Saturday, July 21, 2012

Something Beautiful

This summer, against the background noise of complaints that "my friends don't have to do this," I've embarked on a learning-at-home program with my son who's going into first grade (I won't call it homeschooling, because we are not what you would call a homeschooling family). We are doing various unit studies of my own design, starting with a central text on a particular topic and then branching out to ancillary texts. My son then has to write a sentence and draw an illustration in his journal every day based on our reading.

We started out with the topic of making the world more beautiful, a subject dear to my heart. We read the wonderfully straightforward Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, with its evocative folk-art-like illustrations, as our main text, and then went on to others that supported the same notion: Mole Music by David McPhail, about a mole who takes up the violin with consequences further-reaching than he can imagine; the classic Frederick by Leo Lionni, about the worth of the work of the artist; and, finally, a book that was new to me, which I found by happy chance, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.

This book has become one of my favorites in any genre, and my son wants to hear it again and again. It is about a little girl, in a neighborhood that looks very much like my old Bronx, who is saddened by the dearth of beauty in the hardscrabble world around her. She goes on a quest to discover what is beautiful, what has value, and what gives happiness to the hearts of her friends and family, and in the end resolves to take concrete steps to bring beauty to a place that knows little of it. The book itself is a beautiful thing, with an admirably simple and restrained narrative and wonderfully realistic pictures by Chris Soentpiet, a veteran illustrator who was, incidentally, adopted from Korea and has also illustrated a sensitive book by Eve Bunting, Jin Woo, about an older sibling coming to terms with his family's adoption of Korean baby.

I read an article recently about the ways that the wave of gentrification which has turned most of the five boroughs into a playground for the wealthy has averted the Bronx. I only lived in the borough as an adult, but all my life, when riding the subway in the outer boroughs where the lines go above-ground, I pondered the many sections in my vast city where neighborhoods seemed to consist of one auto-body shop after another (many of them surely chop shops), aluminum-shuttered bodegas where the only fresh foods were onions and plantains, and twenty-four-hour laundromats. These were places where not a single green thing seemed to grow, and yet children ran through the streets and played in the spray from illegally-opened fire hydrants. What was it like for children, I used to wonder, to live in a place where they never saw anything beautiful?

Sharon Dennis Wyeth's book gives one answer. She does not condemn the inequality that compels some children to live amid poverty and ugliness. Rather, she suggests that the beautiful may be something that cannot be comprehended by the senses, something hidden, secret, and essential, and that it is something to whose revelation we all can -- and should -- contribute.

8 comments:

Really Rosie said...

Also the title of a long-forgotten song from the long-forgotten 1970 musical "The Me Nobody Knows" about children growing up in NYC. You can play the song here, though:

http://www.myspace.com/themenobodyknowsmusical/music/songs/something-beautiful-2082921

Pentimento said...

Thanks for that contribution, Rosie. A. would love this book, I think.

GretchenJoanna said...

That subject is dear to my heart, too, and I plan to order *Something Beautiful* based on your recommendation.

Pentimento said...

I can't recommend it highly enough, GretchenJoanna. Let me know what you think of it!

Sally Thomas said...

*Sounds* beautiful, like a snippet, for children, of the most hopeful moments of Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows.

I love Miss Rumphius, too.

Pentimento said...

I got An Episode of Sparrows out of the library last year but had to return it before I'd gotten very far . . . often the fate of my library books, sadly.

ex-new yorker said...

Well, this post about your non-homeschooling within your non-homeschooling family has given me more inspiration for our homeschooling than I've had in a while. Thanks for the reading ideas and also the concept. I think at least 2 of my kids would respond to talking about what is beautiful, including the one on the spectrum who has spoken of the beauty of bugs (not just butterflies, either) and looks forward to hearing the recordings of the Benedictines of Mary singing during his web-based religion lessons.

Pentimento said...

All the books are great, E-NY; check 'em.