There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us. When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul. Read more
Nearly four years into this whole parenting thing, I have no great unified theory of parenting. I do have a theory about kids books, though. To me, there is no failed literary experiment or abstruse academic text so baffling as the children’s book written by someone who has apparently never read a book to a child. What’s interesting about these books is that if you describe them they often don’t sound so terrible, but trying to read them you have no choice but to change the words. The words don’t track, don’t fit the story, don’t fit the pictures. They’re invariably overwritten. I’ve never gone along with the whole kill-all-the-adjectives and adverbs thing, but it’s really true for picture books.
With this lovely Ben Lerner LRB piece in mind, about (among other things) how the existence of Really Bad Poetry can help us think about what good poetry is, I’ve been thinking about what these baffling books can tell us about what makes a great book for little kids. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a good picture book aspires to the condition of poetry. That is, it has to use some combination of the things that make poetry poetry: condensed and/or heightened language, attention to rhythm, rhyme or sound, repetition and variation, attention to how words are presented on the page. With picture books of course that means not only arrangement and typeface but how the pictures interact with the words. A bad or mediocre picture book often reads like the author had an idea, often seemingly based on something they liked as a kid, wrote it up in excruciating detail, then had someone draw some related pictures.
So here are ten picture books that have given me a lot of pleasure, and that my son also loves. (There are lots of so-so books that kids love that can drive parents crazy with enough repetition; there are lots of crappy ones that can’t hold a kid’s attention; the really good ones appeal to both.)
Some of these are pretty well known but I tried to included some less known ones, or somewhat lesser known ones by well known authors.
In no particular order:
1) Harold’s Fairy Tale, by Crockett Johnson (1956).
One of many follow-ups to the also wonderful Harold and the Purple Crayon. An epitome of words and pictures synthesis, as Harold draws the world as the words create it. Lore Segal, best writing teacher I ever had once told a story about sharing a hallway with Malamud who told her he was writing a story about a runner, which was very hard, because he had to make the world he ran through. That’s what these books are about. For me, Fairy Tale is even better than the original because its story, about how creating an imaginary king and imaginary gardens, is so wittingly subversive. So imagine my delight to find out Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk) was a big old commie who wrote cartoons for the New Masses. The books are funny too. (An interesting thing I’ve learned is that a lot of children’s book authors and illustrators had really fascinating lives.)
“Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
Happy 125th birthday to Julius Henry Marx, aka Groucho Marx. I used to watch Duck Soup every day I was home sick from school. My father is a relentless pun-maker who loved to imitate Groucho’s rapid-fire style. I sometimes felt like I was playing Margaret Dumont, his unflappable straight woman dowager. I didn’t get a lot of it of course but I sort of loved the insulting double entendres, the loving feel behind them. In real life Margaret Dumont was a widow, like her characters, but not a wealthy one. She made movies to make a living, and the professionalism of not cracking up still astounds me.
Another fun fact: my son’s middle name is Julius, for my father’s father, and we like to joke it’s for Julius Rosenberg since is first name is for Ethel, my mother’s mother, but since I found out it was Groucho’s real name I’ve taken to thinking it’s for him too.
March 20th was blessedly the first day of spring and also would have been my Baubie’s 100th birthday. She lived 95 of them about as well as you can. She grew up in Minneapolis the oldest of five sisters, had two daughters and four grandchildren. She was a social worker and a faculty wife who loved her college community – much of my stubborn romanticism about academic life is thanks to her, her bookshelves, and her stories about Saul Bellow’s various wives. She was a widow for al…most thirty years who remade herself in every way. I first read the New Yorker at her apartment by the lake in Chicago. She took me to the Art Institute countless times and taught me to remember one thing in particular from each visit because you can’t remember them all. The last time she visited New York we went to see Avenue Q and she was a good sport about the puppet sex. She stayed at the Wellington hotel that visit and this week I happened to walk by it on St. Patrick’s Day and suddenly felt her presence among all the drunken kids stumbling around. I remembered taking the bus with her downtown, talking about Mary McCarthy. Those were my people, she said, the college girls of the Depression, a little eccentric but had their heads screwed on straight. She loved books but wanted to know why so many great writers had such a pessimistic view of the world. I never came up with a good answer to that one. She died just over a year before Eli was born and when I found out I was having a boy I had a dream that she said “I thought we’d never have another boy again!” Family legend has it she once had five boys call her in a single night to ask her to the same dance – I can believe it looking at this picture. Happy birthday Baubs.