Book Reports

In what passes for creative work in today’s schools, one of my students, an eighth-grader, has to write a children’s book explaining nuclear proliferation in North Korea. “It’s really depressing,” she said, “because it’s hard to describe nuclear warheads in a way that’s not scary.”

This brought back memories of my own wildly inappropriate book reports. In the sixth grade, we had to read a different type of book each month and then do a different kind of project. Read a book about science, perform a science experiment, read a novel, make a diorama, that kind of thing. I’ve always been terrible at art projects and remember almost erupting in tears while wrestling with a rubber band and some paper clips, trying to suspend a Ken doll I had inadequetely glued to a My Little Pony within a Keds box in a vague representation of one of books in the A Wrinkle in Time triology.

The month we read biographies, the project was a pop-up book. We spent a delightful day in school learning different pop-up techniques, from little doors that slid into pockets to wheels that spun around in little windows to reveal different images to strings you pulled to make things pop up or fall down. We were then instructed to use no less than three different types of pop-ups in our biography pop-up book book reports.

I was a little bit of a go-getter in those days and yet already curious about stories including such grand themes as crime, redemption and a meteoric rise to power. For my biography pop-up book project, I chose The Autobiography of Malcom X.

Rendering the life of Malcom X in pop-up book form might have been daunting for anyone but my eleven-year-old self. I was just a year or two shy of the onslought of hormones that would rob me of my unwavering confidence, a confidence of a purity and certainty I’d never know again without the administration of highly controlled substances. With this prepubescent confidence still propelling me along what I was then certain was a clearly marked path to America’s first female Jewish presidency, I set about making a Malcom X pop-up book that would be sure to earn the only form of approval I knew and desired: a neat, red, ballpoint-pen “A+” gently denting my paper near the very, very top.

At that tender age, the idea that a pop-up book might not be the most respectful manner in which to render the many traumatic and violent events in America’s foremost Black Nationalist leader’s life did not really cross my mind. And so, I began at the beginning. I depicted the violent death of Malcom’s father at at the hands of white supremacists, using the string-pulling technique to make a streetcar run over his already lifeless body. Then, I spent a few pages without pop-ups covering Malcom’s difficult childhood and adolesence. To show his descent into a life of crime, I used the little wheel-in-the-window device we’d been taught. Each turn of the wheel revealed in the Scotch-tape window a different type of crime Malcom had committed: first gambling, then robbery, then drug dealing, then prostitutes, all rendered inexpertly in colored pencil. I remember debating what color to use to draw a mound of white powder meant to represent drugs. A black outline? White pencil on a dark background? The prostitutes looked pretty good, I thought. Pretty Woman had just come out and I gave them all hot pink tank tops and big black boots.

Next, I moved on to Malcom in jail, a perfect opportunity to use the sliding door. You could lock Malcom in his jail cell and then you could open the door and let him out, a changed man with iconic black-rimmed glasses. Finally, I used the pull-string to make Malcom fall to the ground when he was assassinated.

I have a vague memory of reading this book aloud to the class, many of whom had read about atheletes or pop stars or requisite Great American types. I don’t remember their reaction, but I do remember that my efforts were not unrewarded by my teacher, and the Malcom X Pop-Up Book by Little Emily SuperLefty came back with the coveted stamp of approval: an “A+,” and the comment, “Very interesting.”

Two years later, once banished to the suburbs, I would write a book called “A Real Jew” and read it to my entire eighth-grade class in a not-so-veiled defense of my status as the only Jew in the grade not to be bat mitzvahed. It was a true sign of the times that this book was far more contreversial than the pull-tab assassinations and spinning-wheel crime history of the Malcom X pop-up book. Just as I had hoped, a heated discussion ensued about whether Judaism was a cultural or religious category. I also used “A Real Jew”–which remains my first and only hardcover publication–to openly criticize the meaningless, insane spending on bar mitzvahs that was the order of both the day and the county of Nassau. Through my characters, a curious little sister named Aurora and her wise, thirteen-year-old older sister Borealis, I sent a message of hope to all the secular, cultural Jews whose parents abhorred religion and said things like, “Couldn’t you just fucking vomit?” at the mere mention of attending synogague or worse, a catered affair, or still worse, both of these events in rapid succession.

My adventures in writing for children ended shortly after that, almost as soon as they began. Though, had I known that children’s books like this existed, I might have continued a little longer on that path. Maybe “Just a Plant,” will become a series. I might be somewhat qualified to be a guest author.

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