As a person sometimes jockeying for arts funding in New Orleans, I find myself occasionally embittered by the sheer number and variety of new arts projects and organizations popping up around town that are explicitly “for the children”—drawing classes for the children, theater for the children, digital claymation for the children, kinetic movement postmodern diaper dance for the children, etc. Almost without fail, the first three questions on applications for arts funding are:
- Social Security Number?
- Way in which your project will benefit the children?
So, I admit, the first time someone mentioned the Big Class project to me, for which elementary students write stories that are accompanied by art by adults and published in a cute little book, I thought, “You know what? Fuck the children.”
I know, I know. I’m a sonofabitch.
But then I was digging through Beth’s Books one day, burning up some store credit before they closed for August, and I came across The Animals, the initial publication by the Big Class project. It was a slim, elegant volume printed on good stock with a handsome cover that featured a nice collage. I leafed through and found the design crisp, the art bright and varied. I began to read one of the stories, “Dancing Zebra,” and it was utterly genius. It was surreal and hilarious, each sentence packed a surprise, and its interaction with the accompanying illustration made it seem like a giddy fever dream.
I took the book home and was delighted to find that “Dancing Zebra” was not an anomaly—most of the stories in the book are good, and some are really good; probably better than half the flash fiction I’ve witnessed churned out of MFA programs. But this is not to disparage the workshop model—Doug Keller, the mastermind behind Big Class—told me that his students who wrote The Animals—who were six years old—wrote, critiqued each others’ work in groups, and revised precisely according to the traditional workshop model.
Keller launched the Big Class project in 2010 in an effort to chip away at the isolation of contemporary schoolkids, locked away as they are in depressing classrooms, cramming for standardized tests that will decide whether their school receives funding the next year. His promise to students—that their work would be published and sold in stores around the city—elicited great enthusiasm among students at Lincoln Elementary School and members of their families, over 150 of whom attended the launch party for The Animals, at which the students read their work and signed copies of the books for their fans.
The best stories in The Animals fall into two categories: the absurd fever dreams like “Dancing Zebra” and “Dog Lion” that begin with unlikely premises then spin off with each phrase further into the realm of the bizarre; and fable-like stories such as “Scary Lion” and “The Mouse Tries to Ride the Bike,” which are playfully didactic while remaining fresh and unformulaic.
Big Class currently has two new projects in the works: a five-book series by the first-graders responsible for The Animals that will cover topics ranging from robots to princes and princesses; and Big Class No. 3: The 504, which will feature personal narratives and photographs from third graders at Batiste Cultural Academy in New Orleans. Big Class is still seeking a handful of artists to help illustrate the stories in The 504, which will be designed by Catherine Burke, who designed Press Street’s How to Rebuild a City: A Field Guide to a Work in Progress. If you are an artist interested in helping with The 504, email “ourbigclass at gmail dot com” or visit Big Class’ Tumblr for more information.
The Animals is available at Beth’s Books, Blue Cypress, Crescent City Comics, Defend New Orleans, Dirty Coast, Fair Grinds, Maple Street Book Shop, McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music, and Octavia Books. It’s also online on Dirty Coast’s site.
Some excerpts from The Animals:
By Asijah Smith
Zebra saw a lady dancing to the ballerina music, so she danced too. She jumped up and danced with the sun (who was singing), and then the sky. Before you knew it, she was dancing with the moon. Then, she jumped down, took a shower and she went to bed. When she woke up, she started dancing again!
The mouse tried to ride the bike but he couldn’t because he was too small. So, he bit the bike wheels. The man came and said “why are there mouse bites in my wheels?” The mouse said “I was trying to ride your bike.” But the man cannot speak mouse!