Kidlit History

A PICTURE BOOK DIVERSITY CONUNDRUM

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Kara Springer’s new piece at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. (image: http://streetsdept.com)

This morning I read a post over at Writers’ Rumpus focussing on what role non-marginalized writers can and should have in the diverse books movement. I’m a white woman writing picture books, and it is a question that I think about a lot.

My first picture book, BAT COUNT, is due out in spring of 2017, and a funny thing happened on the way to publication…

After the publisher bought it, they sent me an author questionnaire. It included a question asking for ideas about the book’s design. My first thought had to do with space — I really wanted there to be space on the pages: the story involves bats, and is set at dusk, and so space and sky felt important.

My second thought was: is there any reason that the characters have to be white?

Posing that question felt both obvious and a little uncomfortable, but it also felt worth asking. Really: just because I — like the majority of the kid lit world — am white, does that mean the characters have to be too? What I wrote, exactly, was:

Also: it would be interesting if the characters weren’t necessarily white. Environmental science fields are disproportionately populated by Caucasians, and it could be a good thing for kids of color to see kids who look like them getting involved in scientific inquiry.

The book is “ficinformational”: it is a reassuring bedtime story and also introduces kids to bats, White Nose Syndrome, and the practice of citizen science. What I wrote in my notes was what I believed, though looking back at those words now, I’m struck by their hesitation. “Interesting”, “weren’t necessarily” and “could be” – there’s serious discomfort there, right? And “Caucasian”?! How about “white”!

There was some white guilt at play, for sure. And some newbie anxiety: are authors allowed to offer this sort of input? And, too, the uncomfortable business of raising questions about race to publishers who I have never met and ultimately know very little about.

Fast forward to this April: I received the first sketches. When I opened the pdf my stomach did a huge flip-flop – not only from the thrill of seeing the story made visual, or because illustrator Susan Detwiler — also a white woman — had done SUCH beautiful drawings, but also because the publisher and she had run with that cautious suggestion: the book’s characters were black.

I panicked. Then I hit the phones and queried all my friends who think a lot about race and social justice – black, white and other – to share my doubts. Was the suggestion patronizing in the first place? Is it not my place to try to right the ship in this one small way?

Everyone was reassuring — but they all also know me. And they’re my friends.

The book goes to the printer in a month. Questions linger though, and new ones crop up. Does it make it more ok that I’m white since the book doesn’t address race or any culturally specific themes? Or: did I just slot black characters into a white world, in some sort of contorted version of black-face?

BAT COUNT, when it is out, will speak for itself in some measure. By some assessments it will seem like a good thing that the book features black characters. By others, it won’t. And still others won’t give it second thought. When I start spinning again on these issues — like I did this morning after reading that post — I sometimes find myself wishing I was in that latter camp and could feel less angst. But hard as these questions are, they are so important. And it’s great that so many people in the kid lit world are jumping in to embrace them.

ADVENTURES IN STOCKING A CHILDREN’S LIBRARY DIVERSELY (PART 1)

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!?!?!

SmithFront hopamerica.com

Smith Playhouse (hopamerica.com)

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 www.northstarmuseums.com Smith Slide mapofplay.kaboom.org

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 www.run-hike-play.com

Smith Playhouse Library (photo: www.run-hike-play.com)

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.

SnowyDayKeats

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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!

OLD BOOKS in the NEW YEAR

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.

LastOneIn

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.”

LitteBoyWithBigHornFARMER

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATION + BUBBLE DIALOGUE in PICTURE BOOKS

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Our favorite Philly graphic novel store. (Photo from http://www.geekadelphia.com)

My kids — now 10 and 12 — LOVE graphic novels. And as the children’s book field explodes with great titles in this format, it is no surprise to see more and more picture books using the graphic conventions of comics as well: serial imagery, speech bubbles and the like. Maurice Sendak is often cited as the first, notable author-illustrator to introduce the low-brow graphic conventions of the comic book into the righteous and upstanding world of children’s picture books — with Hector Protector & As I Went Over The Water (1965, Harper Collins), In The Night Kitchen (1970), etc. Like much of Sendak’s work, this adaptation of comic strip conventions was viewed as bold and transgressive — especially in light of mid-century mores that questioned the morality of comic books (check out the mid 1950’s Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency).

HectorProtector

A recent project got me wondering about picture books that interweave straight narration with embedded bubble-dialogue, and so I did a quick survey of the field to see what’s out there and what sorts of issues come into play when authors and illustrators combine the two. Given how dialogue and narration ostensibly set up very different sorts of rhythm, I found myself paying a lot of attention to flow and cadence as I looked at these books.

There is a whole batch of books that stick primarily with narration, inserting occasional, short speech bubble dialogue here and there in the illustrations: Tor Freeman’s Roar (2002, Candlewick), Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion), Colin McNaughtons’ Suddenly (1994, Harcourt) and  Oops (1996, Harcourt). In all of these books, relatively traditional narrative storytelling is punctuated with small bits of bubble text that offer these sort of staccato punches within the overall rhythm of the narrative. (Agee’s Terrific (2005, Scholastic) has just a single word in bubble dialogue (“TERRIFIC!”) — on the book’s final page.)

AggleFlagle

Picture books written entirely in speech-bubble dialogue without a stitch of narration sit at the other end of the spectrum. One challenge of going with straight dialogue in books for young kids might be to find ways of dynamically illustrating two characters simply talking. Luckily though, young children (and animals who behave like them) don’t speak primarily with their mouths like many of us older sorts: the full-bodied engagement of the characters in Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggy series (Hyperion), his Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus books (Disney-Hyperion), and Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be A Frog (2015, Doubleday) are all plenty dynamic. These authors do a great job, too, of manipulating the rhythms of the dialogue’s back-and-forth to create tension and energy. Adam Rex’s PSSST! (2007, Harcourt), John Rocco’s Blackout (2001, Disney-Hyperion) and David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles (2013, Clarion) show clearly how also adding serial imagery to the mix can also replace narration. (For the younger set there are quieter, simpler books too, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Bully (2013, Roaring Brook) and Jez Alborough’s Hug (2009, Candlewick).)

DevPetty

Between the books that use occasional bubble-staccatos and those that use nothing but bubble dialogue are many that alternate or combine the two more evenly — books like Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks (HMH Books For Young Readers) books, and a whole bunch illustrated by Harry Bliss: Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a….. books (HarperCollins), Bliss’s own Bailey books (Scholastic), William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? (2005, HarperCollins), and Robie H. Harris’s Don’t Forget to Come Back! (2004, Candlewick).

Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenfeld’s Shark V. Train (2010, Little Brown) is an interesting one in this group for offering sparse narrative text but, at the same time, holding together well even when you ignore the bubble dialogue entirely (try it!) — at least until you get to the last two spreads. The bubble-dialogue, here, mostly elaborates on the conflict and emotion that is already boldly communicated in the book’s illustrations.

sharkvtrain

Aaron Reynolds and Matt Davies’ new Nerdy Birdy (2015, Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t use actual bubbles for it’s dialogue, instead opting to distinguish dialogue with a hand-written font and quotation marks, though the idea is much the same. Some spreads mix dialogue and narration while other page-series are either all dialogue or all narration. In one spot the dialogue is even given dialogue tags in the narration font — so it’s a bit of a mash-up. In any case:  the two work together to effectively tell a story that is all about social dynamics.

Nerdy-Birdy-2

In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is A Monster (2014, Little, Brown & Co.), Children Make Terrible Pets (2010, Little, Brown & Co.), You Will Be My Friend (2011, Little, Brown & Co.), Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013, Little, Brown & Co.), etc., speech bubbles tend to be orthogonal and are well integrated with the narrative text and the illustrations — via font, color and graphics. For the most part, the narrative text and the speech bubble text are evenly weighted — except where Brown uses size for emphasis. All these visual clues have a unifying effect, creating a really strong narrative flow.

Children-Make-Terrible-Pets-Inside

A Hornbook Calling Caldecott post in 2013 raised questions about how bubble dialogue and the other graphic conventions of comic books fit into the picture book format and how to talk about them in the awards-making process. It seems clear that the floodgates have opened — and to great effect. It should be fun to see what else swims through in the future.

***

300px-Strigel_1506-detail

… and lest we think of bubble dialogue as a completely modern convention, check out this 1506 Bernhard Strigel painting. (Wikipedia, “Speech scrolls”)

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.)

 

Holey Books!

 

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yellow bellied sapsucker photo by Cameron Rognan @ allaboutbirds.org

Recently I’ve been reading about sapsuckers and — given their feeding habits — this naturally got me to thinking about HOLES. Children’s books about holes (and digging them) have long had appeal. And there have been some great ones.

Sam&DaveDigAHole AHoleIsToDig

Ruth Krauss nailed it with the line “a hole is to dig”: holes, like so many things kids make when they play (block buildings, fairy houses, etc.) are totally transient. In addition, they are completely immaterial (a hole is made of nothing, really, but space or air). If you spend all this time making something that won’t last, and that thing is really, essentially nothing, then it stands to reason that the joy of it is less in the product than in the process itself: digging or poking or even pecking.

Books with pages that actually have holes have great appeal too. And why not? What little kid doesn’t like to stick her fingers into them? The first book with holes that always comes to mind for me is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It sports plenty of holes — 20 of them by my count — all the same size and running at the exact same latitude on every page where they appear.

TheVeryHungryCaterpillar

Carle’s holes are left by a hungry caterpillar eating his way through everything and anything, and there is actually something oddly comforting about their consistency and regularity and singularity of purpose.

 JosephHadALittleOvercoat

Simms Taback’s Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, proffers crafted and ever-shrinking holes that move around the pages and track the transformations of an ever-useful (and ever-shrinking) piece of fabric. Like Carle’s, they work beautifully from both sides of the page. (Taback’s version of There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly uses expanding holes nicely too.)

TheHole

In Oyvind Torseter’s more recent The Hole, a hole appears in the same spot on every page — as if someone ran a drill through the center of the book. I really wanted to love this book but it didn’t happen for me: while the hole never moves, the narrative twists and turns around it in ways I couldn’t keep a grip on.

TheBookWithAHole

There seem to be a number of board books that offer the toddler set holes too — like the Funny Finger Board Books (by Mark Shulman, illus. by Jenny Harris). The finger-sized holes in these books — and others — lets kids turn their digits into all manner of goofy, wiggly appendages.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to learn (here) that Herve Tullet, master of the interactive book and devotee of toying with notions of book-as-object, has played with the idea a lot — in The Book With A HoleThe Game of Finger WormsThe Game of Lets Go, and The Finger Circus Game..

I managed to get my hands on a copy of The Book With A Hole. More an exploration of what a hole might be than a narrative like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, The Book With a Hole is a sort of graphic list. Tullet’s clever illustrations lay out numerous possibilities for paper holes and the things you can do with them:

  • you can put things in them (fingers, faces, hands and feet are especially fun!)
  • you can pull things out of them
  • you can look through them
  • you can imagine what’s in them
  • you can jump into them
  • you can jump over them
  • you can circumnavigate their edges
  • you can toss things into them
  • you can string things through them
  • you can use them to focus your attention
  • you can live in them!
  • and you can sit, and wait, and watch what emerges from them

All these propositions are rife with opportunities and ideas for more books with holes. And why not? Holes are empty vessels — containers of nothing just waiting to be filled. Which means they are full of possibilities.

Back to my sapsuckers though: the neat rows of holes they peck into the bark of trees initially give the birds access to sap. Once the sap oozes out and starts to get sticky, other insects show up to feed too, and get stuck, and so become but another, more protein-rich sapsucker meal.

Which means that holes can also be:

  • magnets, or
  • traps, or
  • feeding spots

The possibilities really are endless…

Wimmelbooks and Taking Noticing

Once upon a time, fresh out of college and a little wide-eyed, I had a boyfriend who had grown up on Richard Scarry. That boyfriend’s world overflowed with Anglophiles and intellectuals and Scarry —in a twist of misdirected intimidation — acquired a certain aura of kid-lit-mystique for me. (I assumed that these unknown classics were English, too, which of course made them that much more fabulous.)

In fact, Scarry (1919-1994) was a prolific American author-illustrator, and his books are nothing if not accessible. His full and detailed illustrations in the Busytown books and others offer up a simple sort of engagement that young children adore: innumerable details and visual story fragments that let kids look and search and spy and name — and where they can’t name, ask. Kids spend their days doing the same thing out in the real world, noticing and engaging in visual play with whatever grabs their attention. But books like Scarry’s add the dimension of a beloved adult’s lap.

ScarryBestFirstBookEver Scarry_WhatDoPeopleDoAllDay Scarry_CarsAndTrucksAndThingsThatGo

Scarry_BustBusyWorld Scarry_BusiestPeopleEver Scarry_ABSWordBook

Scarry’s picture books are essentially beginner-wimmelbilderbuch or wimmelbooks. German author-illustrator Hans Jurgen Press  (1926-2002) coined the term in the mid 20th century and it translates loosely as “teeming picture book”; the format clearly owes a debt to the 15th and 16th century paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But Press’s books incorporated the element of the hunt, making the visual meander more goal-oriented: instead of the eye simply wandering as it would in staring out the side of a stroller or a car window (or at a Bosch painting), it has something to find in these books’ considered and dense illustrations.

Bosch’s GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (wikicommons)

Martin Hanford’s Where’s Waldo books, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick’s I Spy series and Graeme Base’s AnimaliaThe Water Hole and others all fit under the heading of ‘wimmelbook’ too.

 Animalia Wheres Waldo ISpy

Mitsumasa Anno, in the wimmelbooks he created, gave new twists to the form as he moved past pure density of imagery. In Anno’s Animals, he masterfully turned the game on its head, hiding prey in landscapes that he drew to seem anything but full. And, in Anno’s Counting Book, his detail-rich illustrations play with number and one to one correspondence, introducing a new, mathematical dimension to the hunt.

   AnnosAnimalsAnnosCountingBook

 Writing recently about JonArno Lawson and Syndey Smith’s new book Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books), Maria Popova describes the book in terms that connect to the poignancy wimmelbooks have for this particular historical moment too. A wordless tale, Sidewalk Flowers follows a girl as she walks through the city holding her father’s hand; throughout, her attention to details on the street contrasts with her father’s chronic digital distraction. Popova dubs the book “a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

SidewalkFlowers

Kids excel at noticing, being observant and tuning in. Adults: not so much. And these habits of mind are precisely what wimmelbooks demand.

WalkThisWorld

A wimmelbook with more contemporary styling, Lotta Nieminem and Jenny Broom’s  Walk This World was published in 2013 by Big Picture Press, a new-ish partnership between Templar Co. Ltd. (UK & Australia) and Candlewick (US & Canada). Big Picture’s introductory video features Bosch and frames Big Picture’s undertaking as being about creating “illustrated books for people who like to look at pictures and discover something new each time.” It should be fun to see what else Big Picture Press publishes and what new twists and turns the form takes as other authors and illustrators experiment. Maybe they will turn out a few more ‘modern manifestos’ or, at the very least, create some stellar new encouragements for kids (and their adults) to focus for more than a few minutes on images that aren’t moving and don’t require electricity.

 

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.

SkippyjonJones

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!).

ThisIsNotMyHat

Some lists emerged too: one from nancykeane.com and another from msrosenreads.com. 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.

McBroomTellsALie

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).

PlayWithMe

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.

 

 

 

 

So many ANIMALS!

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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…

SixthExtinction

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.

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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.)

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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).

BlueberriesForSal

from BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL

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.

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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…