Posts tagged childrens book

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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Old Thomas and the Little Fairy by By Dominique Demers and Stéphane Poulin: a beautifully haunting picture book.

Old Thomas and the Little Fairy DSC01816

Picture Book

Ages 5-9

By Dominique Demers

Illustrated by Stéphane Poulin

32 pages

Dominique and Friends

2000

Out of print

 

Dominique Demers is a best-selling French-Canadian author but, sadly, most of her books have not made it across the border. Old Thomas is the only book by her I’ve ever read, and I adore it. Demers’s writing is beautiful; she carefully chooses her words, imparting as much information as possible without weighing down the story. It’s like a fairy tale—not in the usual sense, though the story does involve a fairy—in that it follows that clear, quick style of writing. With just a few short sentences readers are drawn into Old Thomas’s world.

This is also the only book I’ve ever seen illustrated by Stéphane Poulin, whose somber art is the perfect complement to this odd and touching story. Somehow dim and radiant at the same time, his deeply rich,  stark oil paintings seem to fill more space than the pages that contain them. Each spread is its own masterpiece. Old Thomas bears a striking resemblance to Geri from the Pixar short Geri’s Game and looms large on the pages in which he appears, especially in contrast to the small, delicate fairy.

 

Old Thomas lives alone by the ocean. He no longer fishes and he’s sworn off humans. He’s very old, and very angry. At night he walks the beach and shouts insults at the moon and stars. But when he finds a tiny girl no bigger than a matchstick washed up on shore, he cannot leave her behind. She’s probably not human, she’s so small; might she be a fairy? Old Thomas takes the diminutive being home.

DSC01830

He makes a small bed for her out of a shell; he drips rain water into her miniature mouth. Taking excellent care of his new charge, he brings her back to health. He starts walking the beach collecting sweet fruit for her and he begins fishing again. When he next goes out to shout insults at the sun, he discovers his anger has left him.

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One day Thomas is out in his boat catching fish for his wee friend when he is overcome by an ominous feeling; he rushes back to shore. Upon reaching his home he finds a large dog standing over the frightened girl. Thomas summons all his strength and courage and successfully fights off the beast. The girl, having fainted from the scare, awakens to a battered Thomas lying unconscious on the floor.

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Returning all the love and tenderness Old Thomas has shown her, she brings him sweet fruit and fish, but Thomas won’t have it. He knows his time has come and he’s ready to go.

“He no longer wanted to insult the moon or the sea, the sun or the wind. His little fairy was there at his side, safe and sound and wonderfully alive. Old Thomas was content.”

That night, Old Thomas surrendered himself to the sea.  As the waves washed him away there was a great chorus of birds singing, and the little girl disappeared. The beach was empty, save the “mulitcoloured pebbles, ribbons of seaweed and pearly nuggets” left behind.

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This is a beautiful and haunting story. Is the young girl a fairy? Has she appeared to prepare Old Thomas for his death? Why does she disappear after he dies? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it only matters that Old Thomas did not leave this world angry; he was able to love and be loved, however briefly, before it was all gone forever.

 

Buy the Book!

Amazon

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