On the Dignity of Children’s Books

Stories

How do we know when a children’s book is popular? What even constitutes that popularity? There’s no Arts and Entertainment section for kids (at least none written by its intended audience), so reviews of critical assessment and cultural merit seem very adult, and the meaning of ‘popularity’ narrows to an economic standard. We might argue, perhaps obviously so, that adults are the true cultural gatekeepers of what children read or even prefer to read, and we might examine the criteria for any book’s successful voyage from printer to impressionable young mind as very finicky, and almost certainly ideologically-based. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To democratically privilege one children’s book (Everyone Poops) greater cultural capital over another (Quantum Physics for Babies) connotes a responsible, educational prioritizing of the concrete over the abstract. That’s very nice. But why, then, do certain children’s books which deal with pertinent issues pale in the face of books devoid of ideological content? Perhaps parents opt for potty-training over climate change because of the topic’s immediate and practical threat at the behest of its ignorance (soiled clothes, wearing diapers until you’re thirty), or, and maybe just as likely, kids have more of a say in which titles prevail after all.

If we are to grant the personal tastes of kids notable influence over the popularity of the books they read, we are then graciously required to extend the meaning of ‘popular’ beyond its economic scaffolding. While adults may invest in a title simply based on the number of ratings it has inspired, children owe no book such allegiance. In fact, most of the books discovered come from elementary school libraries, where kids can roam the sections freely, unconcerned with star ratings or political contention. This allows for a profoundly fascinating inquiry into what makes these books tick for them. We know it can’t be ideological—or, at least, it can’t be based on anything beyond the self-centered limitations of a developing child, e.g. a book on temper tantrums or, I don’t know, being hungry (and who ever really liked those prescriptive pieces of garbage anyway?). It can’t be based on ratings, reviews, or price—those concepts are meaningless to the dependent child, whose character and marginal life experience preclude any consumer status or cultural investment. In my brief research, I considered, then, two alternative appeals, both of which are defined by their immediate properties: sensory (the texture and design of the book) and feeling (the emotional dynamics of the story). These are the base realities of any childhood experience, and though I’ve set them up as distinct, it is easy to see how either criterion seamlessly blends into its other.

To help make sense of all of this, I’ve consulted illustrator Molly Bang’s superb treatise Picture This: How Pictures Work, an insightful overview of picture dynamics written for adults yet cleverly designed to be read like a children’s book. Bang outlines twelve principles she uncovered through her own process of playing with pictures, and each principle can be considered a rough distillation of much more complex and nuanced creative exercises. I’ve chosen four children’s books (their inclusions admittedly skewed by my own bias, as they are four of my personal favorites!) to read under Bang’s guidelines (supplemented by a few of my own, and inspired in part, as well, by Scott McCloud’s brilliant book Understanding Comics, an ingenious examination of comics art that again and again proves itself relevant to any sort of pictorial reading). Each of these children’s books varies in style (from hyper-realistic to intensely abstract) and moral content (from local to global to fundamentally absent). My goal is less to deduce or trace any corollary lines between ideas, style, and their guaranteed popularity, and more to explore their compelling elements so as to better understand how they work and what makes them so individually effective. What does my own childhood taste say, for instance, about my lost potential as a four-year-old art and literary critic?

TUESDAY

First, let’s take on Tuesday (1991), written and illustrated by the very talented David Wiesner. The story’s premise is simple: one Tuesday evening, suddenly and inexplicably, frog-laden lily pads begin to levitate and take their amphibian riders on a strange and whimsical journey out of the swamp and into a suburban town, where they cause minor distress among the few inhabitants who are up late enough to notice. There are practically no words, and so the entire narrative is driven by great big pictures of flying frogs whose expressions comically range from joyous to frightened to gallant to irritated, each one faithful to the moments Wiesner presents. This is a book we might characterize as refreshingly devoid of any moral content: the frogs’ flight appears haphazard, but there is no real damage done to the town (other than a score of littered lily pads and a semi-traumatized German Shepherd named Rusty). The entire event is just silly. Kids are free to enjoy the absurdity for the sake of itself, released from any obvious moral infringements. This might indeed be argued as the book’s strongest trait, but the relief from moral prescription is more often than not the privilege of adults waist-deep in moral censure, so while Tuesday might appeal to an older demographic for its spirited divorce from admonition, this is not exactly a selling point for the blissfully unaware kid perusing the bookshelf. What else helps let Tuesday stand out on its own? For this, I look to its design.

Tuesday DesignThe book presents us with a fascinating companionship between the high realism of its artwork and the ludicrous nature of its premise. I would argue that it needs almost no words at all because its images are clear and identifiable; we know these are frogs, we know the humans are out of the loop, and we know all of this is strange, particularly, and somewhat ironically, because their artistic portrayal is so ordinary. Would this book have been as successful or memorable if the characters were portrayed in cartoon forms, or given dialogue? The former would have taken from us the joy of fantasizing that something like this might actually happen (the frogs in this book, for example, are not simply iconic references, they are intentionally designed to be our frogs, their environment designed to represent our environment, all of this opposed to an abstracted cartoon universe, and that imitation allows easy access to such an amusing what-if fantasy), the latter would necessitate an intimacy belaboring the pleasing distance Tuesday privileges its readers (dialogue makes us “hear” the characters, giving them not only voices, but personalities—this makes everybody, animals and humans alike, more human, and perhaps too relatable). I would argue that to observe such a bizarre event unfold while remaining at an observable distance places the reader outside of its chaos rather than within it, affording them an empowered position that produces a kind of delight. In fact, the total omission of a verbal narrative altogether invites a special curiosity, it encourages the reader to principally observe and decide for his or herself the nature of the mystery surrounding the story’s strange events. If Tuesday had concerned itself with either of these alternative creative approaches, they’re likely to have weakened its mesmerizing effects.

Tuesday Detective

MISS NELSON IS MISSING!

So how might style concern itself in those stories which do intend a polite but firm moral imposition? Harry G. Allard Jr. and James Marshall’s classic title Miss Nelson is Missing! (1977) uses a more formal narrative that implores basic empathy from its kid readers the best way adults know how—through trickery.

Miss Viola Swamp

While this book, unlike Tuesday, presents a comparatively straightforward if not somewhat underwhelming plot, it negotiates this trade with less realistic, more cartoonish characters, and an environment toned by very messy watercolor. This provides the simple storyline—children misbehave, sweet teacher is replaced with domineering authority figure, children regret their behavior, kind teacher returns, all is forgiven—with added visual interest, captivating its readers with profoundly dynamic images that seem to ebb and flow in movement and brightness of color. Color in Miss Nelson is Missing! is an indicator of mood, as, for example, Marshall frequently paints scenes of characters enveloped in hazy gray clouds, which work instinctively to portray dismay and general unpleasantness. Brighter colors, especially the pink of Miss Nelson’s dress, appear in places where opportunity and hope are present: the police station where the kids ask for help, Miss Nelson’s house where they search for her whereabouts, any place the wretched Miss Viola Swamp is not around, or, and this perhaps best captures it, anytime the kids are simply less abominable and more considerate of Miss Nelson’s well-being.

The line work is just as dynamic, settling in some pages more like a first draft might look: unfinished, interested more in movement and change. The effect is one of surprise—the pages do not confine themselves to any predictable pattern, and even the frames of each image themselves seem to be in flux, sometimes very formally established as borders around the scene, sometimes subtly implemented through imprisoning windows or wallet-sized photographs, sometimes erased completely, replaced with clouds, white emptiness, or huge backdrops which expand beyond the limitations of the page and demand the most of our imaginations. We simply cannot see them coming, and that makes each page a profound sensory adventure.

Miss Nelson is Missing1

The obvious moral we may conclude here is that the reader, presumably an elementary school student, should be kinder to his or her teacher, and, if not, that kindness will be replaced by an iron fist and lots more homework. A fairly simple idea to communicate, but an idea nonetheless, beyond the realm of pure silliness or absurdity, and its successful passage from picture book to student’s head is helped by its story’s unrealistic art style. The messiness of Miss Nelson is Missing! serves not just as pleasant eye candy for the restless child—its abstract presentation allows for concrete messages to be communicated more effectively. Readers are tasked less with world-building, and more with moral-finding. And this is good, as the moral might be more complicated than what we first thought. One of the prominent features of the book is its cover, which gets repeated at the climax of the story, and the perspective it presents is noteworthy: we, the readers, are looking at the class as the teacher would.

Perspective

This might be the added effect of urging children to identify with their teacher as a means of fostering empathy. That’s all well and good, but when the book ends, its twist—that Miss Nelson was secretly Miss Viola Swamp the whole time—completely transforms her character from passive and pitiful into clever and authoritative. Are readers expected to feel bad for Miss Nelson, or are we expected to admire her? Perhaps the lesson is not so much to be kind to others, but rather to adapt flexibly and proactively to cruelty.

SQUIDS WILL BE SQUIDS

AesopLet’s drop our search of moral altogether. Or, rather, let’s turn moral on its head, and look to Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s eccentric Squids Will Be Squids (1998) for guidance. I emphasize morals here because Squids Will Be Squids works as an anthology of pseudo-fables, each with their own pseudo-morals, directly challenging the notion that children’s books might best act as vehicles for betterment and instruction over nonsense and fun. This book tells its readers up front it was inspired by Aesop’s fables, hilariously insisting that the tradition of fable-telling started as a sneaky method for publicly spreading gossip about your neighbors by simply changing their names into animals. It’s more or less a sound argument, really.

Squids RPS

If Miss Nelson comes across, at first glance, like the work of an amateur artist, Squids is the dedicated hobby-project of a psychotic shut-in. Smith’s pictures range drastically in color, style, and frame, fiendishly avoiding any sense of a dominating perspective or fixed world with clear-cut characters (though photo cut-outs are frequently involved). Every page reserves itself for one “fable,” so the accompanying artwork serves less as an emotional vehicle for some overarching narrative and more as a singular tone to complement each tale individually. Unlike the first two books, Squids most boldly explores art for art’s sake, even using its text as an opportunity to play with expression and resonance in a variety of ways, shifting font styles and sizes as a means of communicating particular emotional ideas. When Scieszka and Lane want one character’s mother to come off as intimidating, for example, they have her text in a larger font—though, cleverly, they avoid the all-caps reflex, allowing the mother to maintain equanimity while still coming across as an undeniable authority. The size of text also works to emphasize moments of critical choice and failure, hinting the intended meaning and humor behind each of these stories. They are, I suppose, quiet moral prescriptions, but the emphasized intent is laughter—if they help remind a kid to call his or her parents when they’re going to be late, hey, that’s a bonus.

Elephant and Mosquito

This book works so well less because of any one story’s premise and more because of the overall hilarious and cynical voice of the narrator, who commands our attention not simply because they make fun of these poor and insufferable “animals” but because they invite us to join in on the mockery. After all, you aren’t always the one who needs a lesson—sometimes you just want somebody on your side. Squids seems to be saying boy, people sure suck sometimes. Don’t you think people suck? Look at how much these people suck. I don’t know why they suck, but they do. Be careful out there. 

THE LITTLE HOUSE

There are many ways to tackle the ‘people problem’ in children’s books. Stories which focus locally on friend or family relationships have the advantage of being immediately relatable for kids. But there are books which attempt to cover a much wider, global ground. Some are quite explicit about this intention, like the climate change genre emerging in our market today (with less than stellar results among its readers). There are other books which enclose their global message in layers and layers of subtle complexity, relying less on explicit instruction and more on general concepts and feelings which illuminate these very real problems and their very real origins through instinct and quiet logic. Virginia Lee Burton might be considered a master of this art with her book The Little House (1942), a simple story about a house located in the rural country, a house which endures through many generations a change of pace and society as her idyllic green pasture is bulldozed and giant, looming skyscrapers sprout and blossom in its stead. What makes this book so ingenious is its fixed frame; on almost every single page the little house is identically placed just below center, at an equal distance away from the reader, gently encouraging a position of observation over participation. This means our task is to watch, and watch carefully, as the house braves the day and the night, the changing seasons, and, ultimately, the progress of civilization itself. While there are human characters in The Little House, they are kept far from us, appearing small, though not insignificant, just a part of the greater pictorial whole. This leaves the house herself as the prime entryway for human connection: by depending somewhat on our impulsive instinct to turn inanimate surfaces into faces, Burton subtly composes a face out of the windows, front door, and stoop. The text she writes gives the house feelings, and, when civilization comes knocking at her door, constructing towers that block the sun and streetlights that vanquish the moon, running subway lines across her front yard and leaving soot in their trail, subjecting her to broken windows, boarded doors, and a cruel and ironic abandonment amidst an ever-growing metropolitan population, we can feel her sorrow, we can stay attentive to her sadness, while she remains fixed pictorially in the same spot, just below the center, pulled down by the weight of the big city as it takes its greater hold.

Little House Country and City

Is The Little House a commentary of the apparent evils and unnatural character of city sprawls and overdevelopment? Though it is a tempting position to take, we should watch out for making this assumption. The house is clearly stated as not liking life in the city, yes, but she makes no effort to condemn or police the others around her into this line of thinking. In truth, she has no agency whatsoever. She is simply subjected to these changes, and it is humans, descendants of the family that once lived in her (descendants now living in that oppressive city) who eventually secure her safe escape. The darkly ominous buildings, the smoggy skies, all of these touches, then, are meant to reflect the house’s perception of change and her distaste for it. The number of people we see, the bustling crowds that take over the scene, argue that city life may indeed be a fine and dandy place to live…for a human. It may not, however, be the best place for a house. Burton only ingeniously implies what this might mean for all of us taking it in.

The Little House Seasons

What Burton and The Little House do more openly—and they do this quite well—is present for young readers a very practical conception of time. At the beginning of the story, we get a full visual scope of the sun’s cheery trajectory as it rises and sets over the hills. This illustrates time’s pivotal presence in the book. And sure enough, the next page shows us night, and the pages to follow portray the seasons, one after the other. It is only once time is firmly established by its daily and annual characteristics that Burton begins to drive the developing society plot. This allows for her readers to conceive of the wider idea at hand: though time is cyclical, it also brings with it change, and change can have a tremendous effect on the world we live in. This idea familiarizes us with nature and its physical mechanics, it encourages skepticism and suspicion of innovation for the sake of itself, and it evokes curious inquiries into the past, encouraging in all of us the thought of what life might have been like in its former simplicity. This daydream is purposefully abstracted from any specific plane of history, as we are not meant to infer that life was objectively better in our past—we are simply given encouragement to consider these profound and influential ideas theoretically and contemplate how they best and practically be applied to our world, in our time.

∗∗∗∗

At this point, I should acknowledge that while my original intent was to separate children’s books’ popularity from their economic worth, I have somewhat ironically chosen four commercially successful books for this undertaking. It would be wishful thinking to believe the choices children make (or the selections libraries make, for that matter) are completely divorced from the world of money. And it would be foolish thinking, too—economic value can be a pragmatic form of measurement for determining the cultural worth of something. To suggest a book’s price is totally determined by its marketing and not at all by its content would be entirely too dismissive of our own humanity. To have steadfast faith in the purity of this system, however, would be a cultural disaster. The key, and this always seems to be the key, is to strike a balance between numbers and originality. There are more gems that slip through the cracks of our national billboard than not. There are books which have inherited practically no cultural value whatsoever, yet their content is marvelous and profoundly resonant. We ought to be more watchful for these.

For the sake of example, I would like to talk about one more book: Dinosaurs of the Land, Sea, and Air (1989). A book with vibrantly-colored scenes and dynamic characters, an inspirational bedrock for dinosaur fandom that entered this world well before the likes of the Jurassic Park franchise staked its claim on our imaginations. This is the first book I ever remember reading, and though it is packed with text, I can still attest to its readability by a four-year-old’s standards—not in its verbal story, but through its brilliant and immersive pictures, drawn with obvious care and affection. I spent weeks searching for this book’s continued existence (after letting its memory dance around in the back of my head for the last twenty years), going off of only a few trace images and a vague notion of its plot. Upon rediscovery, I found most of these pictures so immediately familiar—as if I had last flipped through them only hours before, rather than decades—despite their absence from any commercial iconography. I considered then the profundity of images as living, dynamic entities, outside of public worth or cultural longevity. The artists’ work clearly had an effect on me.

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One thing that separates Dinosaurs from the rest of the books we’ve looked at is its unrestrained depictions of violence. None of the work comes off as gratuitous, but it really doesn’t shy away from exposing its readers to the brutal nature of animal life. Villainous predators and hormonal herbivores, lowlife scavengers and still life decomposers, blood and guts, flash floods and cliff deaths, lightning storms, loneliness, at-risk-youth and the horrors of senectitude, no matter what page you turn to, this book is dense with dino-drama.

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While in some ways the art of Dinosaurs might most closely resemble Tuesday in its faith to a representative world, the notion of “reality” plays an interesting role here, as the illustrations are required to show us landscapes of a place far away in time, so far away we can’t really be sure of their portrayal’s accuracy. Thus the book challenges its own sense of realism by employing a variety of artists, one for each chapter, all with varying styles and different takes on species which often reappear in multiple stories. The intent, then, is one less concerned with literal accuracy and more interested in offering its readers access to a variety of immersive, visual platforms to entertain and build off of these historical fantasies. Or, to put it simply: they aim to inspire wonderment.

Though Dinosaurs never made the front pages of Amazon, there’s more than enough going on here to warrant its place on any recommended reading list. Even parents looking for books rooted in moral education should check out this title. While no conventional fables or relatable lessons are employed, the narratorial voice itself encourages readers to be environmentally-conscious, and carries a kind and respectful tone for all of the dinosaurs detailed in each story. The introduction even asks us to think of the earth as “a big house” that must be respected, this book our private access into its past. The message of dutiful observation supports any reader’s natural curiosity while urging them to think proactively about how they interact with the world around them. The book couples this somewhat scientific tone with personable characters in the dinosaurs themselves; none of these reptiles speak or have explicit thoughts, but the writers tactfully balance objective descriptions with relatable feelings—when a Chasmosaurus gets separated from his herd, he might feel “lonely and vulnerable,” another dinosaur might be “amazed” or “surprised.” These descriptions are ambiguous enough to remain faithful to animal consciousness as we seem to know it, while still opening the door and bridging the gap between feelings and instinct, providing its readers with valuable insight into their own animal nature.

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Regrettably, it is far too easy for us to overlook the brilliance, sophistication, and dignity of children’s literature in our well-intended pursuit of what we might consider higher arts or instruction. There is a wealth of intellectual profundity and a vast, expansive plane of emotional and psychological stimulation to be enjoyed by all ages here, and while there will be duds along the way, that is not at all unique to this genre, and indeed a risk we take when we click on any bestseller catalog. In searching for the “best” we ought to go with our senses first—what pictures are immediately interesting? What resonates without any verbal encouragement? In style, in subject, in mind, in viscera. When flipping through its story—if it has one—what’s the overall content? What is it saying on its surface? And, if we entertain nuance, what could it be saying on a deeper, quieter level? How do our ideologies and our instincts marry? I like to have this conversation frequently. This is a luxury of adulthood. Children are granted the pleasures of exploring these books un-intellectually, for the pure joy of reading, yet the unconscious building and crafting of inner worlds still takes place within them. As an adult, I am privileged a greater well of consciousness to work with, expanded in part by a history of quietly reading books like these, so I can more fully enjoy and comprehend their powers. The relationship between reader and text is one rich in intimacy, yet it is a relationship frequently strained and neglected. A frontier, we might say, worth endless exploring.

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