrific history and fact of the matter, and if you don’t know your history you will be destined to repeat it. Time and again. (Later, this lesson is echoed by Miss Volker in Dead End in Norvelt.)
I have yet to write a twin to Love Curse.
The Trouble in Me. This is the most recent memoir-driven look-in-the-mirror book I’ve written about my young self (set in the summer before eighth grade). It has what I’d define as features of a gothic romance in that it is dripping with a primitive fixation on transforming the self by scrubbing away your true character in order to invent yourself afresh as another person — in my case I wanted to become my neighbor, Gary Pagoda, who was older, tougher, more romantic and commanding than I was. He was the model who, in both a comic and dramatically grotesque way, I became.
This story is me pointing a finger at myself and saying, “This is the beginning of the slippery slope that led to Hole in My Life. This is where I began to abandon my core morals, values, and ethics for a cheap thrill.” Only this story does not lead to prison, because it already takes place in a prison — the prison of my own skin — of who I was and who I wasn’t. I was imprisoned by my obsessive self-loathing, and the only escape was to become someone else.
One final remark: Please excuse the waterfront language in the first portion of this speech. It may be offensive to some, but when I rewrote it using more genteel dialogue, the entire incident fell flat without the grit of the curse words. Also, I admire Mister Jerry Lewis and think the French are correct in saying he is a comic genius. Get with it, America. The guy is brilliant!Add a Comment