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The conflict between art and policy is a mainstay of human disagreement. Ten years ago, during the NEA wars, it flared up in its most literal form. But it’s always around, pitting description and prospection, on the one hand, against prescription and proscription, on the other—fantasy against reality, delight against duty, might against ought, the blooming-and-buzzing against the cut-and-dried. In journalism, it contraposes the dilatory, desultory meanderings of the essay with the cut-to-the-chase panderings of reportage. In criticism, it sets what’s good against what’s good for you.
The battle is particularly serious and fraught with worry in the field of children’s literature. Parents and teachers want to inspire and gratify their charges while keeping them from harm. Children have wants and fears—and tastes—of their own. Into the fray steps Stanford University art department lecturer Ellen Handler Spitz, an art/policy fence-straddler who with Inside Picture Books takes up our youngest citizens’ reading materials.
Adults who turn to Spitz for commentary and advice may not know exactly what they’re getting into. The presentation of her book makes it something of a Trojan horse. The secret inside? She’s a psychoanalyst. In the jacket blurb and press release, her publisher tells us that the author of Art and Psyche and Museums of the Mind “writes and lectures widely on the arts, psychology, and culture,” but doesn’t mention that the subtitle of the former book is A Study in Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics and doesn’t supply the current volume with a name that indicates its therapeutic provenance. News of her background comes courtesy of a foreword by renowned psychocuddle purveyor Robert Coles, who distances Spitz from the excesses of their profession and does his best to make this mother and educator appear without guile or method.
To attempt to soft-pedal Spitz’s retrenched Freudianism is to plant seeds of suspicion. And that’s a shame, because she has much to offer. She cares about children, she reads to them, and she listens to what they have to say—most of the time. But her greatest gift as a critic is that she is a patient, thorough, and penetrating reader. Willing to forgo the broad view for the deep, she lavishes, in a short book, up to a dozen pages each on stories that might scarcely fill a page. Grouping her chapters by theme—sleep and dreaming, death and illness, obedience and misbehavior, stereotype and self-image—she plumbs the ways picture books create their meanings.
Classic picture books, in print and in favor, provide for the bulk of Spitz’s ruminations. She dissects Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg, Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, and two-thirds of Maurice Sendak’s magisterial mid-career trilogy, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. (Outside Over There, one of the most challenging and poetic of all picture books and in print again after years of being unavailable, is pushed aside.) An advantage of this preference is that books likely to remain favorites of children for generations are fully examined, while unfortunate offerings of recent years—books smugly larded with adult-enticing cultural references (take a bow, Maira Kalman) or conceived as busman’s holidays and portfolio pads for designers and illustrators (you too, Henrik Drescher)—are allowed to begin what one hopes will be a short slide into ignominy.
Spitz also casts welcome attention on books that might otherwise escape notice. No fan of the wheaty ’70s back-to-nature look, I never would have given Carol and Donald Carrick’s The Accident a second glance. But Spitz puts this wrenching tale of a beloved dog’s death up against Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad’s much better-known cat-capper, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, and it comes out on top—heartfelt, true-to-life, and direct instead of shallow, cute, and evasive. Bodger’s gone, Christopher is furious, and only mourning and meaningful ritual are going to make it any better. But Barney? The 10th good thing is that he’s humus, and isn’t that precious?
A newer book that attracts Spitz’s censure is Love You Forever. She remarks that Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw’s 1986 best seller “last year reached its fourth paperbound printing.” What she doesn’t mention is that the book, also available clothbound and slipcased, is in its 58th printing overall. According to a contentious online discussion thread, in which it is universally described by its detractors as “creepy,” Love You Forever is a favorite gift book among adults, but it is no Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. Unless the hipster audience that keeps Kramerbooks flush with copies of The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts, The Holes in Your Nose, and other Japanese novelties has redirected its mirth from bodily functions to pathological mothering, Love You Forever bodes ill for those who would hope for an end to America’s persistent familial malaise. Spitz notes that the son in the book
has, apparently, only a two-mode repertoire: messing and sleeping, for his scenes of disruption alternate with bedroom scenes of total passivity. It is in these latter scenes, while he is asleep, that his gradually aging mother literally creeps in on hands and knees and, lifting him into her arms while he is unconscious (this is depicted as happening even when he has reached his twenties), she reaffirms her love for him as “a baby.”
In condemning certifiable behavior such as this, the psychoanalytic viewpoint triumphs, but many of Spitz’s assertions are up for debate. Throughout Inside Picture Books, she harps on texts that reinforce what she perceives as gender stereotypes. And though early on she briefly acknowledges that children don’t necessarily draw from a story the meanings that were placed there, instead manufacturing their own, she seems to think that young minds march in lock step to the song of her oft-invoked bete noire. “I want to make a strong plea for cross-gendered reading,” she writes, “for boys hearing stories about girls as well as the reverse. I advocate this practice in the hope that it may help boys to feel as comfortable identifying with little girls as girls of necessity have had to feel for generations about identifying with boys….”
Spitz is on to something with her espousal of tossing the gender salad come story time, but the practice is less rare than she thinks. I can’t be the only boy who loved Eloise as much as, say, Bartholomew Cubbins or who later found Ramona Quimby infinitely more memorable than Henry Huggins (a character I had completely forgotten about until I started rooting through the Beverly Cleary section at the library last Saturday) or who preferred Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys.
Spitz has a knack for looking for trouble where children are unlikely to perceive, or receive, any slight. She objects to the “disturbing” presentation of deadbeat mom Mayzie in Horton Hatches the Egg, protesting that “the female character is portrayed in a derogatory way.” But girls (and boys, for that matter) identify with Horton, not Mayzie. Although she laid the egg and is called by a feminine pronoun, actions speak louder than birds. What makes a parent is steadfastness. That’s what elephants are famous for, and children respect them for it. Besides, if birds are supposed to be responsible, why, a child might think, are so many of their kids in our fridge? All fun aside, the message of the book is that biology isn’t the whole of destiny; as Spitz notes, the creature that bursts from the eggshell at story’s end displays both pachydermatous and avian characteristics, Gregor Mendel be damned.
Another of Spitz’s readings can simply be extended to the point of reversal. Though she plausibly asserts that Madeline’s emergency appendectomy casts her into a submissive, feminized victimhood as recompense for her hoydenish ways, Spitz slips on the follow-through. She notes Bemelmans’ climactic scene, remarking, “Madeline stands up on her bed and, in a theatrical gesture, raises her polka-dotted pajama top to reveal her scar to her astonished schoolmates,” claiming it “plays on the confusions of little girls about their own bodies, about the actual location and description of their genitals.” But if you’re going Freudian on this, why not go all the way and call the removed appendix a wormlike vestigial penis? And don’t stop there. Take heed that Madeline’s defiant postoperative posture is one that arouses the envy of her chums. (Spitz attributes their adulation to the gifts she is showered with, but I’m having none of it; for another view of girls’ battle-scar boasting, turn to one of the virtuosic Plasticine illustrations in Barbara Reid’s new The Party.) Less masculine and more heralded than ever, Madeline will soon have the whole class pooh-poohing tigers and walking the balustrades.
Where Spitz unwittingly plays into gender stereotypes is in her own role as an author. She intermittently criticizes the conventional picture-book representation of women, particularly as mothers, writing, “Mothers in our culture, despite or because of their feminine gender, have been assigned the role of teaching the ‘civilized’ values of self-restraint and self-control to their pleasure-seeking toddlers.” But this is precisely the function she has given herself as a critic. Time and again she cuts herself off from textual pleasure, emphasizing encrypted meaning at the expense of formal values that may in fact arouse more attention from the young reader and ultimately make a story mean more to him or her. She observes that Sendak has named a character in his Nutshell Library not Peter but Pierre, a “foreign-sounding” name that “may…serve to defamiliarize the title character slightly and forestall an immediate identification with him,” apparently necessary because of the book’s “potentially frightening contents.” But she skips entirely the fact that “Pierre” rhymes with “I don’t care,” a phrase that is practically the character’s mantra—this despite her having just referenced the text’s poetic form. Spitz can see a verse’s music but remain deaf to it.
And though she’s good with plot and with the nonverbal contributions to it permitted by the picture-book format, her intermittent discussion of pictorial style is left wanting. A trip to the library (vital if you intend to extract the juice from Spitz’s writing; her analyses seem much more vivid if you’ve just read the stories) reveals a weakness on her part for brushy, somewhat hazy watercolor treatments that render facial features only partway. In Spitz’s mind, this style is appropriate to realistic evocations of complex family situations, and she cites a spate of issue-related books—Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Kimanne Uhler’s Always Gramma (Alzheimer’s) and Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler’s The Wall (the Vietnam War), as well as the aforementioned The Accident—that use it to advantage, making explicative art out of trauma while shunning the patness and condescension that characterize much of what Spitz calls “self-help.” (The quotes are hers; although a familiar adult genre, self-help for children is better known as “bibliotherapy,” a pejorative Spitz’s ilk is eager to avoid.)
As sensitive, clear, and necessary as these three books are, I can’t imagine a child begging for a copy of any one of them. None feel like something you’d want to read 50 times; none open up an imaginary world you long to return to. I’d hazard that individual taste in illustration style matters a great deal to children along these lines. Even after they are capable of reading, they often just look at the scenery, as if thumbing through an old National Geographic. When I was a tyke, I liked pictures that were what they were—clear, lively, strong, precise, and transparent, with no self-conscious artistry to get in the way of the imagery. There was a lot of latitude there. Dr. Seuss and Beatrix Potter were both titans to me. But the competent hackwork of My Book of Ships and The Big Book of Machines figured on my A-list as well. When you snap off an image from a narrative and take possession of it, where it came from matters less than that it’s yours.
The first time I can recall being punished by someone other than my parents, it was at nursery school. I refused to allow other children to handle my copy of Racey Helps’ Little Tommy Purr, a Peter Rabbit ripoff that told the story of a naughty kitten who played glorious, solitary hooky from school and wound up sick abed. I was banished to a low stair landing for what I regarded as an act of chivalry on behalf of a private treasure. I still have the book, its pages uncreased and unsullied by uncomprehending hands. Both on the page and on the landing, Tommy taught me a lesson I have carried throughout my scholastic and professional life: If you can stand the punishment, the crime just might be worth the trouble. An enforcer of enlightened societal norms and a staunch upholder of the ideal of “conversational reading” between adult and child, Spitz ultimately hops off the fence on the policy side, never broaching the question I asked of Little Tommy Purr: How can I get you alone? CP