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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

4 comments

    1. yes.
      i had never heard leonard marcus speak before — just read a batch of his books. pretty amazing depth and breadth to his knowledge and thinking about this field.
      i keep wondering: are there actually any OTHER kid lit historians out there?

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