Exhibits

“a cannibal toward a missionary”

 

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Last week I went to the Rosenbach Museum with a handful of EPA-SCBWI illustrators to say goodbye to Sendak in the Sixties, which closes this weekend and is the final Sendak exhibit before Sendak’s documents head back up to Connecticut.

I don’t often have the time to see an exhibit — of any sort — multiple times; what a treat. On this visit, I  spent some time with Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes — which I don’t ever remember reading before. Sendak takes two simple nursery rhymes and illustrates them into another realm, elaborating on the simple narratives by teasing out and weaving in new layers with his drawings. They book is study-worthy — with the simplicity of the text underscoring Sendak’s artistry.

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Meanwhile, upstairs at the museum in the Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books exhibit, this bit of text was literally writ large on the wall — from A.S.W. Rosenbach in 1907:

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 “Ediblity” was not a “Way In” that had occurred to me before, but I definitely think it could work.

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.

Sendak Recalled

 

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Sendak’s final illustration in Else Holmelund Minarik’s FATHER BEAR COMES HOME

So, having babbled  here a couple of weeks ago about the Rosenbach Museum & Sendak, I am so sad to pass along this headline from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Bulk of Sendak collection leaving Rosenbach”

It seems that Sendak’s bequest to the Rosenbach was not a bequest at all — but just a loan.

His estate is recalling most of the Sendak papers, drawings and other documents currently in the Rosenbach’s possession, as it works out plans to convert Sendak’s former Connecticut home into a still-being-fleshed out study center/museum.

There are new, fantastic gifts arriving from the Sendak estate for the Rosenbach: rare Melvilles and Blakes and more from Sendak’s own collections. And there is a stipulation in Sendak’s will that the Rosenbach and the estate continue to work together, so hopefully some of Sendak’s own work will continue to travel the I-95 corridor, on loan.

Meanwhile: all the more reason to get to the Rosenbach and check out Sendak in the 60’s — while it’s still hanging. (until November 2)

Libraries, Library Cards and Kids Books

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As the youngest of four children I had a couple years one-on-one with my mom before hitting kindergarten. We spent lots of time with books, and afternoons in the Clayton branch of the St. Louis County Library involved me, cross-legged on a thickly varnished wood floor, working my way down a seemingly endless bottom-shelf of picture books. My mom handed down a love of libraries and of literature, and pretty much everywhere I’ve lived since then — even briefly — I’ve gotten a library card.

During the SCBWI 2014 Annual Winter Conference in February I wandered over to the New York Public Library to check out the exhibit, The ABC’s of it: Why Children’s Books Matter (curated by Leonard Marcus and up just until this Sunday, March 23, 2014).

This survey exhibit, drawing on the NYPL’s collections, touches briefly on the relationship between the creation of Children’s Rooms in libraries and the growth of the children’s book publishing industry in the United States in the early twentieth century. Despite my repeat affairs with libraries and my parallel love of children’s literature, it is not a piece of history that I know much about.

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Trolling for more information, I found an article by Jill Lepore — lately in the public eye because of her new Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — which offers a glimpse into the period at the turn of the lst century when Children’s Libraries came to be in the United States. Published in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker and titled “The Lion and the Mouse“, the piece examines the stir between Anne Carroll Moore, the first Superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, and writer E.B. White — around the publication of White’s first book for children, Stuart Little.

(Though the NYPL show mentioned White’s ever-popular Charlotte’s Web, and also Anne Carroll Moore, I didn’t notice anything on Stuart Little or the scuffle between the two.

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The conflict and the book — which Lapore’s read as “an indictment both of the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenalization of American culture” — would have been a complicated addition to the exhibit in any case!)

“The Lion and the Mouse” provided a nice introduction to this piece of history.

Curator Leonard Marcus is also author/biographer/historian Leonard Marcus. I loved his biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon. And I have lately been meandering through another book he edited: Dear Genius, a collection of the letters of Ursula Norstrom, the legendary director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to the mid 1970’s. Nordstrom’s epistles — full of force and character — are a great window onto of an exciting era in children’s book publishing.

On my quest I came across another of Marcus’s books which I haven’t read: Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. This one is a historical survey of Children’s Literature on these soils from colonial times forward. I’m hoping that Minders of Make Believe gives a fuller picture of the co-development of children’s libraries and the beginnings of the modern children’s book publishing industry; a quick review of the contents suggests it will. In any case, I’ve now got a HOLD on it at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

People of Color in Children’s Books

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The cover of this past Sunday’s New York Times ‘Sunday Review’ section asks “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Under this heading, a beautiful pair of opinion pieces — one by author Walter Dean Myers and one by his author/illustrator son, Christopher Myers — take up the question of why it is important to challenge what the younger Myers calls “The Apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth…”.

Walter Dean Myers calls himself “something of a landscape artist.”  Throughout his career he has strived to create landscapes and worlds that offer inner-city youth an opportunity for “… recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowlegement of their value by someone who understands who they are… the shock of recognition at its highest level.” He did not experience this sort of recognition as a young child. Reading James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues”, as a teen was a pivotal moment.”I didn’ t love the story, but I was lifted by it” he says “for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew.”

Christopher builds on his father’s ideas with the notion that children relate to books “less as mirrors and more as maps.” Children “…create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations….. Children of color remain outside the boundaires of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.”

The younger Myers also addresses ‘The Market’ and is critical of how its “demands” are used as an excuse and rationalization for the dearth of children’s books about black people.

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The Myers’ editorials brought to mind exhibits that ran in Philadelphia over this past summer (2013) on Ezra Jack Keats and Jerry Pinkney. Both author/illustrators have devoted their lives and work to tipping the scales back in the other direction, portraying African American children and lives. The exhibits have moved on but, fortunately, good portions of each can be found on line.

Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Organized by the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, it is currently at the African American Museum of Dallas, March 7-May 31, 2014.) Pinkney, a Philadelphia native who grew up in the city’s historic Germantown section, is the patriarch, now, of a family full of great contributors to the world of children’s literature. The PMA exhibit, being at an art museum, focussed on his illustrations — with a cozy library installed near the entrance loaded with Pinkney books for the set that didn’t abide by the ‘please don’t touch’ mandate of a major art museum.

A smaller, companion exhibit at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Drawing on the Reverse Side: The Art and Life of Jerry Pinkney, traced Pinkney’s life from early childhood through college here in Philadelphia: a story of firsts and of pushing through obstacles thrown up by racism. Being the work of the wonderful but chronically-underfunded Free Library of Philadelphia, I couldn’t find much on line about this show, save for a couple of reviews. One in Publishers Weekly, “Move over Rocky: Philadelphia Celebrates Hometown Hero Jerry Pinkney”, gives a nice overview of the interplay of the two exhibits. The book accompanying the PMA exhibit — Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney — provides good biographical background too.

At the same time, The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats ran at the National Museum of American Jewish History. (Organized by the Jewish Museum on New York City, it is opening at the Skirball Cultural Center in LA on April 10, 2014.) The bulk of the exhibit’s content is on its website. To contextualize The Snowy Day‘s publication and the arrival of Keats’ Peter — an African American boy — in the world of children’s literature, one section of the exhibit examined how African Americans had been represented in American picture books prior. This bit of history also provided good context for Pinkney’s life and work.

Keats and Pinkney have each created numerous books that mirrored the landscapes of African American children and offered new maps, working to create “cartographies that have no blind spots” in the world of children’s literature. The lives and work of both stand out, with hope, against the statistics and stories cited in the Myers’ editorials; their lived stories — and the life stories of Walter Dean and Christopher Myers — are good maps for the next generations of children’s book writers and illustrators to take up this struggle.