Month: October 2014

Ways In

There are so many ways for young children to enter in to the picture books that we share with and write for them

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Children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus played with this idea of ‘ways in’ last Friday at Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (A Symposium in Honor of William Steig and Atha Tehon) at the U.Penn Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, using some classics to talk about different ways books offer them. He began with perhaps the most obvious (to adult eyes) entry point: a character — animal, child, or even adult — who grabs hold of a child’s heart or imagination through voice, spirit, or predicament. We can think of so many: Max in Where the Wild Things Are, with his defiant push-back against grown up authority and limits; Sylvester in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, who suffers such existential terror and isolation; the Peddlar in Caps for Sale, who’s frustration at the curveball that life — and a batch of monkeys — throws at him is only too familiar to the preschool set.

There are lots of other ways in too, besides character — ways that tap into the particular developmental tendencies of the youngest readers and listeners. As Marcus pointed out The Very Hungry Caterpillar is, frankly, hungry and not much else: what young kids love about this book is less anything about this particular caterpillar than the unique structural aspects of the book and its narrative: the rough and sloppy-seeming collaged illustration that resemble work that young kids themselves might have created; heavy pages with holes for little fingers to probe; favorite food stuffs to identify and “read”, and a predictable, cumulative text, page structure and rhythm. The caterpillar’s transformation is magical, but the journey Eric Carle constructs far surpasses the destination in terms of fun and engagement.


Likewise, Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon lacks a compelling hero. The text and illustrations first set up the space — with all its sweet and relatable detail — and then insert the “Goodnight” ritual: simple and powerful stuff, with seamless, spot on text and illustrations. The book is really more a ritual than a story — about a safe, ordered world and a child’s place in it.


After offering up some of these examples in a pre-symposium panel Marcus, in his keynote, credited the overall idea of  ‘children’s books needing to engage children and leave openings for them to enter in’ to Bank Street College founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s mid-20th century Bank Street Writers Lab. I first tried my hand at writing a children’s book in the 1990’s as my master’s thesis at Bank Street. I had been teaching at The City & Country School — a school founded by Mitchell contemporary and colleague, Caroline Pratt — which was very much steeped in Mitchell’s ‘Here and Now’ argument that children’s books (and study) ought to revolve around and mirror the experiences of the children’s day to day lives and worlds. Mitchell and Pratt’s (and Bank Street’s) philosophies also involved watching children, studying them and learning from them as keys to teaching. While I loved their Progressive ideas about education and schools, though, some of these women’s ideas about children’s literature never quite resonated for me: I struggled, back then, to reconcile my love of books like Sendak’s, Steig’s and Maira Kalman’s, which did not adhere to the here-and-now model.


As I’ve aged (and matured, I hope) I’ve developed an understanding of Mitchell’s ideas as a product of a certain moment in the development of Progressive approaches to education. I remain amazed at how much truth she captured in so many areas, and I’ve retained this great respect for the work and thinking of Bank Street as a whole. Too, I’ve maintained incredible respect for one Writers Lab participant in particular — Claudia Lewis — a poet, writer and teacher who, also in the tradition of Mitchell, writes about the poetry of children’s own language and the ways that we can respond to and incorporate that poetry in our own work for them. Lewis’s ideas were very much in keeping with Mitchell’s ideas about observing and learning from children.

As such a Progressive groupie, though, I still felt this disconnect and disappointment in what seemed, to me, like a rigidity (and lack of playfulness and emotional understanding) in Mitchell’s approach to literature for kids, inasmuch as I understood it. There didn’t seem to be room for the pain and angst of some of my favorite books, nor for the goofiness and fun of others. Marcus’s attribution of this overarching idea of ‘ways in’ to Mitchell had the remarkable effect of quelling the dissonance I’d felt for years: behind her arguments for the ‘here and now’ and for observing children’s behavior and language was this one, unifying notion of the importance of leaving ‘ways in’ in children’s books. I love it — and the room that it leaves for so many other ‘ways in’ that Mitchell didn’t consider or perhaps wasn’t ready for.

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There are more ‘ways in’ too, of course: page turns that breed anticipation and prediction; playful and poetic language and rhythm  that grab kids by their senses; books that stretch their form and demand physical engagement — via textures (Pat The Bunny), or three dimensionality (Jan Pienkowski’s Dinner Time — which is woefully out of print!), or directives that push the envelope of what a book can “do” (like Herve Tullet’s Press Here ). There are illustrations that make us hunt and search and pore over detail (Anno’s various hidden picture books and those of Graeme Base, the Waldo books, Richard Scarry), and illustrations that stretch a story’s text in new and unexpected ways (Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes).


Best of all: if you take this idea of leaving ‘ways in’ to heart and — in the manner of of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Claudia Lewis and their cohort — watch yourself and your children closely as you read, you keep finding more too. Which is a great education in its own right.

Muck-Out Monday 10/14/14


REAL mucking out (or: what we do for fun in central PA)

Notices about posts from blogs that I follow have been accumulating in my inbox for a couple of months now, mostly ignored. Fall, which is a(nother) crazy time around here during an ordinary year, is even more nuts this year by virtue of a panoply of transitions in my family of origin, all taking place 1000 miles away. (I bow, alternately, to the remove that those 1000 miles afford me and to the gift of long distance phone service).

This morning I decided to wade into the muck and see what rose to the surface: the good stuff should have staying power, and should still be good if I read it a few weeks late, even in the blogosphere, right? And so, a little sharing…

First off, there was my inaugural notice from Maria Popova’s fabulous Brain Pickings. I am truly smitten. It included a great reminder about independent Brooklyn publishing house, Enchanted Lion (via Anne Bertier’s Wednesday) and another well-timed short list, “What Books Do for the Human Soul”.



The husband and wife who owned our farm house before the previous owners.

A couple nice posts about the importance of the NAMES we give our characters grabbed me too. This summer my kids and I went name-hunting at an old, country cemetery up the road from our place in central PA. I have fond memories of traipsing around Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philly on a similar quest, years ago, when my sister was first pregnant — and also of doing rubbings of tombstones at some point in my childhood. The practice got validation in both Pat Zietlow Miller’s post on the new, sweet blog, Picture Book Builders, and then in another by Alison Potoma at Writers’ Rumpus (Marianne Knowles, who coordinates Writers’ Rumpus, was the first non-friend, non-family, full-on-stranger to subscribe to Hmmmmm, so she has a special seat at my imaginary kidlit writers’ table). Both offer various examples of how specific name choices work, and are nicely instructive.

Finally, Writers’ Rumpus also hosted a nice piece about what Joyce Audy Zarins calls “Naturalized Diversity”. The bio-metaphor lured me in, and compelling conversation followed. One of the frustrations evident in those NYTimes Op Eds last March by Walter Dean and Christopher Myers and the #weneeddiversebooks hubbub that came later in the spring, was that the conversation about diversity in children’s books has moved so little in so many years: we are still struggling with this most basic problem of under-representation. Zarins — and Matt de la Pena, who she quotes — offers hope in the form of this idea of a future when there is more space for books to move from being about diversity, to simply being diverse, reflecting the worlds we live in.

Meanwhile: I do actually realize that it’s Tuesday today, not Monday. But yesterday was a holiday so today felt like Monday, plus I liked the alliteration; given that there is so much to read, and that I only just began to wade in, I’ll probably be doing this again some real Monday soon.

Tove Jansson and Too-ticky

“Supreme Court Clears Way for Gay Marriage in 5 States”

So read the NY Times message that popped up on my phone this morning — right as I read Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post (thanks for the forward, Deenah) from last week: “Too-ticky’s Guide To Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson”. The dominoes keep falling — hallelujah!


(my desk-dwelling Moomintroll)

I only encountered Tove Jansson (1914-2001) as an adult, and read a bunch of Moomintroll books to my kids (Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Mooninland, Tales from Moominvalley, Moominvalley in November…). Somehow, though, we missed Moominland Midwinter and so, apparently, also gypped ourselves of a fuller acquaintance with Popova’s favorite Jansson character, Too-ticky

The delightful and wise Too-ticky, it turns out, is based on Jansson’s partner/spouse, Tuulikki Pietila. Both were women — hardly the thing in Jansson’s day. Having just read about the Tuulikki/Too-ticky connection, I got a little shiver when the NYT news byte appeared.

It is a lovely post — romantic and smart and full of philosophical Too-ticky quotes — and touches on all sorts of ‘important stuff’, redirecting readers to myriad links that quickly reveal Popova’s Brain Pickings as a rabbit hole of the best sort. Popova is a broad reader, writer and thinker (bio here). Of course: the fact that she mushes kidlit right in there with her grown-up musings and book picks certainly adds to the blog’s charm. (Search “children’s books” there; a bounty awaits!)