Anno

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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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

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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.

 

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.