Tuesday, January 29

A Taste of Colored Water


written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Simon and Schuster 2008

LuLu and Jelly can't believe that Abbey saw a fountain in town that bubbled colored water; they have to see this for themselves. When their Uncle Jack needs to make a run into town the kids beg to go with so they can investigate.

Oh, but this is the Deep South, and it's mid 1960's, and the town is crowded with freedom riders and picket-carrying activists and officers of the peace wearing gas masks and toting vicious attack dogs.

Yeah, way to make childhood innocence serve an educational purpose there, Faulkner.

I think there's a valid premise in showing kids having to face certain adult realities and misinterpreting the world they find themselves in. Kids know it's not polite to stare but the first time they encounter, say, a legless war veteran or someone with palsy they actually have to make hard connections and cement the memories that make the concept relevant. Likewise, any child raised ignorant of segregation and racial bias isn't going to understand a concept like a sign over a fountain that says "colored" until they see it all in context.

What Faulkner is attempting here is a dual lesson on segregation with a dash of Civil Rights Movement. While the town is in chaos, the kids wander off to investigate the fountain, leaving the ensuing riot to play in the background, just off-stage. A sheltered country kid (and these kids are pretty dang sheltered) going into town is going to be more enraptured by the hubbub and leave the fountain to another time. Something big is happening in this town with buses and protesters and police everywhere and we're supposed to accept that these kids would rather run up a hill to see what color the water is that comes from the bubbler?

Then, as LuLu and Jelly discover the fountain is no different than any other drinking fountain (except for the word colored hanging on a sign above it), they witness the protesters (what they call a parade) getting hosed by the fire department and they finally (!) feel moved to the point of shouting and feeling dizzy. (I guess there's no guilt quite like latent white childhood guilt to make a point about race relations in this country.) Finally a cop with an attack dog tells them they need to leave and off they run to the safety of their Uncle Jack who's worried about where them dang kids ran off to.

Honestly, I think there is a genuine story here in the innocence of childhood and in not understanding the segregated ways of adults. But in order for a child to understand what's at play here you have to explain to them (or assume they already know) the use of the term colored, the contentiousness of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, and then explain why no adult in the end of the story bothers to explain to LuLu and Jelly what it was they witnessed. With the exception of discovering that colored water is exactly the same as regular "white" water (duh) the kids ain't haven't learned themselves nothing.

In the lengthy afterword (note to publishers: if a picture book requires a lengthy afterword for the adults edification, or to filter and share with children, then the message of your book has failed) Faulkner explains how this book didn't come from his own experience, having grown up in a Northern town. He goes on to speculate about how his child-self might have questioned his Southern world as filtered through his growing Northern consciousness. It's as if he's saying "I wasn't one of these kids, but if I were I would have done things differently, I'd have asked some hard questions!" The fault in this thinking -- which ultimately explains the lack of understanding that informs the book - is that if Faulkner had grown up with these kids in the sticks he wouldn't have had his fancy Northern knowing that would have allowed for such questioning. Short of saying he knows what it's like to be black person during the 1960s because he was once excluded from a game of dodgeball as a kid, I think Faulkner's afterword turns a slightly flawed book into an arrogant reductionist view of a crucial problem in this nation's history.

I didn't start this review hating this book, but now I do.
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