Ambiguity in Picture Books & Reaching Adults

PhiladelphiaChickens

Last summer, my nine year old and I – with our new, 7 month-old puppy alternating between laps, my father’s ginormous, 80 year-old, wooden, Penn Yan canoe strapped up top, and a rented U-haul trailer in tow – drove from St. Louis to Philadelphia. We took our time, and for a big stretch of the trip (much of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) Sandra Boynton’s Philadelphia Chickens ended up in the CD player.

It had been a bunch of years since we’d last listened to that music. I couldn’t help hearing Boynton and crew as a sort of Flight of the Conchords Jr.: musically adept and clever – but featuring a little-kid lexicon of farm animals, sweet treats and quotidian routines.

For all that I think about good children’s books, I rarely think about Sandra Boynton. Which is crazy. Because I read my kids’ Boynton favorites literally hundreds of times when they were really little: Belly Button Book, But Not the Hippopotamus, Doggies, Moo,Baa, La La La!, Blue Hat, Green Hat, Birthday Monsters

MooBaLaLaLa

And I wasn’t like some of my friends who ended up hiding the books or worse, so as not to have to read them one more time. I actually liked them. And enjoyed reading them aloud.

Maybe the books were so ubiquitous for parents like me during that time period that they just sort of became invisible. Though the blank spots in my memory could just as easily have been a bi-product of that period’s sleep deprivation.

In any case, Boynton was well ahead of the trend towards low word counts and high cleverness in books for young children — as if she anticipated parents’ ever-tightening schedules and shrinking attention spans. I’d warrant, though, that concern for accommodating parental impatience had little to do with her creating these tight little books. When you consider the greeting cards she first became known for, her board books feel like a natural extension, formally. Plus she’s a smart adult who doesn’t dumb down to kids or write simply to an idea of what a kid is or needs (you can read her short autobiography here). The incredible rhythm and timing of her spare text and artful page turns (not to mention her humor) — seem clearly rooted in her background in performance and music.

Last week when I sorted through my inbox I came across this appreciation, “The Hidden Depths of Sandra Boynton”, in The New Yorker — written by Ian Bogost. Bogost is a video game designer and researcher — and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about technology and pop culture.

His take on Boynton offers a great reminder that children’s books have much to both gain and offer by connecting with the adults who buy and read them aloud. And not just by being short.

ButNotTheHippopotamus

Bogost’s interpretations of But Not The Hippopotamus end up being a shout-out to the power of ambiguity, to that end:

It may seem preposterous to read so much into board books. But why? Art becomes great when its potential meanings multiply, breaking free of obvious uses and even creators’ intentions. On the millionth reading, great children’s books can still offer us something new. They become old friends bearing new secrets.

Hear hear!

 

(And if you make it over to The New Yorker site, check out these other kid lit tidbits that have shown up there recently too: Little Man, by Micheal Cunningham and Re-Reading Children’s Books, a podcast featuring Adam Gopnik, Sarah Larson, Amelia Lester and David Haglund. Oh, and this great piece of kid lit history about Tomi Ungerer, from way back in February.)

 

2 comments

  1. Oh yeah, we love/d her books–especially Moo, Baa, La La La! and Blue Hat, Green Hat. I didn’t love them because they were short but their shortness was definitely part of their cleverness. One reason I think they work so well is that she did both the illustrations and the writing.

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