When it comes to classic kids books, an adjective that gets thrown around a lot is “timeless.” An author or illustrator who wins that particular plaudit is seen as having created characters whose actions and emotions are genuine, clearly wrought, and recognizable to the children of any era. But I actually think timelessness has less to do with any positive attribute that it is the absence of datedness.
A case in point: The Story About Ping, written by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. At one point it was an unquestioned classic, read to millions weekly by Captain Kangaroo. Now it is forgotten, and I don’t think on merits but fashion.
A modern parent picking up Ping would quickly put it down, for fear of being caught perusing racist material. The book was published in 1933, and it’s a legitimate concern that something written about the Chinese in that day and age was racist. The nature of children’s illustration in the 1930’s leaves little chance that drawings of the era won’t seem racist to the modern reader, even if the artist was the rare type who wouldn’t bring greater caricature to the boatman on the Yangtze river than he would the Irish cop on the beat in Chicago. However, Wiese was exactly that sort of artist. He spent six years in China as a young man and won a Newberry Award and a Caldecott Honor for other books set in the country. Too often, the artists who break down barriers wind up looking the most dated, precisely because of what they took on.
The shame of it lies in the utter beauty of the illustrations. Wiese’s line work is both daring and flawless–a hard combination to pull off–and he overcomes the production limits of his day with an intense use of the colors available to him.
The datedness, however, is not limited to the drawings. The story revolves around a duck who doesn’t want to get spanked with a pole for being the last one back aboard his boat, so he runs away. He gets caught and is threatened by being turned into dinner. “I will cook him with rice at sunset tonight” has got to be the most terrifying line I’ve ever read in a kids book. And yet, I also love that line, and also that the duck’s home is “the wise-eyed boat”, for the eyes drawn on either side of its bow.
The basic elements of Ping are positively timeless: it is the story of wanting to run away to avoid punishment, the fear of being alone, the kindness of strangers, and the joy of returning home. The parts that are dated speak to changes in culture its author and illustrator were surely hoping to help effect.
Galatea, of course, cares about none of this. She loves the cute duck, all those boats, and a happy ending. Timeless indeed.
It’s been fascinating to see what kind of new Madeline adventures kids come up with when I do school visits. I am realizing that the single most differentiating factor is not geographical or age but class size. The most exciting, original tales tend to come from kids in groups of fifteen to fifty kids. There’s definitely a breaking point above that, where kids are either giving safe answers that they think no one will make fun of, or give joke answers–Miss Clavel gets run over by a truck!–that are meant for a laugh. Inevitably, the end result is a boring story. Except when it’s not.
The kind folks at Books, Bytes and Beyond took me into a couple of large public elementary schools in north Jersey. I could only try my exercise on one group, an assembly of about 150 kids. The tale began in fairly pedestrian fashion. Madeline and the girls take a cruise ship to New York, visit the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and the Empire State Building, where Madeline happens into a room where she finds a man holding onto the ledge of a window by his fingertips. How will Madeline get him out of this jam? As I take suggestions I’m thinking I have no idea how to solve this one and that instead of coming up with an ending it’s going to be one of those Why-don’t-you-go-home-and-think-about-it-on-your-own situations. The first suggestions from the kids bear out this fear: Madeline reaches out the window and pulls the man up. (But she’s a small girl and he’s a grown man.) She gives him a rope and pulls him up. (Again, she’s the smallest, remember?) She finds an adult to help. (Boring!)
Just as I’m about to throw in the towel, a kid in the front row suggests that Madeline take some bubblegum, stick one end to the imperiled man and the other to the elevator and send it down. (Brilliant!) The kids vote to change the bubblegum to a rope, and the story is successfully concluded.
The best thing about going to book festivals is meeting other authors. At the Los Angeles Times Book Festival over the weekend I met such folks as Mo Willems, Mark Teague, Garth Nix, Sam Irvin (author of a biography of Eloise creator Kay Thompson), and Rachel DeWoskin, the decidedly non-kids author of Foreign Babes in Beijing. But the one person I set out to meet was Tao Nyeu, whose books are one of the surest signs of a well-curated kids section. Such places are recognizable in an instant; the turned-out covers let you know that the bookseller wants to promote and celebrate the art of the children’s book rather than emphasize best-sellers and tired old “evergreen” classics.
A printmaker, Tao works in a style that is a kind of neo-Nabism crossed with smooth-edged psychedelia. As an artist, what most impresses me about Tao is her use of the white space of the page. You feel the creation of the art, which perfectly suits Wonder Bear, a wordless book about creating worlds out of nothing.
Wordless books are a notoriously hard sell in a read-aloud market, but they are perfect for a child Galatea’s age, where a story need be for steering purposes only, and the whole point is to get lost in the pictures and the characters. Gal’s favorites are the spider monkeys, who emerge as a gang out of Wonder Bear’s magical top hat in a scene that inverts the plot of Caps For Sale, another gloriously trippy book that Gal dearly loves.
Wonder Bear and Spotty–which Gal now reads one after the other, back and forth–present a stark contrast between new and old, wordless and wordy, but both demonstrate that the essence of the picture book lies in images telling a tale, and that the fun of them lies in the interpretation.
A favorite bookstore, both for doing events and browsing–their non-fiction selection can’t be beaten–is Mike Barnard’s Rakestraw Books in northern California. I mentioned Galatea’s obsession with rabbits–or rather, zabbits–and Mike asked if we’d ever read Spotty. We had not.
Spotty is cute. In fact, it gets no cuter than Spotty, a little rabbit who is born with brown spots all over him. It is a classic outcast tale–all Spotty’s brothers and sisters are pure white with pink eyes, and his mother worries that he won’t be accepted. At first, Spotty doesn’t understand the concept “different”, but when he does, he tries using spot remover on himself and, that failing, sets off alone in the world. Gal’s favorite page is the one where Spotty’s siblings go looking for him, searching the old-style ice-box and oven, although she thinks they’re looking for pizza. One of the great things about reading to a two-year old is that you don’t have to follow the text.
Gal also loves the Momma rabbit crying, but then she loves the image of anyone crying. When I ask Gal how her day has gone, her own tales–narrated in strings of adjectives, nouns, and unconjugated verbs–are rarely accurate, but the one detail she unfailingly gets correct is the moment when she or one of her playmates cry. Not that it makes her sad–crying delights her. It is an action brought on by emotions that she understands perfectly, and the understanding brings her immense joy. Or that is at least my own armchair psychologist reading of it.
Spotty is one of the more popular non-Curious George books by Margret and H. A. Rey. It has too many words, as do so many books of that era, but thankfully Gal does not as yet demand that we read every story exactly and unabridged. While the book does not have the iconic value of Curious George–nor does it deserve it–the drawings are better, or the story at least plays better to the strengths of H.A. Rey, with its enormous array of adorable bunnies.
Last year, we went to the White House Easter Egg Roll to do a final bit of research for Madeline at the White House and, frankly, it was miserable. It was too hot, Galatea was too young, and there were too many people. Going this year was better in every respect. Gal is still a little young to enjoy being in big crowds–or that’s just her personality–but she still went wild when she saw Elmo, Abby, and Rosita from Sesame Street all working the crowd. (She didn’t want them to touch her, but still.)
It was a thrill for me because I actually got to read Madeline at the White House at the White House. Or rather, on the South Lawn, where they had set up a storytime stage. The kids loved seeing the pictures of the egg roll, and I got a kick out of being able to point to the windows in the house where the action was taking place, and the Washington Monument when it comes up at the crucial moment of the story.
The real thrill, however, was meeting the Obamas. I had no idea it was going to happen–the schedule I was given said that there was a Meet and Greet, but I assumed that was just for the other people performing, which was cool enough. I figured if we were actually meeting the president, someone would have told me. But a little after nine, we were all rounded up and led into the White House.
Andromache and Gal and I had been there the day before for a tour of the West Wing, and therein lay the problem. Andromache had been prepping her for days. “What house are we going to?” she would ask. “White,” Gal would respond. “Who lives there?” “Rock Omama.” Gal kept it together great on the tour, especially when she got handed three boxes of White House red, white, and blue M&Ms, something she had never had the good fortune to sample. So now, when were were getting led into the East Wing, when Andromache asked, “What house are we going to?” Gal answered, “Candy!”
We made it just up the stairs to the ballroom where we were to meet the First Family when she started bawling. Every parent knows it: Why now? For god’s sakes, when you are the perfect angel for forty-seven out of every forty-eight hours, why now? “Candy! Candy!” she said. We let her down on the ground, and she made a bee line for the other side of the room, where the secret service agents were guarding the Obama’s entrance. We had to keep dragging her back wailing.
Andromache managed to calm her mostly, and we got into line, somewhere behind Geena Davis and Kelly Ripa, and right in front of Chef Marcella, whose son Fausto amused and calmed Gal. The Obamas came in the room with their dog Bo, his leash trailing behind. They began to meet and take photos with each group on line, and the move up seemed to take forever. The boy band Mindless Behavior were right in front of us, and Malia and Sasha gave them big hugs and said how great they were. Then it was our turn.
The president shook Andromache’s hand, then mine. Andromache said to Gal, “This is Barack Obama.” Gal shook her head no, pointed out the door, and said, “Rock Omama!” He laughed and said, “Oh yeah, he’s over there. I’m not Barack Obama–he’s that guy on TV.”
We then met the girls and Mrs. Obama, and were positioned for our photo, with Andromache next to the First Lady and me next to the president. It was shocking when he put his arm around me, and after a pause I figured I should do the same, although it was more like I put my arm around the air around his shirt. The photographer had to keep taking shots, because Gal kept crying, but she thought she finally got a good one. We’ll see in a few weeks.
When I’m talking to school groups and the kids’ eyes begin to glaze over, I have them do my favorite exercise: come up with a new Madeline adventure. Over the last four days, Madeline has gone to Ireland (Ten Acre Country Day School in Wellesley, MA), China (Interlakes Elementary School in Meredith, NH), New Hampshire (Interlakes again), and back to China (Main Street School, Exeter, NH).
To go to Ireland, Madeline dressed all in green, except for her socks (they stayed white). On the Emerald Isle she met dueling leprechauns who each tried to trick her into helping them steal a pot of gold from an eagle’s nest. Madeline wound up tricking them, and getting the gold for herself; with the money, she bought Miss Clavel a coffee maker. In China, she went to a restaurant where got a fortune cookie that read, “Misfortune is coming your way.” Shortly thereafter, she was kidnapped by a skinny and unsuccessful sumo wrestler; Madeline became his trainer, feeding him ice cream and candy to so he would get fat. In New Hampshire, she climbed Mt. Washington and fell down a fifty-foot hole, where she met a monkey who wanted to do the cha chacha with her. Back in China, she climbed the Great Wall and fell off the other side.
The kids inevitably want Madeline to visit a new place, go to a restaurant, and get sick. They also tend to want the poor girl to get hurt in some way and go back to the hospital. She usually makes a new friend–at the Hutchison School in Memphis, TN, she dated Justin Bieber–and often she meets an enemy. There are a lot of high places and falling that goes on, and usually at least one off-the-wall moment, such as a stampede of dinosaurs at a library in Brooklyn. Plausibility means little, until the ending. For the resolution, the kids needs something that is both fun and also makes sense. The kids in Exeter couldn’t agree on a satisfactory way to get Madeline back over the Great Wall to Miss Clavel and the other girls. Some of the kids’ suggestions–Madeline finds a ladder, a rope, a helpful adult–were considered too mundane by their fellow classmates, and then other suggestions–she takes a boat, she climbs on the back of a dragon–didn’t seem realistic enough. The kids in Meredith, on the other hand, were unanimous with how Madeline should get out of the hole in Mt. Washington–she got on the monkey’s back, who clambered right up on out of the cave.
Thanks to Wellesley Booksmith, Innisfree Bookshop, and Water Street Books for arranging the visits. And, of course, the kids, for giving me ideas. Expect to see Madeline Does the Cha Cha Cha with a Monkey in bookstores soon.
An addendum to my last post: When it comes to books whose appeal I didn’t understand before I had a child, #1 on the list has to be Goodnight Moon. GM completely escaped me growing up–I don’t remember ever having seen it before I was an adult. I read it a few times over the years in book stores, trying to figure out why it was a classic, and failing. To me it seemed strange yet boring, an odd trick to pull off. Someone gave us the book when Galatea was born, and it was one of the first books my wife read her to sleep with. The key thing I noticed was that it worked. Gal fell asleep, usually before the book was done. So I tried it myself. Whereas other books left her wanting more, Goodnight Moon had Gal unable to fight off the sandman. At first I thought the book was boring her to sleep, but as I read it to her night after night (hey, if it works it works) I realized it was the placid strangeness of the text and pictures that had the effect of hypnotizing her to sleep. Entertaining books are a dime a dozen; soporific ones are rare gems indeed.