Thursday, December 14, 2006

New Yorker Critic on Picture Books...

The other day my husband mentioned that the New Yorker had an article on the year in picture books. I was very excited to hear this. But I just got around to reading it, and it made me sort of annoyed. First, the writer of this piece, former New York Times reporter, New Yorker staff writer and nonfiction author Elizabeth Kolbert, starts by asking, "why do we tell stories to our children?" Her answer: "...mostly to get them to shut up." She explains it's an unspoken deal--parent reads story, kid goes to sleep.

I kind of feel bad for Kolbert if this is truly the case. That's not at all why I read books to my son. I read them because I love books. Because I want him to love books. Because I want him to learn. Because it makes me happy when he repeats lines or laughs or points out something in an illustration that I didn't see. But mostly because it's wonderful to have that quiet, kid-on-lap, one-on-one time together. (To get him to shut up, I give him an ice cream sandwich.)

Kolbert goes on to mention a number of classic picture books and some recently published titles by the likes of Peter McCarty, Ian Falconer, Lane Smith and David Wiesner. This also kind of annoyed me. Why do picture book roundups always include the books that everyone is going to buy anyway, the ones by Caldecott medalists that will be face out in B&N? I know publicists campaign to get their "A" titles mentioned in the press. But every now and them I'd love to see a piece about quieter picture books--some of those wonderful titles that don't have $100,000 marketing budgets, the ones that will get lost among the hundreds of others on store shelves.

As Kolbert discusses bedtime stories, she devotes several paragraphs to the ubiquitous Goodnight Moon, written by the bi-sexual, children hating, hunting club member Margaret Wise Brown, who apparently enjoyed watching bunnies "get ripped to pieces" despite the fact that she wrote about them in her books for young readers. "The arrangement in Goodnight Moon is completely uneven," Kolbert writes. "Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn't stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to die. But we both have to."

Never have I read an article on children's books that sucked the joy out of them. Never have I read an article on children's books that made me want to cry. Thank you Elizabeth Kolbert for doing both.


June said...

Don't fret, that article brought a lot of anger and much discussion on illustration/book groups to which I belong, and most people felt as you did.

It was quite a twisted view.

Meg said...

I can't believe the New Yorker even published such a dismal view of children's books... it's totally dismaying and unmerited.

Picture books rock! And I love reading them to my niece so I can watch the love and excitement in her eyes when she turns the page.

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