Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
Inside Picture Books

Inside Picture Books

by Ellen Handler Spitz, Robert Coles


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Inside Picture Books

Mention a name from a beloved childhood picture book--Madeline, Corduroy, Peter Rabbit, Max and his "wild things"--and most adults can recollect a bright image, fragments of a story, the timbre of a certain reading voice, the sensation of being held, and best of all being together with someone and enveloped in fantasy. Why do picture book images shown to us as young children linger in our minds? How do picture books shape our lives early on and even later into adulthood? This book takes up such questions. It explores the profound impact of the experience of reading to children. Ellen Handler Spitz reveals how classic picture books transmit psychological wisdom, convey moral lessons, shape tastes, and implant subtle prejudices.

Each chapter of the book discusses well-known children's books--Goodnight Moon, Babar, Little Black Sambo, to name a few--that deal with a theme of importance to young children. These include bedtime, separation, loss, and death; curiosity, disobedience, and punishment; and identity and self-acceptance. Focusing on the relationship between a child and an adult reader, Spitz explains the notion of "conversational reading" and emphasizes the mutual benefits of dialogue and intimacy. This book not only gives parents, grandparents, teachers, therapists, and scholars a new understanding of the meaning of picture books, it also empowers adults to interpret and choose future cultural experiences for their children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300084764
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2000
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ellen Handler Spitz is a lecturer in the department of art at Stanford University. She writes and lectures widely on the arts, psychology, and culture. She is also the author of Art and Psyche and Museums of the Mind.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Pictures, Words, and Voices

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can even now hear my mother's voice as she read to me each evening when I was a child—both picture books and poetry. I remember the cadences and inflections, the lilt and verve, of her special reading voice. Nuanced and expressive, it pronounced each word slowly and distinctly and lingered lovingly over syllables or phrases. Not at all like her normal "hurry-up" voice, this one had the capacity to transport me to faraway times and places, to send tremors through my spine, to conjure exotic pictures in my mind even as her fingers pointed to details of images on the pages of a book. Best of all, it embraced me with an auditory ambience of coziness and warmth. In those evening hours, we stretched and grew together. We could be anywhere, with anyone; it was anytime; I was sure I could do, or have, or feel anything; and then, when it was over and all the clouds of make-believe dissolved, the safety of her presence remained to hold me.

    Unlike my mother, my father rarely read to me at bedtime; he would come in quietly, sit down beside me, and sing a lullaby. "Sweet and low, sweet and low, wind of the western sea...." The quality of his voice seemed to match the words as I lay under the covers with eyes closed, imagining blue waves, smelling salt air, waiting for the special kiss I knew would come when the last notes faded.

    In early childhood, the separations among different spheres of functioning are not yet firmly established, and young children come only gradually todistinguish clearly between dreams, fantasies, and waking states, between the self and others, between a picture and the thing pictured. Thus, the artifacts presented to them make a deep and lasting impression. Favorite songs and stories are repeated endlessly, and just as tastes are registered with high intensity, feelings too have a pungency, immediacy, and lability that may diminish in later years. In studying imagery in picture books, I have come to realize ever more poignantly the added power of the context of children's cultural lives—the crucial role of parents, teachers, other adults, and older siblings as mediators between them and the cultural objects they encounter.

    Taking up themes important in children's lives as my organizational device, I shall explore ways in which these themes have been treated through the medium of picture books. At the same time, however, the books themselves, as works of art in their own right, can be seen as generating a multitude of questions. Because my effort is in no way meant to be comprehensive, my hope is that these pages will serve as a guide from which you can freely extrapolate to develop your own approaches not only to the books discussed here but also to other books and to works in other media. I have set down reflections that are meant to be helpful in choosing, introducing, rendering, and interpreting cultural objects for young children.

    Picture books, unlike television and the other electronic media ubiquitously available today, require the participation of warm, breathing adult human partners who have available laps, keen eyes and ears, arms adept at holding while turning pages, and perhaps a flair for the dramatic. The political agenda of this book is thus to advocate for the practice of reading aloud to young children. Here are a few brief stories to support this project:

    In Los Angeles a few years ago, after a talk I gave on picture books at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, a graphic artist approached me. Brimming with reminiscences, she recalled her delight when, as a little girl, she would nestle up to someone big who would put his arm around her and read her a story. In this case, the someone was a beloved grandfather. To my astonishment, she reached into her bag on the spot and produced an old black-and-white photograph. There she was, not more than four or five years old, enraptured, her thumb in her mouth, her favorite doll, "Baby Snooks," cradled in her lap. She was listening intently as her grandfather read aloud. Contemplating that photograph in her presence, I became another witness to the scene, and as we gazed at the image together, the artist asked me to try and hear in my imagination the sonorous voice of this special granddad, who had been, she told me proudly, one of the last oldtime southern preachers. Visiting her family homestead in Georgia, she had spied a worn copy of the very children's book depicted in the photograph; opening it for the first time in thirty years, she realized with amazement that she could recall every scene: "As I turned each page, the images glowed in my memory."

    Last spring, in the course of several interviews with Harvard undergraduates concerning their memories of being read to as children, one sophomore recalled an incident that occurred when she was about six years old. Her mother had come into her room to read the usual bedtime story. Climbing into bed and under the covers with her little daughter, as was her wont, she selected, on this particular night, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, originally published in 1922. The little girl's fourteen-year-old brother happened to be passing by. Realizing that his mother was reading his own special favorite, he could not bear to walk away. Despite embarrassed feelings of being much too grown-up to stay, he lingered, trying to seem nonchalant and hoping no one would notice. Finally, unable to restrain himself any longer, he plunged headlong into his sister's room, climbed into her bed, and, settling himself under the covers, he continued to listen as their mother read the last pages of the story to them both. Teenage machismo proved no match for a spotted brown Rabbit with floppy ears, a Skin Horse, and the Boy who loved them.

    Some months ago, over coffee in my favorite Cambridge cafe, a fellow devotee of children's literature was debating with me the ethical implications of Father Rabbit's "accident" in Mr. McGregor's garden. Father Rabbit was put in a pie, you may remember, by Mrs. McGregor. A palpable silence revealed that our somewhat unusual conversation was being monitored by an elderly couple seated nearby. At length, leaning toward us, one of them broke in. It was a gray-haired lady who politely confided that, although she was not normally in the habit of eavesdropping on other people's private conversations, she had not been able to resist once she recognized our topic because (believe it or not, as she put it) in all the years of her life she had strenuously avoided drinking chamomile tea. This, she explained, was due to the fact that she had always supposed that Mother Rabbit gave chamomile tea to Peter as a punishment for his disobedience in going into Mr. McGregor's garden. Unlike his better-behaved siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, Peter had not received any bread, milk, or blackberries. All he got was chamomile tea. If, her little girl-self had reasoned, chamomile tea was a punishment, it must be a disagreeable substance. Recently, however, she had been persuaded to take a sip and, to her surprise, found its taste both distinctive and delicious. This discovery had prompted her entry into our conversation. Listening to us, she reflected that the change in her perception of chamomile tea might require a radical change in her understanding of its import and of the character of Mother Rabbit. Was, she wondered aloud, the chamomile tea given to Peter by his mother actually a punishment (as she had presumed), or was it a soothing remedy administered to the shivering little bunny in order to calm him down and settle his stomach after he had been so frightened and had consumed so many lettuces, French beans, and radishes? Was Mother Rabbit's behavior disciplinary and depriving or kind and restorative? And how might the answers to these questions change the meaning of the story as a whole?

    My companion and I were charmed with this interruption. We were struck by the fact that this elderly stranger had been so taken with a book encountered in her childhood that she had allowed an aspect of it to influence her lifelong culinary habits and keep her from even trying a certain beverage. Beyond this, her devotion was strong enough to make her break into our conversation and engage with us in our own ongoing interpretive efforts. A bond was instantly established. There we sat in the cafe, puzzling over the latent ambiguity of one of our childhood books more than ninety years after Beatrix Potter had first published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902.

    Apropos culinary habits and their susceptibility to the influence of early cultural experience, there is an unforgettable page in Jean de Brunhoff's The Story of Babar, originally published in 1933, on which the old King of the elephants happily consumes an innocent-looking red polka-dotted mushroom. Immediately below this picture, however, he is shown crumpled in pain, his brow furrowed and his crown slipping off. Most arresting of all, his normally gray elephant hide has changed to a bilious shade of green. "[The mushroom] poisoned him and he became ill, so ill that he died. This was a great calamity," reads the text. In my interviews with adults about their early reading, I have found several who were deeply affected by this scene. One woman told me that she avoids eating mushrooms to this very day but nevertheless continues to cherish The Story of Babar—a picture book of such extraordinary power that it was able to alter a tiny aspect of her behavior forever.

    A recent autobiographical piece in the New Yorker by literary editor Robert McCrum reports that, after three months of marriage, he suffered a massive, incapacitating stroke. The bleakness of his convalescence was brightened, however, by moments when his wife read to him from their favorite children's books. The scene he evokes is one of extraordinary tenderness and warmth as the young couple returns to such books as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Charlotte's Web (1952). "There was something profoundly consoling about these old friends.... I found my thoughts returning to childhood ... and then moving forward through the years," he writes. This unfortunate couple, battered by fate and forced physically apart, were able to reinstate their capacity to be together in other deeply satisfying ways through reencountering, in the form of these old books, a heretofore unexplored common heritage. McCrum's description may remind readers of parallel moments in their own lives.

    Each of these anecdotes bears witness to the formative power of early cultural experience and its role in determining the attitudes and behavior of adults. Because of the partnership they require, my choice has been to study picture books as opposed to the other representational objects and phenomena available today for children. Adult participation—physical, emotional, and intellectual—is vital in the cultural lives of young people. It matters both for learning and for pleasure, which go hand in hand.

    I shall take up a selection of picture books and examine them thematically along psychological, ethical, and aesthetic axes—the psychological being paramount. My goals are several. First, to enrich communication between adults and children by demonstrating approaches and posing questions that can be extrapolated from the examples given here and reapplied elsewhere. This goal requires looking closely at pictures, words, and their internal negotiations as well as at their more far-flung associations. The finest picture books, after all, must appeal to the minds and hearts not only of the children to whom they are principally addressed but also of the grown-ups who select, buy, and read them aloud. They must, in short, appeal cross-generationally. To do this, they need to convey meaning on several levels.

    Every now and then, I shall point out instances in which the children with whom I have been reading differ from adults in their understanding of a pictorial detail or a narrated event. Interestingly, even when young children correctly discern an author's or artist's intended meaning, they often perceive quite different meanings in the text or image that also make sense to them. Adults, on the other hand, rarely look beyond the intended meaning. One of my purposes here is to sensitize adult readers to the variety of "other" meanings that may be consciously perceived by children but tend to fall outside the purview of artistic choice, intention, and control. If you are curious about this phenomenon, you can readily experiment with it by eliciting alternative readings to pictures in improvised dialogues with the children you know. Such dialogues in the presence of books and in the act of turning pages together constitute a kind of conversational reading. To foster it is an important goal of this project.

    Another objective is to suggest some partial answers to my own question as to why certain picture books have survived for so long. Some that I will consider have retained their popularity for over half a century; others are more recent. Their publication histories are extraordinary. As of February 1996, for example, well over nine million (9,331,266) hardcover copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit had been sold in the United States alone. Available records of domestic sales of The Story of Babar show 788,971 hardcover copies and another 1,166,497 copies of just one paperbound edition had been sold as of the same date. The Velveteen Rabbit records show sales of over three and a half million copies in paperbound editions (see "All Time Bestselling Hardcover Children's Books," pp. 27-32). One reason that I have not, in this project, focused a great deal of attention on contemporary books is that I am intrigued by the phenomenon of "staying power" and by what makes certain books irresistible to successive generations. By disclaiming any attempt to be comprehensive, I hope to forestall disappointment on the part of those readers whose favorites have not made it into these pages.

    My initial hunch is that the popularity of classic picture books derives from their remarkable capacity to tap ongoing issues of deep emotional significance for children. The picture books that became classics do so, I suspect, because they dare to tackle important and abiding psychological themes, and because they convey these themes with craftsmanship and subtlety. Musicality, rhyming, visual artistry, humor, surreal juxtapositions, elegance, simplicity, and suspense combine in them to construct layers of meaning that reward countless hours of cross-generational reading.

    The importance of craft and workmanship deserves emphasis. This is especially clear when we think of the spate of "psychological self-help" books for young children that have recently appeared on the market. These contemporary picture books deal didactically and often quite superficially with difficult real-life situations. My response to them, as a genre, is that although there is surely a place for them, their influence may prove to be short-lived, in part, because so many of them lack the aesthetic qualifies necessary to engrave a book on children's hearts and cause it to be passed on to new generations. Artfulness implies subtlety, and subtlety is as important to the success of a children's book as it is to works designed for adults. A book may focus directly and pointedly on a specific emotional and/or social problem, but if it cannot tell a good story, provide visual stimulation, and engage its audience in an imaginary world, it will fall by the wayside. A book that can do all of the above, on the other hand, may teach a child wonderfully rich lessons about life and death, about goodness, sadness, evil, conflict, and so on.

    This point of view was corroborated recently at a university bookstore. Near the entrance, an enticing table of children's books had been strategically placed under a sign that read: "GREAT VALUES: CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR $1.29 OR LESS." These were, however, rejected wares that the store was trying, rather desperately, to unload. With pen in hand, I noted the following titles from the display: My Big Sister Takes Drugs; I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much; I'll Never Love Anything Again; She's Not My Real Mother; Mommy and Me by Ourselves Again; I Am No Cry Baby; At Daddy's on Saturdays; and Our Teacher's in a Wheelchair. Their quality varied. I noticed, however, that the discount table contained none of the books that are discussed in these pages, and that the sales table, despite its inviting sign and location, was attracting minimal attention from browsers.

    Turning away to leave the store, I happened to notice a father holding hands with his little son; tucked under his arm was a copy of The Little Engine That Could, first published in 1930, a book that had not been placed on the discount table. I asked him whether his son was already acquainted with this book. The young man smiled and nodded, explaining that it was because The Little Engine That Could was such a favorite with his son that they had decided to buy another copy to give as a birthday present to a friend. Why did this nearly seventy-year-old book continue to appeal whereas a whole tableful of newer, more overtly psychological ones did not?

    At stressful junctures in a child's life, during certain crises, I believe that self-help books such as the sort I saw on the remainder table might prove useful. By dealing explicitly with painful situations, they might provide the occasion for opening a dialogue between parents and children. By bringing potentially embarrassing, shame-laden, or tragic issues into the open and making them public, they might, at best, give parents and children permission to talk about them with each other. Yet, beyond that beginning, I suspect that genuine psychological power comes from a very different place—from metaphor and symbol rather than from forthright representations of what is near at hand. As child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg (1959, p. 23) once put it, "the child's contact with the real world is strengthened by his periodic excursions into fantasy."

    A gifted artist searches within and experiments to bring back pictures and stories from some other place. Using all her ingenuity (like Max with his wild things), she emerges with new worlds of signs and wonders. Only from such inventions, from scenes that fascinate in and of themselves but also evoke other times and places and people, can deep psychic work be accomplished. Those who cling to the here and now fail to achieve the desired effect because to remain in the realm of the familiar is to mobilize quick defenses, to bore, to weary, and therefore to constrict rather than expand horizons.

    Psychologically explicit (or what I am dubbing "self-help") books for children are not unrelated to other phenomena in our fin-de-siècle culture. In the mental health professions, for example, therapeutic interventions are expected to be brief, simple, straightforward, and quantifiable. These days, institutions and caregivers seem unwilling to reserve the time necessary for richly nuanced interpretative work that involves metaphor. They show little interest in rewarding the slow uneven process toward meaning that can lead to permanent therapeutic gains. Meaning and interpretation, however, remain central to the project of living a human life as well as to the narrower task of consciously altering human behavior. Perhaps this principle, though, to remain true, requires a background of personal freedom—a condition eroded daily in contemporary American culture.

    Admittedly a vague term in common parlance, imagination is a word to which I would like to give a very specific meaning in the present context. I take it to mean conjuring up inner possibilities—that is to say, the gratification of (sometimes impossible) desires and the provisional working through and mastery of basic fears by means of fantasy, mental adventure, and magical transformations. Picture books, encountered in the presence of adults, can, I propose, stimulate the imagination in this sense and strengthen young children internally for their ongoing discovery of the limitations of the real.

    To claim that the books examined in these pages touch on themes that matter perennially to young children will seem to fly in the face of contemporary critical voices that espouse pluralistic perspectives and hold that diverse cultures and even periodic changes within a culture may result in corresponding changes in human psychology. My conviction, nonetheless, is that bedrock issues of early childhood do remain in place—however disguised—from one generation to the next. If this were not true, we would be hard-pressed to understand how, across the blurred boundaries of time, space, gender, race, class, and age, human beings clearly have the capacity to understand and empathize with one another. Classic picture books remain beloved because wherever children live, and whatever the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or the texture of their hair, there is always a given body and mind and an unchosen set of parents to be reckoned with. There are daily separations and reunions to be negotiated; new worlds to be explored; love, jealousy, disappointment and aggression to be expressed; a maze of obstacles and opportunities to be appropriately defined and made peace with; final losses to be mourned.

    Engagement with psychological content, however, as I saw in glancing at the table of remaindered items, does not guarantee a favorite children's book. The representation of a significant theme stands the test of time only when it is so skillfully rendered that we come upon it gradually, and it does not diminish in power with each successive reading. Books that slightly hide their themes are not quickly abandoned. One mother told me that she always gave her son books to read that were a little beyond him, not only to stretch him but also to ensure that he would continue to seek them out and, in that way, form a lasting bond with them. In keeping with her sentiment, I have not grouped books into categories according to the ages of child readers. My sense is that the best books grow with their young readers and are rarely cast aside. Furthermore, issues of separation, self-assertion, and so on may be seen as constant throughout the early years of childhood.

    With regard to enduring appeal, a Columbia University professor told me that when his daughter came home for her first college vacation, she and a childhood friend spent hours together reading aloud from their favorite children's books. Giggles and exclamations emanated from behind her closed bedroom door. When his daughter described the experience to him afterward, he said he had the feeling that this return served a dual purpose: it was both a comforting reassurance that the past had survived intact and a clear marker of distance on the girls' path away from childhood toward maturity.

    Another case confirms the ongoing appeal of books beyond the specific years for which their publisher targeted them. A two-year-old boy habitually searched for the moons in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963). At every reading, he asked for the moon on any page where it is not represented. Later, when he was four years old, loving the book just as much, the same little boy had no interest whatever in the moons but now expressed anxiety during the wild orgy that occurs in the central pages of the book, where there are simply pictures and no words. Although it may seem rash to speculate in the absence of other information about this child, we might hazard a guess that, whereas issues of separation had preoccupied the boy when he first encountered the Wild Things, a different psychological issue—namely, the control of impulses—had by age four become a major theme in his young life. What intrigues me is the overarching fact that, in spite of whatever changes had occurred in his development and in the external world between the ages of two and four, this unique work of art was capable of keeping up with him, so to speak, and of symbolizing for him the ongoing major themes in his life—a testament both to its psychological resonance and power and to his own and to the match between them.

    In selecting what to cover here, I have chosen, with notable exceptions (mainly, Beatrix Potter) American picture books of the twentieth century that are still in print. Although it would have been a fascinating complementary undertaking, I have dealt only minimally with the details of their history. Similarly, my focus has not been on their artists and authors, although I have occasionally referred to them when their lives seemed central to my understanding. Rather, my psychological focus has led me to group these works by motif rather than by chronology or individual creator. Some books are mentioned more than once, and the first reference to each includes its original publication date so that interested readers can place it in historical context. In making choices about specific works, I have relied on criteria of psychological richness, aesthetic value (literary and pictorial), and longevity. Unable to deny the subjectivity of these criteria or of the ensuing selections, I can only beg your indulgence. There are simply too many outstanding picture books to able to squeeze all the good ones between the covers of an interpretive work such as this. Perhaps my work will stimulate further interpretive efforts on the part of others. If so, I shall feel well rewarded.


Table of Contents

Preface: A Greeting to My Readerxiii
1.Pictures, Words, and Voices1
2.It's Time for Bed23
3.Please Don't Cry76
4.Behave Yourself122
5.I Like You Just the Way You Are163
A Glance Forward and Back207
Picture Books Cited217
Secondary Sources221

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