OK, friends. The time has come to turn our attention to the big, bad world of children’s books.
There is so much to discuss about children’s books that I can hardly contain it all; we may have to break the whole thing down into a few columns, like deep and intensive dental work done over several appointments. Ready?
Wait! Let me first say that I am very grateful for children’s book writers. Thank God for Richard Scarry. He should be sainted; I hope he is in heaven crashing his carrot car into Wild Bill Hiccup’s bull car and generally having a fantastic time.
With that said, however, children’s books are a weird medium. As an art, they are really most akin to plays, but children’s book writers never seem to want to acknowledge this. They don’t want to work with the understanding that they are writing a text that has to operate for two separate groups: first the director/actor, i.e., adult reader; and then the audience, i.e., child.
Instead, children’s books are generally written for an adultchild, that is, an adult and a child, but—as the fabulous “Book of Mormon,” song goes—mostly an adult. This smushed together, adultchild audience is a construct that isn’t in danger of being undone anytime soon, however, because most adults who read children’s books do not want to fully take on the role of being the adult, i.e., the director/actor. They want to think about whether the book appeals to them or not. For this reason, and also because adults are the ones who have the money and buy the books in the first place, adults are the children’s book’s most important audience. Adults read these books to their children, often many, many times, and it is they who bring the books to life, and make decisions with the text, such as which parts should be highlighted, de-emphasized, or perhaps even skipped altogether.
A good children’s book, for this reason, should strive to have a deep appeal rather than a broad one. It should aim to make its way through the adult process and still have something left for the child. This is a very challenging set of constraints to consider making art for, and it’s no surprise that many children’s books don’t end up going that far. It’s enough work to just appeal to an adult, and to that end many children’s books incorporate themes that are flattering to adults and messages that are reassuring to them, and then stop.
And yet, in this adult-centric world of children’s books, it’s not like adults are gleefully lording their power over children. It’s not like adults are standing there saying, “Yeah, I am so the director/reader here, and I am totally going to filter this mind-blowing piece of text through to Junior right now, and I am going to rock it like Robert Wilson doing Heiner Muller at BAM.”
No. For all the work that has been done to make children’s books appealing to the adultchild that is mostly an adult, the reading process is more like, “Oh, this is a nice book for my child: ‘There goes a rabbit hopping through the woods, and then the rabbit fell fast asleep. The End.’”
Why the heck is this like this? If we are going to get our consciousnesses all mixed up and lumped together, fine, but let’s at least admit what we are doing. If adults want to read things to children that appeal to themselves, then go ahead already. Just say, here is a book about how to put up a Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System. Come here, honey, let’s read this. Parents get the info they want and need to put their shelves up, and children get—well, not a story about how nice childhood is, that’s true; but they may get something else they want and need, which is snuggling with a parent who is interested in knowing how to put up their shelves properly, and is sharing that interest with his/her kid, which is why the “Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System Planning Guide” may be as good if not a better reading experience with your child than plowing through another book about bears and their problems. Because if you read the Vitsoe Guide to your child, you will have to do it with the clear understanding that you are the director/reader and intended audience, and with that clarity, you won’t be able to hide. You will have to do the work. You will have to act like an adult reading and presenting text meant for an adult, to a child, instead of being an adultchild reading text to an adultchild, when—hello, people—neither adultchildren really exist. Adults and children exist together, sometimes confusedly.
If you look at it that way, in fact, and you try to conduct yourself with this kind of commitment to your role as director/reader to a child audience, there really isn’t anything that wouldn’t make good children’s literature as long as the content is not harmful to children. If you are excited about and interested in Jerrry Saltz’s recent column about Morley Safer in New York magazine, then there is no reason you can’t read that to your kids as long as you take the time to provide the context for it so they can understand it, because no one likes to experience the listening to a text when they don’t understand why it is relevant or meaningful: remember school?
Because this is really what it’s about in the end: what is meaningful. And just to throw the entire thing out the window for a minute, I am not sure that the type of story that is read to children matters much to them, anyway. What is likely more meaningful to children in the warm, wonderful, being-read-to, adultchild theatre, is probably something along the lines of whether or not the child feels connected to the adult, because the child loves the adult; and they do this for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is because they are small and helpless and they have to.
So maybe in the end, what we read to children isn’t that important; it’s not what we read, it’s how we read it, and in that way, I would hope that adults would read to children with a clear understanding of who they are and who the child is. But it seems to me that children’s books don’t do much to clarify this; in fact, they make it more confusing.
And to circle around to my very first point, which, in case you’ve forgotten it by now, is how much I love children’s book writers and children’s books, the fact is that I also love reading them and thinking about why one children’s book is better than another. And if you are reading this web site, I expect you like things like that, too. So in the spirit of that, and in the name of enjoying ourselves because life is short, let’s have a quick children’s book smackdown.
Today’s battle will pit:
The Little Fur Farmily by Margaret Wise Brown, (1946)
Thank You, Bear by Greg Foley, (2007)
If you have children, you probably know The Fur Family, because it was written back in the Stone Age by Margaret Wise Brown, she of the positively creepy, Norman-Bates-ian maternal force that makes damn sure that the Runaway Bunny goes nowhere, thank you very much.
But this is not about that children’s classic, the sales of which could probably put my own children through college ten times over. This is about The Little Fur Family, which I myself owned. I remember having a tiny copy that was covered in grey fur, and who doesn’t like fur-covered books?
In any case, The Little Fur Family is a quest. A “fur child”—a bear, as we see in the illustrations—goes outside his tree-house and encounters, in order: his grandpa, a fish, a ladybug, and “a little fur creature,” just like himself, which he watches run into a hole in the ground. The child then runs home to eat dinner and go to bed, where his father holds his mother’s hand, and his mother holds his hand, and his parents, thus arranged, sing him a song.
In the other corner of the ring, Thank You, Bear, was written comparatively recently by Greg Foley, who is the creative director of Visionaire, the expensive, limited-edition, art and fashion periodical founded in 1991. (I’m sorry, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that Thank You, Bear and Visionaire rhyme so neatly; could someone possibly smush them together into one crazy, bear-filled, adultchild, art/fashion publication?) Thank You, Bear, like Visionaire, is beautifully done, in a large hardcover format with so much white space around the images that looking at a page feels like studying an ancient Japanese brush painting presented under glass at the Morgan Library.
There is a stylistic Japanese element about Thank You, Bear as well; whereas The Little Fur Family, is a quest, Thank You, Bearis a koan: what is nothing great and the best thing ever? An empty box. Thank you, Grasshopper.
If we are going to talk in pure smackdown terms, though, Thank You, Bearhas it over The Little Fur Family, if only because of the main characters. The fur child clearly comes from—this being Margaret-Wise-Brown world—an overbear-ing (forgive me) family, which he emerges from and then very quickly returns to, whereas the Thank You Bear long ago left home and is walking around the Conde Nast building with his cool, floppy haircut showing his new project to 17 different animals for their approval and remaining resilient while getting repeatedly shot down. Who would you rather have a root beer with after work? Thank You, Bear, no contest.
Maybe a better way to judge a book, though, is not by the text itself, but by the time/place where you are reading. In that light, if you are reading on a George Smith sofa in grandma’s apartment on the Upper West Side, you should read The Little Fur Family. If you are reading in a contemporary two-bedroom in Chelsea with a Christopher Wool painting nearby, you should read, Thank You, Bear. If you are reading in a car in the A&P parking lot, you should read one of the following wormholes on your phone. These are a few of the amazing ones I received from readers in response to the wormhole column. Thank you so very much for sending them, people!
From: Chris Glatz,
Durham, North Carolina
Around the time that I started school, I developed an intense fear of the police. The fear was baseless: middle-class kids from law-abiding families in quiet, safe neighborhoods have no reason to be scared of cops. But I had it in my head that if you were unlucky enough to run into one, he snatched you up and took you to jail forever. (Somebody needs to teach a civics class for neurotic kindergarteners, because if someone had explained due process to me I would have relaxed a little). As I sat through DARE meetings listening to Larry the Lion tell me about safety, I was convinced that it was a ploy to get us all in one room so they could take out my whole class at once. I sat in the back and watched the exits. Later I drew maps of the school and wrote a detailed list of steps on what to do if captured. They included brilliant tactics such as “hide” and “yell a swear word.”
From: Miles Corkern,
Your wormholes remind me of sleeping at my grandparents house in rural Louisiana on summer trips. My brother and I would stay in my dad’s old room. After my brother went to sleep (my brother has always been the kind of person who begins sleeping as soon as his head hits the pillow, while I have always been the kind of person who lays awake and frets about… well, anything) I would stare at the bedroom walls. My grandparent’s home was rustic and the walls were literally large, unfinished logs. My father’s room had two felt school pennants hanging on the wall opposite of the bed. I can’t remember which schools that the pennants were from, but at night they would literally come alive. The ends of both pennants would slowly curl up and back, like a cat flicking its tail as it watches a squirrel. The movement was not subtle, almost half of the pennant’s length was involved. And it was not what you would see from a draft or a trick of the light. It was more like the slow deliberate beckoning of an index finger.
Naturally I would stare at the pennants all night in complete horror. During the day, while my bother was present and awake, I would inspect the pennants to try to find some explanation for their movement. I was terrified to find that both ends were securely fastened to the wall with thumb tacks, and therefore the motions that I observed where basically impossible. Even so, every night I would stare and watch, terrified as the pennants would slowly start their serpentine movement. It started with just a flick, and progressed to full on nightmare-quality writhing.
Looking back I realize that although I felt awake, I was probably half asleep, in some semi-conscious dreamlike state… I think of my oldest son who went through a phase of being terrified of balloons. Not because he was afraid that they would pop, but because he had let go of a balloon once and watched as it disappeared in the sky. He was so frightened. At first I thought it was because the balloon was lost. But as we spoke about it, he seemed to be bothered by the concept of a seemingly infinite sky that could engulf an object. It was not that the balloon was gone from his life, it was his sudden realization that the universe was so large, that by comparison everything else in his life was tiny and fragile.
Boonton, New Jersey
My baby brother, now 25, when he was three and I was nine, refused to take a shower. He would take a bath, and perhaps it is fine for many three year olds to only take baths, but he was the baby and no one really wanted to hang out with him while he futzed in the tub.
But the reason he would take a bath but not a shower was because he believed that there were monsters down the drain, but he also believed that our drain stopper was sufficient barrier that the monsters could not get through. He called this little piece of flat rubber a “monster stopper.”
This went on for a long while, and because my mother worked nights and my father was neglectful when he wasn’t being abusive, figuring out the bath often fell to my sister and me. Eventually, my baby brother’s terror having spread beyond the drain to the dark hallway, the closet, the basement, I decided that the best way to help him out was to meet him on his own terms. If the monster stopper could keep the monsters from coming out of the drain, I would devise a monster stopper that could move with this little boy.
I told him all about my plan, advising him that I could create a force field of sorts that he wouldn’t be able to see or feel, but would stop monsters from touching him. I created this force field by rubbing my hands together and adding strategic noise (something akin to the sound the Star Trek transporter made, if the transporter noise were made by a nine-year-old girl making a bzhhhh sound). I spun this force field out around him, over his head, behind his back. I even made him hop as high as he could so that I could close it off underneath his feet.
And it worked. He was satisfied that his portable monster stopper would work. In explaining the properties of this invisible monster stopper, I told him that it would wear off after 4-6 months, and over the next few years he would periodically ask for a renewal, and I would rub my hands and make my bzzhhh noise, and renew his fearlessness for a little while longer.
Until next time,