Wednesday, May 20, 2009

20 May -- Picture Books

Each month during the past school year I have been a volunteer reader at two Head Start classrooms. I pick up a crate containing picture books and a puppet and carry them off to a classroom where I spend a half hour with about 20 wriggly three- and four-year-olds. It's fun to see these little ones month after month -- the difference between September and May is astonishing. By the end of my tour, the children who were just learning how to sit on their space in the circle are chattering and busy and ready for stories and songs.

This project reminds me of my long-time rants about the quality of picture books. First of all, I want children to know the classic books because picture books are the first building blocks to an understanding of literature in English. Many expressions, illustrations, vocabulary words, rhymes, even attitudes come from children's literature, notably Mother Goose. (But don't forget Make Way For Ducklings and Charlotte's Web and Harold and the Purple Crayon. Mike Mulligan and his Steam shovel, The Indoor Noisy Book of Margaret Wise Brown. Lentil. Pooh (with the original illustrations). The Story About Ping. Madeline ("In an old house in Paris/ That was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines...") The shared experience of having been read to provides connections between children of with greatly different backgrounds.

But keeping this body of work alive becomes harder and harder, as booksellers produce so many new products each year. Many books published a quarter-century or more ago (e.g., Harold and the Purple Crayon) simply don't look as dramatic and rich because the paper and inks weren't available then, or were too expensive for mass market publications. They don't compete on bookstore shelves or in publishers' catalogs with the shiny new publications. In the library the copies gradually wear out. If they go out of print, they are as good as gone forever.

This leads me to the second half of my rant. Too many children's picture books are designed, with a wink and a nudge, to appeal to the adult shopper or borrower. Take "Mary had a little lamp", for example: the child makes a beloved companion of a desk lamp; it's a cute story -- she outgrows the lamp and takes up with a toaster -- but what is funny to an adult is just confusing for a three-year-old, who would also be bewildered by the title's play on a nursery rhyme.

But maybe I'm just becoming an old grouch!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Laura said...

From Grouch #2: Yes, exactly. So let's try to establish a Canon of Childhood Literature, the crucial classics, from infants through toddlers, preschoolers, early grades. After about 4th grade, it gets too tough.Who should generate the canon? A small committee runs it, and both committee and participants include Librarians, Parents and Parent Surrogates, children being read to, older children and adults who remember being read to. The only characteristic being considered is Love.

May 21, 2009 at 4:53 PM  

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