All the Reading I Didn’t Do While Pregnant

The other night, my daughter and I were curled up in my bed reading The Story of the Root Children. This is a picture book from the early 20th century (the author, Sybille Von Olfers, was born in 1881 and lived to just 1916). At 9 years old, this book is well below her reading-level, but the story is magical and thus we keep coming back to it as a reminder of the changing seasons and the life that breathes underground even after everything is frozen. These moments are pretty rare, now that she’s capable of reading books like The Cursed Child on her own, and so when she brought me that book to read even though it was long past her bedtime, I happily obliged.

When my daughter was tiny, I read to her often. There were books everywhere, mostly cardboard, and I made it my mission to teach her from the moment she could talk that words had power, that words appeared on pages alongside pictures, that she could speak them and understand them and share them. We started with the alphabet so that she would learn to recognize the individual letters. We moved on to simple words, like “cat,” and I hoped she would recognize its image even if she couldn’t sound out the letters by themselves yet. Favorite books included Goodnight GorillaThat’s Not My Pirate, and all of Eric Carle’s infamous stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Grouchy Ladybug. Another story that I loved (and still love) is The Legend of Sleeping Bear; the first time I read that aloud I sobbed through the ending. My heart swelled with pride when she began to imitate my reading aloud. Eventually, her performance turned to actual comprehension, and soon enough, she was reading on her own.

I got pregnant when I was just 21 years old. While some people are married and settled down at that age, I was most certainly not, and as a young woman (who looked even younger than I was), people seemed to think I was absolutely clueless. Maybe they felt pity toward my green Starbucks apron stretched over my growing belly, my messy hair pulled back to expose my stretched ears. I did have one customer bring me diapers and a gift card, a gesture of kindness (not pity) that I will always remember. If you have ever been pregnant, you’ll sympathize with my plight: everyone had advice to share, especially book recommendations. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is practically the pregnancy Bible, and it was shoved into my arms with great excitement. I politely declined, however, and as my pregnancy continued, my heart filled with vitriol toward the entire maternal health care system in our country.

Despite what most people may have seen, or thought, when they saw me, I was not entirely naive. Sure, I had all the wisdom that 21 brings (which isn’t much compared to what I know now in my thirties), but I also had community. Ever since dial-up internet was a thing, I had found places for myself online, a means of connecting with others who shared aspects of my own identity. I embraced email, forums, and blogging. At that time, I was an avid Livejournal user, and had joined a due date community for women who were expecting in July of 2007. Livejournal works similarly to Reddit, in that you can participate in communities, but it is different in that you also maintain a blog of your own that can be customized, like Tumblr. You can also create a profile where interests function like tags, and you can build a friends list of people you follow, and people who follow you back. Like Facebook, your Livejournal posts could be set to public or private. Though I had started out seeing an OB-GYN for prenatal care, frustration with that provider led me to consider the nurse-midwives through Planned Parenthood, who I saw until 33 weeks into my pregnancy. At that point, thanks to research I had done through Livejournal and a post with photos of a homebirth in an apartment, I switched care to a homebirth midwife and a doula. Naturally, this decision was met with criticism, but I felt confident that the information I had gathered online was sufficient and proceeded with my plans to give birth in my own living room.

Through the connections I had made online, I also discovered a different library of books about pregnancy and raising children. Ina May Gaskin became my new literary hero, with books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Spiritual Midwifery. While What to Expect When You’re Expecting covers various questions about nutrition and safety, as well as a traditional hospital birth experience, it felt sterile compared to the vibrant storytelling in Ina May’s books. Perhaps most important, Ina May’s books had pictures of actual women in actual labor birthing their actual children. No staged or hand-drawn images there. And that, ultimately, was what prepared me for what I was about to endure. I needed to see what it looked like, and I needed to hear from other women who had been through it. I didn’t need to be told not to eat soft-serve ice cream or soft cheeses, I didn’t need any more seeds of fear planted in my already-anxious mind. I needed honesty, I needed something raw, I needed to be intimately aware of what my body was experiencing. I needed some real noise to drown out the monotonous drone of medicalized, procedural birth.

I realize I sound like a bit of a radical here. I don’t have any qualms with hospital births, and I think in some cases, medical intervention is absolutely necessary. This was true for me – after my daughter was born, at home, in my living room, I went to the hospital for stitches. She was a big baby, but she was born healthy and strong. I do believe that hospital births can be positive and autonomous, especially with the help of a doula, but that wasn’t the path I took at that time.

I also realize that my title may be a bit misleading: I did, in fact, read while pregnant. I read often. I read as much as I could get my hands on. But I read intentionally. I chose not to read most of the mainstream literature because it didn’t feel right. It made me feel shame, for being pregnant without a marriage and a stable job. It made me feel as if my body had been taken over by not just another being, but by an institution, and I wanted to push back against that. I suppose I am thankful for the naivety I had at that time, because I truly believed I could do anything. The books I read and the online communities I belonged to during my pregnancy were some of the most formative experiences I had as a new mother. They helped me come into my own as a woman, and shaped the values I carry with me today, as the parent of a now-4th grader. Both books and online spaces are prioritized in our home as a means for connection, for communication, and for acquiring knowledge. I hope that my daughter realizes this, and is able to pass it along to her own family (be it blood or otherwise) someday.

A Little Bit of Comics History

I didn’t come to comics by way of superheroes or films. I didn’t read them as a child. I had never even held a comic book in my hands until 2014, when I heard about Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes through a friend on social media. I picked up my first issue of LJ (a variant cover!) at Motor City Comic Con in 2014, and started reading Ms. Marvel not long after that. Somewhere along the way I had understood comics to be a boy’s world, and so it was exciting to discover there were comics that had women front and center. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Saga and Bitch Planet in addition to LJ (though I’ve stopped following Ms. Marvel as closely), and my bookshelves include a number of graphic novels as well (mostly nonfiction).

I had read graphic novels and manga before I started reading comics, but honestly, comics were a harder genre for me to navigate as a new reader – my graphic novel and manga experience prepared me to read the panels, but the entire comic book world was unfamiliar territory. Marvel Universe was a phenomenon I couldn’t find a point of entry to. Same with DC Comics. On top of that, women in comics have historically been portrayed as sex objects, which is a huge issue for me. I had no interest in picking up something displaying a scantily-clad woman with large breasts on its cover (no matter how much I might appreciate the female body). I wanted to read about strong, smart women who didn’t exist solely for the purposes of male pleasure – and those series do exist, if you’re willing to do some digging (and fortunately, there is less digging to be done now that female-friendly comics have become more established in the culture). I do still feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I peruse the shelves at Green Brain Comics here in Dearborn, because there are so many titles. Comic book aficionados know the creators, the big names in the industry, the canon and its criticism, and that can be (okay, it is) very intimidating.

In April 2016, Dan Merritt from Green Brain gave a talk at the Dearborn Public Library on the history of comics. It was a small but fascinating discussion that helped me understand how comics became what they are now. As someone who still has major reservations when it comes to superhero comics, I do feel like an outsider, and maybe I always will. I’m okay with that. I value the history of comics, though, in that it helps me understand the larger context that the literature I do read is a part of.

Comics, traditionally, were seen as young people’s territory. This is partly because we associate pictorial representations with children (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), and because we’ve created a system in which literacy (in this case, the ability to read and write) is a marker of intelligence and status, therefore pictures are for those who are less smart (this is explained in further detail by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics). Comics were, for a long time, regulated by the Comics Code Authority, which limited depictions of violence and graphic imagery believed to be harmful to children. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s, and what was considered “appropriate” for children was also racially charged (ie: people of color were rarely seen, and could never be portrayed as heroes).

The underground comics (comix) scene developed in response to such regulations. Comics that defied the CCA were published and circulated in underground networks. Mainstream comics were still very much present, though the Code was revised to include lessons of morality; in other words, comics were seen as potential teaching tool, still for an audience of adolescents. Marvel and DC generally followed the CCA; in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a three-part Spiderman story was released in partnership with the U.S. Dept of Health that explicitly portrayed drug use as dangerous. The CCA remained through the 1980’s, though its influence waned as it relaxed, and comics aimed at adult readers became more popular. Marvel and DC currently use their own ratings system to designate appropriate age groups for what they publish.

The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now owns the CCA seal, which serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on comic book creators. The seal was acquired during Banned Books Week:

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “As we reflect upon the challenges facing intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, the Comics Code Seal is a reminder that it’s possible for an entire creative field to have those rights curtailed because of government, public, and market pressures. Fortunately, today comics are no longer constrained as they were in the days of the Code, but that’s not something we can take for granted. Banned Books Week reminds us that challenges to free speech still occur, and we must always be vigilant in fighting them.”

If you were to walk into your local comic book store today, you may find a designated children’s section, but that section would be just a fraction of what is available for an adult audience. Traditionally, comics have focused on horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and the supernatural, and this is generally still true today though some stories have become darker and others have become more playful. High artistic standards have elevated comics as a recognized form of literature by readers and scholars alike, and film adaptations have brought comics to new audiences. Creators have also regained creative control, and independent publishers like Image (a spin-off of Marvel) formed to honor creator-owned work. There has also been a strong push for more diversity in comics, though one major issue there is with the readership: people who have historically been excluded from comics storylines aren’t likely to know that anything has changed unless they are explicitly, humbly, and kindly invited back to the table.

So where do graphic novels fit in? Graphic novels are essentially book-length comics with more sophisticated and varied content, according to the ALA. While I don’t love the ALA’s language (graphic novels are more “grown up?”), the sentiment may be true: graphic novels are more literary and “cultured:” they deal with subject matter that moves more slowly (compared to the action of comics) and is more intellectually complex. That doesn’t mean it’s “better” or that people who read comics are dumb, graphic novels just do something different; the genre features serve a purpose. The memoir is a common theme in contemporary graphic novels. Blankets is a good example of this, as are both of Alison Bechdel’s books.

I hope I’ve done comics justice here; again, as an outsider working her way in, I don’t always feel confident sharing backstory, because I may not fully understand it. However, the internet makes a lot of information freely available (much love, Wikipedia!), and people care enough to make sure that information is accurate and detailed (thanks to those who wrote, revised, and provided footnotes!). I’ve also picked up some new books to read, including Watchmen by Alan Moore, considered to be one of the key works that brought comics to mainstream readers. I have Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, and Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature on my to-read list this semester as well.

Below are some links to check out:

Much of this post was adapted from the Comics Code Authority Wikipedia page.

We Need Diverse Comics on Facebook

Women Don’t Read Comics (this one has a video *and* the article is a transcript of the video, hooray for accessibility!)

American Splendor is a book and film about Cleveland-based Harvey Pekar, one of the big names in underground comix.

ComiqueCon, a celebration of women in comics, is an event held annually in Dearborn at the Arab American National Museum!

Iconic Selves

The “iconic self” is a term coined by Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics. An icon, according to McCloud, is an image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea.

from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

Some icons are very simple, others are more complex and realistic. Generally, the more simple an icon’s features are, the more easily recognizable it is. Simple icons are also adaptable to our own individual realities. An icon with greater detail will register as a distinct object (or person) in our minds; while we may recognize the object, we won’t see ourselves, or our realities, in that object quite as easily.

from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

Before we read Blankets, we will be drawing our iconic selves in ENG 132. To do this, start by thinking about key features that make you identifiable. In the above examples, Rachel Dukes has Frankie, her cat, and the side of her head is shaved. Craig Thompson has a book and his timid personality is seen through his facial expression. Scott McCloud has round glasses. Props, facial features, accessories, or favorite clothing all help make a person recognizable, even when their icon is simple, like a cartoon. It’s up to you how cartoony your icon is – for those of us who “can’t draw” (I think we can all draw, but I sympathize with this feeling!), stick people are just fine! Work at your comfort level.

Uses of Literature: Recognition

Rita Felski is the author of Uses of Literature, a book that outlines several distinct purposes that literature may serve. Some of these will likely appeal to you more than others, depending on why you read (or don’t). ENG 132 students will explore two of Felski’s chapters throughout the semester (recognition and knowledge) as they relate to the material we are studying. One of our fundamental questions for the semester is the value of studying literature: why read? Why discuss it? What can literature do? What can it accomplish?

The first chapter in Felski’s book is “Recognition.” Felski begins with her own question: “What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book?” We’ll be looking at this particular use of literature in the context of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a graphic memoir about the author’s experience growing up in a small midwestern town with religion as the backbone of his adolescence.

Here are a few quotes from Felski’s chapter that I think are worth discussing:

What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book? The experience seems at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious. While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader; an affinity or an attunement is brought to light. I may be looking for such a moment, or I may stumble up on it haphazardly, startled by the prescience of a certain combination of words. In either case, I feel myself addressed, summoned, called to account: I cannot help seeing traces of myself in the pages I am reading. Indisputably, something has changed; my perspective has shifted; I see something that I did not see before (23).

  • Think about an experience you’ve had as a reader, or even as a viewer of art or a film, or an audience member at a performance. Were you looking for connection or did you find it unexpectedly? What effect did that encounter have?
    • The most recent time this happened to me was when I was reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. It is a series of short stories that all take place in the midwest, and the stories were pretty bleak…dark, depressing, with broken characters. I was reading the last few stories at the park by my house while my daughter played on the merry-go-round, and I found myself narrating what was happening in my head in Campbell’s style.

Felski writes about how we perceive and process the world around us: “we make sense of what is unfamiliar by fitting it into an existing scheme, linking it to what we already know” (25).

  • How did you, as a reader, respond to and engage with Thompson’s story? Was it familiar? In what ways? If it was unfamiliar, how did you bridge the gap between your experiences and his?

Felski quotes Proust, who explains that when we read literature, we also read ourselves:

Cultural history, as well as casual conversation, suggest that recognition is a common event while reading and a powerful motive for reading. Proust famously observes that

every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity (26).

  • Do you think this is true? Think about how we come to understand the world in which we live. Some of what we know comes from our parents or our environment, some comes from direct experience (this can reinforce or challenge what we believe), and we are also influenced by the media, be it television entertainment, news, social networks, advertising…does the desire to better understand yourself (or perhaps a desire for validation or acknowledgement, particularly if you are part of a marginalized group) motivate you to read?
    • Consider how we often define things by what they are not. Felski argues that the “other” is how we come to understand ourselves: “We are fundamentally social creatures whose survival and well-being depend on our interactions with particular, embodied others. The other is not a limit but a condition for selfhood” (31).
    • Felski also suggests that language is what allows mutual experiences to be understood. We take language and bend it to meet our needs, language is how we develop self-knowledge and assert our identities (think about labels, but also how we choose to describe our experiences, or how we adapt to the language used around us in order to participate in conversation and community).

Felski outlines two different experiences of recognition: perception of direct similarity or likeness (38), in which we connect intimately with a character or an event by way of shared identity, voice, or experience; and self-extension (39), where we find hints or aspects of oneself in something unfamiliar, or strange. Both of these are categorized as “affinity,” or likeness, either direct or through more generalized experiences. There is also “allegiance,” which you find yourself in alliance with, or rooting for, a particular character. Of course, sometimes we find no likeness whatsoever, and our differences are reinforced. We experience the character as “other,” which is not a bad thing – this can help us to understand different perspectives and backgrounds, and can also help us understand ourselves better.

One of my favorite statements from Felski in this chapter is this:

We do not glimpse aspects of ourselves in literary works because these works are repositories for unchanging truths about the human condition, as conservative critics like to suggest. Rather, any flash of recognition arises from an interplay between texts and the fluctuating beliefs, hopes, and fears of readers, such that the insights gleaned from literary works will vary dramatically across space and time (46).

In other words, context matters. To Kill a Mockingbird was relevant 50 years ago, and is still relevant today, but we’ll read it differently in 2016 based on recent events.

  • Does this make literature timeless? Can literature play a role in preserving the history of a people, even if it is fiction? How should we handle the teaching of classics versus contemporary and lesser-known literature?

Felski, Rita. “Recognition.” Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 23-50. Print.