This winter I helped put together a list of picture books organized around the four seasons. The books will live at an organization I’m involved with, Smith Memorial Playhouse & Playground — one of those quirky, only-in-Philly, historic institutions that Philadelphia boosters love to tout as an example of what makes Philadelphia so great (which it does).

When Smith came into existence in 1899, it was a radical proposition. A mansion-sized playhouse? (16,000 s.f.) Set in a sprawling, wooded, urban park?! With a 6.5 acre playground!?! Open to ALL KIDS !?!? For free!?!?!


Smith Playhouse (

At the turn of the last century, massive urbanization and child labor sparked new ideas about childhood and the importance of play, and the Playground Movement found great supporters in Richard and Sarah Smith, who built the place in memoriam to their late son, Stanfield.

Smith playground Smith Slide

Smith remains a radical proposition today. Visitors still play there at no charge, and you find an amazing degree of socio-economic and racial diversity. Like the city’s public library system – which came into being in roughly the same period – Smith persists as a uniquely Democratic and public mixing-ground. The playhouse and playground serve children from every zip code in this city — plus lots of kids from outside Philly too.

SmithLibrary from

Smith Playhouse Library (photo:

Inside the playhouse a small library occupies a sunny, corner room, offering adults and their charges respite from the hubbub and hosting regular story hours. The library has traditionally been stocked with donated, hand-me-down books. Those donated books are full of animals and able bodied, English-speaking white people. Thoughtful and generous though they are, the books don’t reflect the world that we live in, nor the diversity of families Smith serves: Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are 43% black, 41% white, 12% latino, and 6% asian; 26% of our population lives below the poverty line (24K/year for a family of 4). When kids play at Smith, they rub elbows with children from all walks.

(For a super-eloquent argument as to why this state of affairs simply isn’t ok, check out the late Walter Dean Myers’ 2014 NY Times Opinion piece.)


Smith’s setting in a wooded, urban park has long been part of its draw and, in keeping with the ideas of the Nature Play Movement, Smith has lately been doing great work expanding its offerings of nature based play (see here and here).

Staff decided to begin stocking the library more intentionally in conjunction with these initiatives, focussing, for starters, on the seasons. Purchasing new books also presented the opportunity to diversify the collection, and including more African American authors and characters became a logical, first focus.

Smith New Nature Play Area

Smith’s new Nature Explore nature play area (photo courtesy of Smith/Zoe Hillengas)

But finding a range of books that are seasonal in some way or another, and also feature African American characters, has been an uphill battle. I have found some wonderful titles, but not enough.

For WINTER, Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic Peter loomed large – a historic figure in the diversification of children’s books. But beyond that, I only found a few cold-season titles.


51m2i3WyFRL._SY462_BO1,204,203,200_ snow-6-cover1-340x350

SUMMER offered the greatest bounty.

ChickenChasinQueenbeachtail ComeOnRain hotdayonabbott Juneteenth for Mazie MyBestFriend OneHotSummerDay Shortcut SummerSunRisin Summertime TarBeach TwentyYawns

For SPRING, a handful of African American book-kids (or African American authors) plant street trees, grow gardens and splash in the rain. But again, not enough.

IfYouPlantASeed RainFeet TheRainStomper

WePlantedATree Eve Bunting Flower Garden

And FALL seemed to be the season where black folks are most scarce (though you’d think more people would be hanging out on stoops and in yards and in parks, enjoying the cool fall air after the brutal heat of the summer that is recounted in so many of the SUMMER books featuring African Americans.). FALL truly, nearly broke me.

51SVW44CMJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A Leaf

Books about the seasons are just one sliver of what’s out there, but seasons are a popular theme in the early childhood world. And in any case, I’m pretty sure that my struggle would repeat with any other thematically organized list as well — unless that list focussed on Africa, discrimination, civil rights, or slavery.

Having so few books to choose from means that a narrow, limited story is being told. During my search, I became hyper-aware of the boundary between books that are culturally sensitive and books that – in the absence of a broader selection of titles and range of stories — reinforce misguided or stereotyped ideas about what it might mean to be African American.

I hope that someone will comment, telling me I’ve missed a huge trove — that I need to know about this or that author or publisher who I’ve completely overlooked. Or, will at least offer up a few more titles. Meanwhile: let’s keep working to write, publish, buy and share with children MORE DIVERSE BOOKS. And, of course, support #weneeddiversebooks.


The list is now in the hands of the generous and wonderful Children’s Book World, where books will be sitting at the check-out counter with a sign asking willing patrons to add the purchase price of one or two to their order on Smith’s behalf. If you shop there, please indulge (or call in a purchase!). And if you’re local and you don’t know CBW: check it out. The Philadelphia region is so lucky to have a great indie bookstore devoted specifically to children’s books!


Sounds like flat-out plagiarism, right? And it would be, if you were trying to pass the words off as your own. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the journey of thinking and reading and writing about children’s books, I discovered this practice that I find oddly instructive: I copy other people’s books. I don’t do it all the time — it’s an activity I save for picture books that grab me for one reason or another, or that raise some particular question or quandary. But I do do it regularly, and I highly recommend it. (With today’s diminishing word counts in picture books, it’s never a massive undertaking.)

ThisIsSadie waterISwater

... a few of my recent quarries...

(… a few of my recent quarries…)

Once I decide I’m going to copy a book, this is what I do.

First, I get to know the book better: I read it a few more times, a little more slowly and attentively than before. Then, I sit down in front of my computer or my notebook (either is good), go page by page, and re-type or re-write the whole text.

I number the spreads as I go, and break the lines up where the author/illustrator/book-designer breaks them. I use symbols to show where text chunks are separated on the page, and where they are split across the two pages. If the author uses bubble text or plays with the text graphically, I communicate that too. And: I write my own illustration notes.

Pretty simple.

Studying ‘mentor texts’ or ‘precedent books’ or just plain old ‘books you love’ is a great learning tool. Adding in ‘copying’ or ‘rewriting’ can take that pursuit to a whole new level, revealing all sorts of subtleties you otherwise might not see. There’s something about the process of having to write everything down and spell it out for myself that makes me look closer and see more. Sometimes when I’m finished I look back at what I’ve typed up, but often I don’t. Its one of those process things, where just doing it is usually more valuable than the product.

I suppose the next step would be to dummy the books too — although making a dummy of a book that you already have in your hands somehow seems even weirder than rewriting that book. Re-dummying could prove to be just as revealing — or maybe not. It might just make you feel like a human copy-machine, since it doesn’t entail the same kind of dissection.

But still: it might be worth a try.


I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.


I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”


Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.








Reining in Picture Book Back Story


May has been a crazy month — so much so that I forgot to link here to a guest-post I did mid-month over at the EPA-SCBWI blog on back story in picture books.

June: please be a little bit calmer!



Muck-Out Monday: Making Room

(‘Muck-Out Mondays’ = sharing inspiration from the backlog of blog posts in my inbox. Check here and here for previous Muck-Out Monday posts.)

My old friend Liz’s one-a-day poem for National Poetry Month last Friday was a ‘Poem of Apology’, from the POV of a sticky tag. It followed the form of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say”.

Reading (and thinking) about that particular poetic form made me think (again) about This is Not My Hat — and (this time) about how that book could be understood as one giant apology that doesn’t want to be said. The little fish builds this crazy, untenable, underwater house of cards rationalization not for why stealing the big fish’s hat was ok, but for why he will actually get away with it. Somewhere in there — if you really dig, and you maybe project a little bit too — you may find a misshapen mea culpa.


I love the dodgy little dance that the text and images do in This Is Not My Hat: the images both undermine and compel the narrative at every turn. So, instead of writing, I sat at my desk Friday perusing various other amazing choreographies of text and illustration — like Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead’s If You Want to See A Whale.

TJ217-6-2012 JKT 150L CTP.indd

Two recent blog posts — perfectly timed for thematically-aligned distraction — focus on the making of a new picture book and the author/illustrator dance: one from an author’s perspective and another from an illustrator’s.


Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad’s This Is Sadie is due out May 12. Pat Zietlow-Miller and Eliza Wheeler’s Wherever You Go was released last week. Danielle Davis interviews Sara O’Leary about her writing process for This Is Sadie at, while Eliza Wheeler guests posts about the journey of illustrating Wherever You Go at

Here’s a bit from the Sara O’Leary interview:

TPBL: Was the fox your idea or did Julie Morstad add in the fox on her own?

Sara O’Leary: There was a fox in the first draft of the story–a line about how when she grew up Sadie might get married and how she might marry a fox or a tin soldier but that she was in no hurry. And then the idea of her little fox family came in later. And then once Julie had added that into Sadie’s imaginative world I found that we didn’t need the line of text anymore. That happened a few times.

My favourite joke in the whole book is when the text says that Sadie is quiet in the mornings because old people need a lot of sleep and then we see Sadie merrily hammering away. My second favourite is when she “tidies her room” and we see everything madly stuffed underneath her bed. That sort of friction between the text and image pleases me inordinately.

It’s very strange because this is my fourth book with the fabulous Julie Morstad but it’s the first that really and truly feels like a collaboration rather than a co-creation. It’s partly a product of working with Tara Walker who is an absolute genius of a picture book editor–an Ursula Nordstrom for our times. It’s also partly a product of knowing Julie and her work so well that I was kind of writing the book for her this time and imagining it as a way of showcasing just what she can do.

And from Eliza Wheeler:

An awesome thing about Pat’s text was that it was completely open; no character descriptions or even specific story-lines. It allowed the story to be told in the pictures, which is a dream scenario for any illustrator.

The take-away for me, at my desk, avoiding writing but thinking about how I would write if I was writing: leave room for those fabulous illustrators.

But: how to leave room? Maybe, as Wheeler describes, you have to leave things out to make space for illustration. But you can’t leave so much out that you create befuddling gaps and holes. Perhaps it’s more about making room, as opposed to leaving it: about opening doors and leaving them ajar, offering up poetic language that is rich and suggestive without being overly prescriptive. Which means: you have to write.

Wherever You Go is about roads and journeys. At the book’s start, Pat Zietlow-Miller writes:

Roads give you chances to seek and explore.
Want an adventure?
Just open your door.

Writing is its own adventure. So: point taken. The first steps to writing-and-leaving-room: open the door; hit the road; write.

And off we go…

Look Who’s Talking

Who’s your favorite first person narrator in a picture book? When I started messing around with writing a story in first person I tried to conjure up a favorite, but had trouble even coming up with any titles that use first person narration.


The first book that finally did spring to mind was Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner. I’ve always felt some ambivalence about that cat’s voice (check out some of the debate around it here and here), but there is no question that the playful humour and rhyme are regular kid-pleasers. As I struggled to come up with more examples I began to wonder whether first person narration was something of a no-no in picture books — or at least hard enough to pull off that you don’t see it much.

I put a call out for other examples on the Facebook Group of Julie Hedlund’s 2015 12 x 12, and folks there offered up a few more: Judith Viorst’s And Two Boys Booed; John Rocco’s Blizzard; Sam Garton’s I am Otter; Sandra Howatt’s Sleepyheads; Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More;  and Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat (I was a little embarassed to have overlooked this favorite!).


Some lists emerged too: one from and another from I’ve consolidated them here, and added a few more titles that I found on my shelves too.

Argueta, Jorge. A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada
Beaumont, Karen. I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! 
Birdseye, Tom. Airmail to the Moon
Bunting, EveFly Away Home; The Wall; Smoky Night; Riding the Tiger
Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater
Carter, Anne Laurel. Under a Prairie Sky
Childs, Lauren. I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato; etc.
Cooney, Barbara. Basket Moon
DeRegniers, Beatrice. May I Bring A Friend
Elliott, Zetta. Bird
Ets, Marie Hall. In The Forest; Play With Me
Fleischman, Sid. McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm: Three Tall Tales;  McBroom’s Zoo; McBroom’s Ear, etc.
Freeman, Don. A Rainbow of My Own
Friedman, Ina. How My Parents Learned to Eat
Gackenbach, Dick. Harry and the Terrible Whatzit
Gregory, Nan. Pink
Grossman, Bill. My Sister Ate One Hare
Guarino, Deborah. Is Your Mama a Llama
Gunning, Monica. A Shelter In Our Car
Hesse, Karen. Come on, Rain!
Houston, Gloria. My Great-Aunt Arizona
Johnson, Angela. All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom
Kalman, Maira. Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman; Smartypants (Pete in School); etc.
Khan, Rukhsana. King for A Day
Krauss, Ruth. A Very Special House
LeSieg, Theo. I Wish That I Had Duck Feet
Lexau, Joan. Go Away Dog
Lowry, Lois. Crow Call
MacLachlan, Patricia. All the Places to Love
Maloney, Peter. The Magic Hockey Stick
Martin, Bill. White Dynamite and Curly Kid (actually more dialogue…)
Meddaugh, Susan. Hog-Eye
Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas
Nolen, Jerdine. Thunder Rose
O’Connor, Jane. Fancy Nancy, etc.
Orgel, Doris. Button Soup
Parker, Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt; My Rotten Redhead Older Brother; The Trees of the Dancing Goats
Recorvits, Helen. My Name is Yoon
Royston, Angela. Ancient Greek Adventure; Space Blog
Seuss, Dr. Green Eggs and Ham; If I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sellow; If I Ran the Zoo; If I Ran the Circus; I Am Not Going to Get Up Today; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; etc.
Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
Spilsbury, Richard. Deep Sea Exploration
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Polar Express
Van Laan, Nancy. Possum Come A-Knockin’
Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
Wilhelm, Hans. I’ll Always Love You
Williams, Mary. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Williams, Vera B. A. Chair for My Mother; Something Special for Me
Yolen, Jane. Owl Moon

The titles I know and am drawn to (full disclosure: I am still one-footed so couldn’t make it to the library to look into the titles I don’t know), seem to fall into one of two categories: in the first, a child (or child-like) narrator — strong-willed, high-intensity, and very focused in his or her desires — tells the story. These are what I would call “spirited” books in the sense that they tap into main arteries of kids’ strong physical and emotional selves: goofiness, petulance, guilt, frustration and, again and again, desire for control — especially of their food. We hear kids own voices LOUD AND CLEAR in what tend to be true ‘picture books’, where the text very much relies on the illustrations to tell the stories.

FancyNancy GreenEggsHam AintGonnaPaint

The second group has a more traditional, old-fashioned feel, with narrators who seem more adult reflecting back on childhood incidents, memories, etc. More like traditional, ‘illustrated story books’, they tell tales of bygone childhoods from the perspective of a nostalgic adult-who-was-there, in voices gentle, reflective and wise.

 BasketMoon OwlMoon

A cluster of Christmas/Channukah books fall into this category — Patricia Polacco’s Tree of the Dancing Goat; Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express; Clement Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas — which makes sense, given the nostalgia so many of us feel towards the holidays.

PolarExpress NightBefore Christmas TreesOfTheDancingGoat

In addition to the distinction between ‘child voiced’ and ‘adult voiced’ stories, a few other patterns emerged. First, the list includes a number of stories about children and people who have historically been marginalized and have taken longer to find their way into books for children. In these stories, first person narration effectively pulls a listener in and places them squarely in the storyteller’s shoes — removing the distance of “otherness” that differences in race, nationality and life-history might otherwise engender. It’s an effective strategy, and at the same time seems to underscore a sense that it is well past time for these voices to be heard and to find their rightful place.

Bird FlyAwayHome MyNameIsYoon

And, of course, there are the tall tales (which I’ve written about at length, previously). The first person voices in many of these stories exaggerate and fib and stretch the truth in every possible direction, with a folksy, charming, country vernacular that really is unique to the genre.


I have such a soft spot for tall tale narrators, but in answer to the question of my own all time favorite I have to go back to one that I read over and over and over again as a child (I even plagiarized it — unwittingly — in a poem I later wrote at a Girl Scout camp-out).


I still own my original, yellowed, crumbling 1968 Viking Seafarer paperback copy of Marie Hall Ets’ Play With Me. This book so totally spoke to me as a child that I’m thinking that its nameless protagonist takes the prize. No matter that that little girl’s voice was more a whisper than a shout: I could still hear it.





repost: “All of my issues with ‘THE GOODNIGHT MOON’ Bedroom”


Check out this funny take on Goodnight Moon from Raquel D’Apice over at

I am back in the land of legally prescribed percocet, so maybe the meds are contributing to my amusement over this. Though, too, maybe it is just nice to have our idols overturned every so often — or at least given a firm, little shake.

Thanks for sharing, Judy Glik — who I’ve known since around the time this book was age-appropriate for me!

(And for another giggle, take a look at D’Apice’s post about Knuffle Bunny too.)



So many ANIMALS!


The animal-filled nest of the 8 year-old Homo sapiens.

I am prone to bouts of eco-depression, and shortly after buying Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, I decided — as a writing exorcism of sorts — to have a go at developing a story about endangered animals. Extinction — upbeat stuff, right? Not exactly ideal picture book fodder…


As I saw it, my first challenge was to figure out a way to deal with extinction that wouldn’t be a complete downer but instead felt light — even funny.

At The Rare Animal Conservation Center of the Philadelphia Zoo I stumbled on an unlikely trio of endangered species sharing a single enclosure — despite their hailing from different continents in ‘real’ life: a three-toed sloth, a pair of Bolivian titi monkeys, and a cache of elephant shrews.

WikipediaTitiMonkey WikipediaSloth Wikipedia ElephantShrewjpg

I am equally as inclined to write about humans as about animals, but when I do opt for animals as characters, it is usually because I am drawn to some unique, compelling aspect/s of a species’ habits or traits — and generally because I relate to those traits in a pretty anthropomorphic and anthropocentric way. I always do a lot of geeky research and end up building on those aspects as I work up the character.

The shrew/sloth/monkey combo provided, and while the resulting manuscript, The Mango Incident (current status: 555-word, back-burnered WIP), didn’t end up addressing extinction head-on, it’s grumpy sloth-narrator does manage some sharp commentary, and the story peaks in a nice (if unfortunately hard to illustrate) moment of hilarity.

Sylvester.image1 CatInHat charlottes-web

Animals are the stuff of children’s literature — and of childhood — right? The Cat and his hat, Sylvester and his pebble, Charlotte and her web — the list goes on and on and on and on. Animals are ubiquitous: in books, as stuffies, as pets, and in the places we take our children on outings (zoos, natural history museums, theme parks etc.).

But why? I had always assumed that their being not-human worked as a sort of convenient and comfortable distancing-method: they’re enough like us that kids identify with them but not so much like us as to be complete (and terrifying) mirrors. “The same only different,” as a witty friend used to say about all kinds of things.

Reading November 23’s New York Times Magazine, I came across not one but two references to an essay about zoos and animals by cultural critic John Berger. (Both Charles Seibert’s piece about the remaking Denmark’s Givskud Zoo, and Alex Witchel’s profile of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bring it up.) I bit.

If I had ever before read Berger’s essay, “Why Look At Animals?” (from About Looking, 1977), it hadn’t stuck. In it, Berger argues that with the one-two punch of the enlightenment and industrialization, humans’ relationship to animals shifted away from that of hunting, farming and daily contact with animals who were made or understood to serve various human purposes.  And so, too, away from an attitude of both valuing/worshipping and subjecting/sacrificing them (two stances that, today, we are more likely to understand oppositionally as”either/or”s).

As most of us have moved away from that sort of immediate reliance on animals, animals have been marginalized both culturally and physically. They have been relegated to the role of raw material and of spectacle: in the human food chain, animal flesh and product is just one more ingredient on the assembly line, and elsewhere animals are simply meant to be viewed.


Not surprisingly zoos came into existence just as productive animals were disappearing from everyday life. As opposed to living in their native environments, zoo animals are “utterly dependent on their keepers”; “nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity”. They reside there specifically and exclusively to be looked at. Berger emphasizes: “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.”

Around the same time pet-ownership mushroomed too.

In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose — guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping exactly of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation… It is part of the universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.

(It follows that dogs, now, are now bred not for the work that they do but, instead, for their innocuous (or aggressive) temperaments, their lack of allergens, or their ability to not shed.)


As for the modern world of childhood, to Berger the preponderance of animal imagery and representation in picture books and toys mirrors the fading of real animals into the background of life experience.

As it turns out, children’s literature historian and critic Leonard Marcus wrote a follow-up essay in 1984, “Picture Book Animals: How Natural A History?“, applying Berger’s thinking and defining the roles of animals in contemporary children’s literature. Surveying the field, Marcus spelled out seven distinct ways that he saw animal characters operating in children’s books, positing one or more examples for each:

1. animal as the embodiment of wildness (wild impulses, unruliness, etc.) — and therefore as needing to be tamed or contained (Curious George, H.A. Rey)

2. “animal as spectacle or performer” (The Happy Lion, Louis Fatio)

3. “animal as misfit or outsider” (The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf)

4. “animal as doll” (which assumes a special, kindred relationship between animal and child) (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

5. “animals as nonsense beings” (The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss)

6. “animals as symbols of unconscious states and private obsessions” (Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak)

7. “animals-in-themselves” (Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey)

Marcus’s categories aren’t all-encompassing, but they offer an interesting framework. And discussion of the examples underscores the complexity of his definitions.

He does leave off one use — perhaps because it is too obvious — which involves using animals as simple, straightforward stand-ins for humans — their “animal natures” being less important than the fact that they are animals-and-not-humans (author Kevin Henkes immediately comes to mind). And in fact, in most of Marcus’s examples I can imagine a human character replacing the animal to tell a fairly similar story to the one told: Ferdinand could’ve been a boy under that tree who didn’t like rough play of other boys; the Cat in the Hat could’ve been a crazy uncle who popped in for the day. Even Corduroy could have been a doll (human toy) instead of a bear (animal toy).



Only in the 7th category does such substitution seem downright impossible: the whole Sal story hinges on the parallel childhoods, motherhoods and blueberry hunting activities of bears and humans. It really is about the animals in a way the others are not. Though of course, in the manner of all good wildlife narratives, it is the anthropomorphic aspects of the bears that we connect to — the ways in which they are like us.

To go back to Berger’s argument for a minute though: the lore and stories of all sorts of native cultures predating the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are actually loaded with animals. Really — think about Native American tales. Storytelling was oral, as opposed to written and illustrated, but no matter: traditional origin stories and moral tales were always populated with the myriad animals — wild and domesticated — that filled people’s lives. That stories told or read to children contain animals is nothing new. Our relationship to animals has changed, true. But so have our notions of childhood, and I’d warrant that changing ideas of childhood in our modern, consumer world play as large a role in the preponderance of animal imagery in modern western children’s lives as the fact of our changed relationship to animals.

All these interesting historical arguments and structural analyses notwithstanding, I keep coming back to this same basic point: animals are both like us and not like us. The same only different — just like each of the human characters we meet in books. We enter in to stories in places where we connect and relate— sometimes through geography and place, sometimes through situation, and often through characters. If you opt for an evolutionary take on the whole thing: animals are our cousins, albeit distant ones, no? So of course we include them in our stories.


Still, Berger was spot on about animals in our lives, and when I reflect on my own children’s contact with animals, I see zoos, and books, and stuffies, and a wished-for pet. Even when they do have contact with real, working animals the experience is heavily mediated. We do not — like our friends who farm — rise at dawn to collect eggs or get up in the middle of the night to nurse invalid pigs. The rhythms of our daily lives are not at all dependant on those of other creatures. The birds that wake us up in the spring when we leave our windows open and the kitchen mice we battle are mere annoyances.

I wonder whether with Childhood.2000 — in an increasingly digital age of once/twice/thrice-removed experiencing and consuming of the world — we will eventually look back at the dull act of watching sleeping polar bears and bounce-less kangaroos through scratched plexiglass with nostalgia and say “There used to be these place called Zoos where you could go see REAL animals…”? And so the eco-depression sneaks up again…

BAD ADULTS, REAL BUGS and Roald Dahl’s Peach

One of my oldest and dearest friends recently welcomed two new children into her family: five and six year-old sisters who came through a state foster care system. If all goes according to plan, they will be fully adopted within the next two months.

The whole brood (my friend, her 12 year-old step-daughter, her husband and the two girls) recently spent five days with us in central Pennsylvania, en route to New York City  (the girls’ first trip out of their home state, and their first time on an airplane too). While here, my friend read the girls Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.


(a Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition that my mother read aloud to me)

Intentionally or not, the book offered a way for them to begin to imagine that great metropolis where their trip would end, and by the time they left us plans were in the works for a visit to the Empire State Building (I also suggested they try to visit the peach pit sculpture in Central Park. Whoops! The aging brain at work again: there is apparently no such thing. But really. If Hans Christian Andersen gets a bench, and Alice gathers her crew around a cluster of big, bronze mushrooms, why not a habitable peach pit?) alice-in-wonderland

The girls’ paths so far, as one would expect, have carried them through complex territories, inhabited by adults whose impact – good and bad — they will be making sense of for the rest of their lives. I couldn’t help wonder, after they left, about what sense they made of the parent-less James, and of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spike, those vile old child-hating aunts.


(I blame this Burkert illustration for my mistaken belief in the Central Park Peach Pit)

Most Dahl grown-ups are either all good or all bad — like characters in fairy tales. In Dahl’s stories though, the good and the evil live much closer to the here-and-now than the fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers of days gone by.

In James, Dahl’s first book for children, there are only bad grown-ups (save for James’ parents who we know only in their absence). Spike and Sponge dominate the first portion of the book, and even the barely-present little guy who gives James the bag of green wigglies is a bit of a creep.

But, there are good bugs. Centipede, Grasshopper, Ladybug, Silkworm, Earthworm, Glow-worm and Spider are full of idiosyncracies and foibles but, at the end of the day, all win sympathy. Dahl seems to be freed up by this cast of critters — by the fact that they are not human — and he ironically grants them much more humanity than his good and bad human adults. The Peach’s oversized inhabitants are so much more nuanced than, say, Matilda’s father, or Miss Honey, or even Charlie’s lovely grandfather.

For my friend’s two new daughters — and for their whole family — the journey is not, right now, about finding a prince or slaying a dragon or freeing a trapped unicorn. It is about growing trust and about forging connection and about becoming part of a forever family. And I love the idea of their discovering one roadmap for this quest in an improbable story about a boy working his way into a quirky new family of giant, mismatched bugs in the belly of a juicy, oversized fruit — floating across an unimaginably vast Ocean through a world of Cloud-Men, rainbows, seagulls and sharks.

Page Turns and Curtain Drops in Picture Books

When I took my first stab at writing a children’s book — as my Master’s thesis at Bank Street College  a million years ago — one of the “precedent books” that I studied was Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps For Sale (NY: William R. Scott Inc., 1940). I love how Slobodkina’s peddlar handles the frustration of not being able to retrieve his caps from a band of theiving monkeys — flapping his hands, stamping his feet and making indignant demands — so much like the 2 to 6 year old set that has long adored this book.


My favorite sequence begins on the fourth spread, when the tired peddlar goes to sleep sitting upright against the base of a tree, checking first that his wares are all neatly stacked atop his head. The illustration is direct: peddlar, hats, tree.


You turn the page, and on the next spread a sun smiles down on a flower through a blue sky that is empty save for three small clouds. There is no peddlar and no tree. The text reads simply “They were all there. So he went to sleep. He slept for a long time.”


You turn again and find the peddlar still leaning against the tree. But this time, his eyes are open, he is stretching, and there are no hats save for his own. The text does not suggest that anything is amiss: “When he woke up he was refreshed and rested.” If you are reading aloud to an audience of small people, at this point there are howls of “The hats are gone!” and “Where are his hats?!” But the illustration doesn’t offer any clues. You have to turn the page again before the peddlar realizes they are gone, and then two more times — with suspense building — before he (and we) can see that they have, in fact, been commandeered by a band on monkeys.

There is much anticipation in each page turn after the peddlar wakes up, and the sequence offers great reminders of how the turning of the page can extend pauses and gaps, shifting the rhythm of a story and heightening suspense.

Jon Klassen’s amazing This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press, 2012) got me thinking about Caps for Sale again recently. Klassen’s two fish — the thieving little one and the aggrieved big one — are physically self-contained in comparison to Slobodkina’s peddlar and monkeys: they swim straight ahead, left to right with the turning pages mostly, their bodies rendered solidly and simply. There is no wiggling or diving or darting. That they are moving (or not) is communicated by their bubbles: in streams when they are in motion and in columns when they are not. Meanwhile, their eyes are quite active: snoozing, popping open, looking around, squinting with determination and — interestingly — directing our attention forward and to the right as we turn the pages. The narration is a long monologue that we get drawn into; it is the story that this little fish tells himself (and us) as he tries to justify having stolen the big fish’s hat and to convince himself that he won’t get caught.

The familiarity of his string of rationalizations — and the way that the illustrations undermine them — carries us along until the key moment in the 13th spread when the big fish, hot on the trail of the little guy who has stolen his hat, dives into the same thick bed of plants that the little fish has swum into before him — the place “(w)here the plants grow big and tall and close together” he says, and (his final words) where “Nobody will ever find me.”


You turn the page and find yourself looking at a wall of plants. No fish, just a thicket of plants.


On the next spread, the big guy swims out of the plants, leaving us not quite certain about what has gone on.


Klassen’s wall of plants functions just like Slobodkina’s blue sky page: implying the passage of time but obscuring what is happening during those moments. In trying to understand this device it occured to me that one rule of ‘the page turn’ may be that you can’t have some pivotal event happen between two spreads, while the page is turning. It is probably like a jump cut in film: it jars people and the logic falters. But the blue sky page and the wall of plants, like dropped curtains (or dimmed lights) in a play, tell us that something is happening without letting on what. In Slobodkina’s book, we’re left with a mini-mystery to solve. Where did the hats go? In Klassen’s: we may be spared a visual of the food chain in action — or maybe not. The spread introduces a smidgen of ambiguity, which I appreciated (though when I realized that the narration ends right there, the little fish’s fate seemed more certain.) In both cases, it is a device used to nice effect.

It was only while I was writing this post that I realized that both Caps for Sale and This Is Not My Hat are books about headgear theft. Hopeful that this might be some interesting, under-reported strand in children’s literature, I wracked my brain for other stories that could be lumped in under this heading — and that maybe even use a ‘curtain drop’. All I came up with was Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers which, while it features both stealing and some spectacular millinery, doesn’t technically fit the bill. Although it, too, is a great one.