Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter! With Just a Little about CPSIA and Vintage Books

This Easter, as I have for every Easter I can remember, I read The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, with illustrations by Margery Flack (the author-illustrator of the Angus books I've written about before), and as always, the book warmed my heart and gave me a burst of energy and determination to be kind to children in need.

The main character of this 1939 classic is well-ahead of her time. She's dark-furred, raised in an impoverished environment, left a single parent of 21 children - yet she manages to succeed in a privileged, white-furred all-male world as one of the five designated Easter Bunnies. She triumphs because not only is she wise, kind, and swift, as all Easter Bunnies must be, she is unusually sensitive to the needs and abilities of children and possessed of courage and determination (okay, and she's the timely recipient of a pair of magic gold shoes, but a stroke of good fortune has cemented many a success story). 

The copy of this book from my childhood technically belonged to my older sister, and when she left home to raise her own family, she took it with her. (The country bunny was a role model for all the females in my family, so I couldn't really blame her.) I immediately acquired the used paperback (below, in pink) because it wouldn't be Easter without the country bunny! And I was delighted when I found the used hardcover a few years later. My own kids have grown up loving the book - and peeky eggs, which are a prominent object in the story.
Both of these books predate the 1985 "safety date" under CPSIA (and the paperback is actually older) but both are in good shape, and I'm planning to pass them along to my future grandkids. In fact, I'm probably going to order a few more hardcovers this week while they're still easy to find, because these old ones are so much nicer than the new ones. You can get a new hardcover from amazon for about $12, but there are vintage ones beginning at $4, and even a 1939 edition for a mere $10. 
The old ones are bound in a lovely yellow bookcloth. The above is a close up of the bunny image from the cover. I do not have the dust jacket for my book, but it looked a lot like the paperback cover I believe.
Margery Flack's illustrations have the same beautiful graphic quality that they do in the Angus books, and I'm so impressed with how much she manages to do with the color in spite of the limitations of hand-done color separations. Flack's work is always notable for the way she integrates the text and illustrations and the expressive postures of her animal characters, and this book is no exception. I particularly loved the detail in these books - each of the 21 offspring of the country bunny is a distinct individual. In the vintage copies, the paper is heavy and the colors rich.

I was so enamored of the peeky egg in this book that I eventually learned how to make them with my kids. In fact, one of my first ever blog entries was about making them - you can read it here.  (By the way, I no longer worry about getting salmonella from eggs, since I learned about how remote the chances are - see this post from Deputy Headmistress.)
The peeky egg on the shelf above was made by Jacob, the son of my kids' book collaborator Julie Stiegemeyer (see her blog here). He did a great job, and I bring it out every year to enjoy again. The eggs will last ages as long as you keep sugar fiends like my dog (and me) out of licking range.
Children's books are always a key feature of my holiday decorating. This year I also decorated my shelves in different colors - but I didn't have a good Easter book for the blue shelf above - any suggestions?
The nice thing about having a late Easter was that we had so many things in bloom to brighten the table.

I realized this year as I finished my reading of The Country Bunny that she not only influenced my career choices and the attitudes I've tried to cultivate in my own kids, but apparently my choice of house - I noticed that her little cottage with its arched door and leaded windows looks an awful lot like my own home. Even her kitchen hutch is mighty familiar. 

Those old kids' books really pack a wallop. (Be sure to check out the reader reviews on amazon - I'm not the only one with strong feelings about this book!)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books: The Rally Update and More

Souvenirs from the April 1, 2009 Amend the CPSIA rally

The cherry blossoms fluttered and the gray skies threatened rain while hundreds of folks gathered to speak with reason, common sense, and determination against the well-intentioned but gone-all-wrong CPSIA  in Washington on April 1st, and thousands more watched by webcast. My daughter and I felt lucky to be at the rally (especially after our GPS quit working, we missed our freeway exit, and then got lost again looking for the entrance to the parking garage at Union Station). 

I hope I managed to do right by children and their books.

As will surprise no one who has known me since my grade school days, I talked too long. (When Rick Woldenberg stood up and started inching toward me I knew I'd better wrap up quickly - sorry Rick!) But I had to speak for so many - for used booksellers, for libraries, for schools and homeschoolers, for childcare centers, for literacy groups, for historians and social scientists, for art and knowledge, and of course for children - that it was pretty much impossible to cram everyone's messages into a mere four minutes.  Heck, just listing all those interested parties takes almost four minutes. But I do apologize if I trod on anyone else's time, because all our messages are important.

Overall, the rally left me very encouraged. I lent my copy of the speaker schedule to a congressional staffer and realized too late that I'd never gotten it back, but there were speakers from many of the businesses, large and (mostly) small, hurt by the over-reaching provisions of this law, experts in risk management and material science, homeschoolers with their kids, an eloquent six-year-old promising not to eat his dirt bike, and a host of senators and representatives (all Republican, which annoyed me as a Democrat). Speaker after speaker was calm and reasonable, well-spoken, and utterly compelling. I was disappointed and confused that no one from ALA or the American Association of Publishers showed up, and I'm still wondering why not. We do all have to pull together for one another and not just fight this law piece by piece because one way or another we all pay for it - and if we're going to be putting out that much money in the mission of protecting kids from lead, I can think of much, much better ways to spend it.

Over and over, the congressmen acknowledged the unintended consequences of the bill they voted for, told us they heard us and understood, spoke of common sense and making things right. I had to leave before things wrapped up to make my scheduled appointment with Senator Arlen Specter's legislative staffer, but I felt optimistic, and even a teeny bit like my march on Washington had probably been unnecessary, that everything would be fixed before long. 

That feeling lasted long enough for me to find my way from HVC201 to a small conference room in Specter's office, where my daughter and I had a long discussion with a well-informed staffer who listened carefully to our concerns - but then told us frankly that the law was unlikely to be changed. Any law is hard to reverse once it's been implemented, she said, and their office was hearing from folks on both sides. 

"Really?" I said. "Who on the other side are you hearing from? Because I've gone door-to-door in a middle-class neighborhood full of NPR-listening moms with advanced degrees, I've waylaid dozens of "safety moms" at a nearby upscale mall, and I've chatted up teachers, librarians, children's nonprofit staffers, doctors and nurses, and other mental health professionals (in other words, the people most likely to know about and/or care about CPSIA) - and not one of them had even heard of this law. And after I explained to them what the law covers and how it affects things like consignment and thrift stores, garage sales, charitable donations, children's books at the library, bicycles, and the availability and price of their favorite consumer goods for their kids, their reactions ran the gamut from 'That's insane!' to 'They'll never enforce it.' Not one thought the law was a good idea. So I'm very curious about who these folks are on the other side."

She hemmed and hawed and finally half-admitted it was the consumer groups. But Senator Specter does not represent the consumer groups. He represents me and the ordinary people like me who care about our kids but who have to live in the real world. And there's not much about this law that works in the real world.

I was very, very pleased to see that Specter voted for the DeMint amendment when it came up for a vote the next day, and also pleased that his staffer sent me an email about his vote (I'd already called his office to thank him and her). I doubt that my arguments alone were responsible for that vote, but I think I may have at least nudged him in that direction.

Senator Casey's staffer had accidentally double-booked my time slot, so I presented my case as we scurried from one office to another. She too listened well, though seemed less well-informed (trotting out my least favorite reassurance - "I don't think they'll enforce the law against books"). She was also skeptical that the law would be changed, and more or less said that businesses that make kids' products will just have to adapt to the realities of the law as they get sorted out in the next year or so.

Casey voted against the DeMint amendment the next day. I called to express my disappointment.

While I'm on my soapbox again (it takes so little to get me going), I'm going to remind Congress and the CPSC that selective enforcement is a very, very bad idea. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss's Horton the Elephant, you have to "Say what you mean and mean what you say." Every effective parent quickly figures out that empty threats get you in deep doo-doo faster than you can say PB&J. If the CPSC enforces the CPSIA only when they feel like it, no one will have respect for the rule of law - any law - and no one will feel safer as a result of the CPSIA because the promises behind it are hollow or unpredictable. 

My representative in the House, Tim Murphy, was unavailable to meet with me, but I have spoken with his legislative aide on the phone. Murphy, himself a clinical psychologist and author of parenting books, supported the CPSIA wholeheartedly (even wanted to extend the provisions to pet products). I'll keep working on him.

Later I joined the two Oregon delegates (a whole group of crafters and small businesses pooled resources to send two spokeswomen) and the compliance director for Alex Toys (which I remember as excellent products from my own kids' younger days) in meeting with a representative from Oregon, Kurt Schrader, who generously let all of us present our cases and asked good questions. He seemed receptive and open to at least voting for one of the amendment bills. 

The final NJ congressman we tried to visit was unavailable, but we all left materials for him.

I've put the slightly revised 2-page handout that I left for my congressmen on, a file-sharing site. Anyone who cares to can print it out or email attached copies of my file to their congressmen or the media freely. You can access the document here. If you like it, please mark it as a favorite; I think that helps it get a higher ranking so that it has a better chance of being a featured document and getting a wider audience.

Soon I hope to post a longer version of the handout with the citations for my facts that you can use to back up your points if asked, as well as a shorter one page summary.

Since I got home, I've been asking myself, "What next?" I don't really know the answer. Plugging away with the same approaches may ultimately get results, but so much is teetering on the edge now that I'm not sure we can afford just to be patient and doggedly persistent. The rally was amazing and seemed so successful to me, but the press coverage has hardly been overwhelming. The public remains largely ignorant or misinformed. I'd like to believe that non-enforcement, the "solution" that both the CPSC and Congress keep pushing for small businesses, libraries, and all those hit by "unintended consequences" will work, but I just can't.

Any great ideas out there? Or half baked ones? Or silly Seussian ones?

Courage is not my middle name, and Politics is not my last. I have never before gone to Washington to fight for anything I believed in, but I'm so glad I did this time. I'd like to thank Rick Woldenberg and all the folks who put together this rally and the amendthecpsia website. I'd also like to thank Walter Olson of who has tracked this law and its impact so thoroughly. (It was very exciting to meet all these people; bright, organized, hardworking, and passionate all of them.) And I'm deeply appreciative of all those who made the effort to come (I met another book-loving family - homeschoolers from California who gave up a day of their vacation to attend) and all those who couldn't make the trek but watched from home or followed online accounts. Thank you for your good wishes and nice comments; they mean a great deal to me.

I'll close with this quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead:
 "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." 

Friday, April 03, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books: My Comment to Consumer's Union

Drawing by Jessie Willcox Smith from The Little Mother Goose, with thanks to Project Gutenberg  

Consumer's Union blog has a very inaccurate account of the rally (really quite bizarre at times - don't know what rally they attended, but it wasn't the same one I did). You can read it here. 

There are lots of great comments from people who were really there, but I had to add my two cents too (especially since so far they haven't seen fit to post my comments, though in fairness they've posted plenty of others that are critical):

Um, you forgot to mention speakers like me. I do not represent any organization or industry, I paid my own way to the rally and gave up a day of work to attend and speak at it, and what's more, I was even arguing contrary to my self-interest. I write and illustrate new children's books, the ordinary kind currently enjoying a stay of enforcement - it would be to my advantage to have libraries and schools throw out their old books and have to buy new ones like mine to replace them. I was there to argue for what I believe is best for children, particularly for the most disadvantaged in our society who suffer disproportionately from lead poisoning. This law gets it wrong on so many fronts.


I have my doctorate in clinical child psychology from the University of Virginia and graduated magna cum laude from Yale with distinction in psychology. I am not an idiot and I am well aware of the potential hazards of lead poisoning for children, especially for the youngest ones. I also know that the research on lead is more complex than is commonly acknowledged by consumer organizations like yours. The truth is that lower SES kids are at greater risk of lead poisoning, and this discrepancy has persisted even as efforts by the CDC and other agencies to reduce sources of environmental lead (in lower income areas as well as others) have been enormously successful. Part of the reason that lower SES kids are at greater risk is because they still live disproportionately in older homes with lead-containing dilapidated paint and to play in areas with lead in the soil (the CPSIA does nothing to help with those on-going issues). But there are many other variables that also put low SES kids at greater risk -- and I can assure you that higher rates of exposure to books, high quality handmade toys, bicycles and ATVs, ballpoint pens, organic clothing, and one of kind artwork are NOT among them - and yet these blameless items are disproportionately being affected by CPSIA, which also means they won't be around in 5 years to be passed along through thrift stores and give-away programs to kids who could really use them. Instead the law does NOTHING to address the very real measures we could take to reduce the absorption of and harm by lead in the young children from lower SES populations, including improving their nutrition (low calcium and iron levels lead to higher absorption rates), providing support to improve parenting practices (neglected and abused kids suffer higher rates of lead poisoning even when controlling for SES; and kids whose parents have poor housekeeping practices have higher rates, again controlling for SES), and improving the mentally stimulating quality of the child's environment through providing high quality child care, book distribution programs coupled with instruction on sharing books with children, and programs to distribute toys that promote physical exercise (like bicycles) and encourage brain development (a mentally stimulating environment both prevents and treats the harmful effects of lead at low to moderate blood lead levels). The CPSIA not only doesn't help with these proven effective measures, it actually hinders them, putting an end to bike distribution programs, closing down the children's sections in affordable thrift stores, and raising the prices of all consumer goods for children, so that low income parents have less money to spend on high quality food, toys and books. By banning the sale of inexpensive older used books, removing them from libraries, schools and daycares, and raising the costs of the new ones purchased by literacy programs, the CPSIA snatches books and the chances for better school achievement from the hands of low income kids as surely as the Grinch plucked the books and toys from the Whos down in Whoville.


Way to go, Grinch.


P.S. You are correct that the law only addresses children's products. But if this law were in fact necessary, then you'd have to ban lead in adults' products as well. Children are actually at the greatest risk of lead poisoning prenatally, when it's Mom's exposure that matters, and they further come into contact with items intended for adults or the whole family every day. When you decide that minimal lead exposure is important enough to take away American's automobiles (aka lead machines - with lead in everything from the batteries to the steel to the brakes to the weights used to balance the wheels) then I'll start to think you at least believe in what you are saying.


I'd also like to see you recommend that all American families discard all their current children's products and household goods unless they get them tested - obviously necessary if you believe that retroactive application of the law is so essential that even during a severe recession thrift stores can't sell a pair of jeans to a 10 year old.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

CPSIA Rally Update Coming - I'm Whupped

I'd like to thank everyone who left words of encouragement for me over the last couple of days; your good wishes are much appreciated, and I hope I did well by all of you. My plan had been to get everyone updated this evening, but I'm going to have to ask for your patience until tomorrow. 

Yesterday was a LONG day for me and my daughter. We got up at 3:30 a.m. to drive to DC and didn't get home until 10:30 last night - and then because I was speaking at a literacy organization midday today,  I had to get up early and spend the morning preparing for that and the afternoon catching up a bit on various things. I'm so tired now I'm heading to bed with a good book.

Publishers' Weekly interviewed me last night about the rally as I was getting ready to head home, and though I'm sorry they couldn't use most of what I told them, the article is excellent coverage - and more than a little worrisome for new books too. You can read the article here.

I was/am a bit disheartened about what my senators' staffers told me about the likelihood of the CPSIA being amended - but it does sound like other rally people felt more hopeful after meeting with their congressmen, so overall that's encouraging. And the staffers I spoke with were not only polite and listened, I think they are genuinely willing to learn more. Please everyone, don't let up now - keep working to get this law changed, sooner rather than later.

Okay, more tomorrow.