Monday, January 18, 2016

The Power of Picture: A Children's Book Victory (and Defeat)

Hot in the news today is the story of the Jan. 2016 release of children's book "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" by author Ramin Ganeshram. Typical to the genre, it features gorgeous illustrations and a story about a subject as benign as a father and daughter baking a birthday cake. Not so harmless is the fact that said family are slaves to founding-father George Washington. It's getting terrible reviews, being largely criticized as insensitive to the truths of slavery, and was pulled by Scholastic Books.

Compare that with last Jan. 2015 release of "A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat" by Emily Jenkins. Beautiful illustrations by Sophie Blackall tell the story of a family recipe which had its origins from an ancestor who was a slave, the dessert then passed down to modern time. The reviews for Jenkins' book are very high, receiving high praise from such sources as School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.  

What accounts for the difference in the story's receptions?

Much of the criticism of the "A Birthday Cake" rises from insensitive treatment of the subject of slavery. At one point, the slave Hercules seems to be proud of his enslavement when he defers praise from Washington and instead replies that it has been his honor. Only one example of dialogue that may mislead reader's about the horrors of slavery, the book seems to have been attempting to show that in the dark and depressing world of a slave it was still possible to rise above the conflict and feel purpose and pride in one's work. It failed and instead seems to justify the practice by showing that it wasn't so bad to be a slave as long as you were Washington's slave.

"A Fine Dessert" avoids the perils of justification and instead weaves a tale showing that something good came out of something very bad. 

In my opinion, Ganeshram liked the idea of a parent sharing a recipe with their child, a story that was well liked and sold many, many copies (it was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book) and attempted to apply that format to her own kind-of-original idea. I'm not saying she stole the idea, but the similarities are too stark to ignore.

The victory for children's book authors world-wide is the fact that these picture books, though simple in text and pretty to look at, they still carry power. Every news outlet covered this story today. Maybe it was only because of the mishandling of a sensitive topic, but the truth of the matter is that on this day, a children's book ruled the media.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"Making A Murderer": What It Missed; or, Your Outrage Is Misplaced

You May Have Heard...

...about a show on Netflix call "Making a Murderer." I'd read about it on Netflix's "Trending" category and after ignoring it for a few weeks, finally clicked and watched on Wednesday night. I couldn't stop watching. Three hours passed and I was screaming at the television "I can't believe this!" By 2 am I needed to get to sleep so I turned off the television, but my involvement with the show didn't end there. All through the night I kept trying to tell myself, "This isn't real. I'm getting Blair-Witched. This is going to be fake." I was bothered by the corruption, the lack of respect for a simple family, and most of all, the apparent lack of protocol being displayed by the law enforcement agency in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Wednesday was a wasted day. I felt like I was doing something important by witnessing the plight of Steven Avery, so the least I could do was devote my time to show, right? I consumed the remaining 7 episodes and was left slack jawed and angry when episode 10 rolled it's final credits. I immediately whipped out my smart phone and started to search details about the case, the defendants and the prosecution. 

There Must Be More to the Story, Right?

Apparently the rest of America was doing the same thing, because I had only missed by one day this interview on Megan Kelly on Fox News. (BTW: don't open that link unless you've seen the entire series. Major Spoilers!) The film makers appeared on the Today Show to discuss it. Petitions were being distributed to the White House (and the most meaningless yet popular vehicle for making one's self feel like they are doing something without actually getting

It was Really Good TV

But after a few minutes of searching, I had the answers I needed to calm the flip down and take a breath (see below--again, with major spoilers). So what did I gain from the experience? This Guardian article does a good job explaining it, but I'll summarize it for you: it was dang good television. The way the film makers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi put this show together, the way they revealed characters, delved into motivation, introduced evidence (and in some cases, left it out) played out like the best season of television I've ever seen. Remember, I was yelling at the television. I can't remember ever doing that for a scripted show.

So watch it. Definitely watch it. But leave it there. Why? 

(Spoilers coming!)

Because Avery and Dassey did it. Yes, the Manitowoc County officials screwed the pooch. So much conflict of interest. So much! But that doesn't change the fact that there was a very vital piece of evidence left out of the show that clearly condemned Avery and Dassey--the bleached jeans (see Megan Kelly link above) 

Dassey admitted in the interrogation that he and Avery used bleach to clean up after the murder, and that he had bleached stained jeans to prove it. He lead the prosecution to the jeans and they were presented in court against Dassey. That's it, folks. They did it. No amount of police manipulation could have led to Dassey creating a pair of bleached jeans used in the clean up of a murder. The pants are the missing link, and in my mind, that solves it.

All the Other Stuff

After that, all the allegations of planted evidence disappears. The FBI test that showed no traces of anti-coagulant in the blood left in the RAV4 adds up. The RAV4 being on the Avery property makes sense. "What about the deleted phone calls!" you say? "The room mate and ex-boyfriend admitted to hacking Teresa's phone!" "They inserted themselves into the search efforts, and every mystery novel I've ever read teaches us that means they did it!" Well, Avery would have had her phone, and as you know, you don't need a password to access voicemail from your own phone. Avery pulled up his voicemail from it, deleted his messages, and tossed the phone. 

With the bleached pants, all this falls into place. Avery and Dassey did it.

What the Documentary Missed

If you still feel a sense of outrage, I'm going to go out and say this, and it won't make you happy: your outrage is misplaced. You shouldn't be mad at the Manitowoc County Bumblers, or The System. You should direct your anger Demos and Riccairdi. 

By leaving out the bleached pants, the film makers intentionally manipulated the viewer into believing that Avery and Dassey had been wronged, when the true victim, Teresa Halbach and her family, are pretty much left without mention. Leaving the questions unanswered and the innocence of Avery and Dassey up to the viewer, they have shifted your sympathy from victim to assailant. That makes me sad. A quick look around the web produced no info about Teresa or her life. Nothing. That should make you sad, too. 

Sometimes a documentary will tag on information about a memorial site on the end of their movie/show to at least recognize the role of the victim in their piece, but this wasn't the case with "Making a Murderer." So I say, consider donating to a photography organization that promotes women in the field, something that Teresa may have appreciated. Do it in her name. (Here are a couple places you could start: Women in Photography International Professional Women Photographers) Allow your outrage to do something positive in her memory. That is what the Netflix documentary missed.