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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager: From Philip Nel’s Blog, Nine Kinds of Pie

Philip Nel is the author of several books about children’s literature and the director of Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature. He’s also the creator of the website Nine Kinds of Pie, which takes its name from a line in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

He recently published a post that I wanted to share with my readers titled “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager” in which he perfectly expresses all the things I think and feel about children’s books. And, like Nel, I began collecting children’s books as a teenager.

I’ve copied his post below, but I urge readers to check out Nel’s site as well.

 

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, citizens read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

Exactly.

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

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Stormy Night, a must have for every library.

Stormy Night

 

Picture Book (see page count)

Ages 8 and up

240 pages

By Michèle Lemieux

Kids Can Press

1996

 

The first time I read Stormy Night I was stunned. This was exactly the kind of book I wish I’d seen when I was a child, but one I still very much needed to see as an adult. The ideas raised and questions asked can sometimes be unnerving but the whimsical art is comforting and the overall tone is uplifting and encouraging. Profoundly addressing questions of self and the world around us, this book is a necessary reminder that we are never alone.

Stormy Night is not a typical picture book in format or content. It’s two hundred and forty pages long and 5.75 by 8.5 inches, an unconventional trim size. The text is sparse and largely philosophical, interspersing unanswerable questions with expressions of delight, despair, confusion and curiosity.

Beautifully rendered in black and white, the art perfectly complements the text in mood and tone. Some illustrations are full spreads, saturating the reader’s feelings. Other illustrations convey the enormity of life with only a small, understated line drawing.

The book opens with a storm brewing outside; inside a young girl is getting ready for bed. Her dog is by her side. The first text appears several pages in:

“I can’t sleep! Too many questions are buzzing through my head.”

 

The young girl, lying awake in her bed, ponders questions of science, of self and of life.

 

“Where do we come from?”

 

“Who am I?”

 

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in my body!”

 

She expresses feelings of joy, sadness, anger and uncertainty.

 

“I’d like to be able to do things no one else can do…”

 

“What exactly is fate?”

 

At the closing of this book our young thinker, finally able to sleep, curls up with her dog and a new and beautiful day dawns outside.

 

This perfect little package of a book is an absolute treasure and a must have for every library. It offers comfort to children, and reassurance to adults, that we are not alone—that the questions and feelings swirling around in our heads are normal, natural and universal.

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I am a Bunny: A frolicking bunny in red overalls.

I am a Bunny

 

Board

Birth-3 years old

By Olé Risom

Illustrated by Richard Scarry

26 pages

Golden Books

Originally published in 1963

 

Richard Scarry (rhymes with hairy) is best known for his Busy Town books. In Cars and Trucks and Things That Go he uses animal characters to introduce people and their professions, automobiles, machines, transportation and buildings. The illustrations in those books are detailed and accurate, as well as brightly colored.

The illustrations in this book are richer than his usual style; though they evoke the same joyous feelings that all his books share. The palette changes with the seasons and is always luminous. Each page is a work of art. And you get to experience the year of a young, frolicking bunny in red overalls!

“I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas. I live in a hollow tree.”

Thus begins the perfectly simple story, which follows Nicholas the bunny through each of the four seasons.

In the spring he likes to pick flowers and chase butterflies. In the summer he likes to lie in the sun and watch the birds.

In the fall he watches the leaves fall from the trees. In the winter he likes to watch the snow falling (me too!).

“Then I curl up in my hollow tree and dream about spring.”

I am a Bunny should be one of many Richard Scarry books in every young reader’s collection.

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