Tuesday, May 12

If there's any left, I buy food and clothes

First of all, if you're one of those people with a House and Garden home that doesn't have loads of bookshelves (or alternatively, loads of books stacked up on the floor and any other available horizontal surface--that's okay too, maybe even better. I always look at those magazine photos and say “Where’s the books?”), then you can skip this one. I'm probably not talking to you. I'm talkin' to these folks:

"When I get a little money, I buy books. Then if there's any left, I buy food and clothes" -Erasmus

My kin.

So, kinfolk, as hard as it might be to hear it, I’m here to say: Take these few minutes today and…Lighten Up. Life is not all Thoreau or Austen or Dostoevsky. It’s not even all Alice Walker or Salman Rushdie or (I may be struck by lightning for saying this) J.K. Rowling. Or whoever. I'm here to say that you just might have some significant gaps in your collection, and you don’t even know it. Here's why.

You see all of those picture books up there on the shelf? Yes, the ones with the 1/4" bindings. I bet you'd think they belong (or used to belong) to my daughter. And I guess they kinda do. But really, they're mine.

It's sad how many people pooh-pooh picture books, imagining that they're "fluff" or that there is some kind of law that says that they're really only for little kids, and when that age or stage passes, they go, while we clearly understand the value of keeping and displaying phenomenal adult literature on our shelves (as a mark of being well read? because we really enjoyed the books?). I know of very few people who would spend even one minute in the children's section of the bookstore or the library, even though last time I checked they did not require that you be accompanied by a child to enter.

Now, I gotta admit, a lot of picture books--and kids books in general--are pretty awful. They talk down to children, they miss the whole point of being a child, they overlook the importance of art, they are overly saccharine, or they send messages to children that are questionable (how's that for euphemistic?). Too often, they are, in my view "training wheels" for various adult genres--in other words, they're not literature, they're marketing tools. Or, as has happened a lot recently, they are simply a marketing vehicle for a celebrity who is promoting his or her (usually her, for reasons we can all quickly figure out), cause (which is sometimes simply themselves). But sometimes, just sometimes, they're brilliant. That's what I'm talkin' about.

Fine, so I'm a picture book snob. I'll accept that.

It just feels important to be one voice that says that there are some incredibly wonderful, beautiful, moving books out there that just happen to be written for young children. And sometimes, when you read them, you realize that they aren't really just for young children, but are poetry as well as powerful allegory, the products of sublime and sophisticated imaginations.

When I find one of those books, I buy it for my collection. As you might suspect, today was one of those times. I brought it home, qualified my recommendation to my nine-year-old (who makes it clear that she does not want to be seen as a "little kid"), who quickly responded "No! I LOVE picture books!" A mother's pride knows no bounds.

This is the book. I mean, a book. I guess it's both.


It's terrific. It's about a little girl who says to her parents, at the book's outset, that she is aware that they live in a book, but she is perplexed. "What is our story?", she asks. Of course, a la Rashomon (what a great movie), all those around her, including the pets, have their ideas, all mysteriously featuring themselves as the central character. But the girl carefully weighs, even dives into, each of their versions, and finds, repeatedly, that it is not her story. I would tell you more, but you really should read it. Heck, you might even have to visit the children's section.

The best part is that I found this book--or depending on your belief system, it was placed in front of me--on this day when I made a decision to chart my own course and stepped firmly in that direction. On this day when I am finally beginning to sit down and write my own story, instead of being a participant in someone else's construction. I love coincidence, even as I'm not sure that I believe in it.

Are there picture books that you love? That you treasure with the same ferocity as your "favorite book"? What is it about the book that you love so much? Most importantly (to me)...do you hold them to the same standards as the "age-appropriate" books that you love? Why? Why not? I'd love to hear from any and all on this. Not just titles. Tell us a story.

I'm convinced that there are closet picture book lovers out there. And wherever they are, I want to meet them.

Fess up.

6 comments:

ConverseMomma said...

I had a big stack of picture books even before I had children. I claimed I used them to teach metaphor and such to the students I work with. Truth? I really enjoyed them myself. The Giving Tree is up there as my favorite book of all time.

Aludra said...

I remember really liking the book Serendipity when I was younger. My mother kept that whole series of picture books, so I have to visit her to see them again.

I bought a picture book for a coworker, Blueberry Girl, and took a read before wrapping it up for the baby shower. It's most definitely not just for children and is full of emotion as Neil Gaiman's writing sometimes is.

I will be visiting the children's books section once again the next time I feed the dragon (aka succumb to my book addiction).

HeidiLin said...

I am in love with Joelle Jolivet's books, esp Zoo-ology and Almost Everything. The Boy likes them too...but Mommy likes them more. And while maybe not technically picture books, we all like Jan Brett's stuff.

And sadly, our local library DOES have a policy that states you're not supposed to go into the children's section unless you have a real live child with you. I guess I understand why, but it's creepy and unenforced.

Audrey said...

I have two: Dumpy LaRue (the pig who knew what he wanted to do), because he turns expectations on their heads and creates his own reality; and Sophia and the Heartmender, because everyone needs her/his heart mended from a world that ignores/abuses.

Anna said...

I work in a preschool, and I have a five year old, so children's books are something I still identify closely with.

My favourite books when I was a kid were Dr Seuss books - the sillier, the better. On Beyond Zebra. Horton Hears a Who. The Cat in the Hat. One Fish, Two fish...because that one really makes no sense.

"Love you forever" by Robert Munsch still makes me cry, even after twenty years - I first read it when I was pregnant with my oldest. And "the paper bag princess" by the same author.

Mikaela said...

Technically I AM still a kid, but definitely above the age where picture books are read everyday.

I don't have so much of a comment, as an observation. I've noticed it over my time in school, with both books and books-made-movies, like Peter Pan and 101 Dalmations (my favorite books ever).

When your a little kid, they're awesome, for no reason past their very existence. Though, when you're older, suddenly they become childish and no one wants to touch them! (Like your 9yr old.) No, no, they NEVER watched the movie, and they have ABSOLUTELY NO interest in seeing them. Ever. But then you start realizing that, after years of wanting to just grow up and get to do what the adults can, that you're going to do that at the same pace no matter what. And they become cool again, you've read the book a million times and keep your own copy under your pillow.

While I was never one for picture books, even when I was a really small kid, I do enjoy the simplicity of the language that can be found within some of them. A phrase that catches your eye for just a few seconds, but keeps a grip on your mind for hours. That's what I like about them.