Thursday, October 22, 2009

22 October -- Toddlers and picture books

The current New Yorker carries an essay on parenting styles as reflected in picture books. I feel very strongly about this, although not in the same way as the author, who seems to care most about the parents' being ineffective. After I wrote my letter to the editor and sent it off, I remembered an essay I wrote shortly after I took the helm of the Center Library at China Lake. Here it is:

Collection Development — or What About “All Alone With Daddy”?

When I started collecting books for the story hour today, I took my first really detailed look at the picture book collection. Previously I’d settled for getting rid of the worst offenders (those with actual peanut butter on the pages, or notes like “missing pages noted 4/11/77”) but today for some reason (including the nagging realization that, like Miss Clavell in Madeline, Something Is Not Right) I knew I needed to do some work here.

We know going in that the previous (40 years’ tenure) librarian did not like children. Why else would she have shelved the children’s books by height, including noting on the catalog cards small, medium, large, so that you had to use the catalog in order to find, for example, all of the Curious George books because they were on separate shelves? Why else would she have filed the children’s fiction all along the aisle across from the adult non-fiction? It takes a brave child to crouch in that aisle while grownups are stumbling over him. It reminded me of the Baton Rouge public library’s attempt to resist integration — they filed all of the fiction on the top two rows of shelving, so you browsed your way from the front door all around to the circulation desk and you never sat down at all.

I knew we had some rather peculiar books in the picture book collection and I had formed a half-plan of moving them to a Parents’ Shelf. I have no idea how big this shelf may become — I’m only in the middle of H — but I’m stunned. Imagine your toddler having her first experience with the library. Attracted by the pretty colors of the books she pulls out The Fall of Freddy The Leaf. This book explains death in an extended boring metaphor which ends with Freddy falling to the ground right after the first frost.

I won’t even mention the holiday books we have already dispatched, including two or three where Jewish children learn that Santa Claus is not for them.

Today I found, among other treasures “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting. “My dad and I live in an airport. That’s because we don’t have a home and the airport is better than the streets. We are careful not to get caught.” That’s the text on the first page of this picture book.

A couple of shelves over, there was “Not in here, Dad!” by Cheryl Dutton. Dad keeps trying to find a place to smoke, but we learn about all the awful stuff it does to your lungs and your teeth and your social life.

There was a lovely-looking picture book called something like “Time To Go” about what happens when your family farm is foreclosed and you have to sell everything off and move. The last page shows the boy with tears on his face.

Other tempting goodies include “Grandfather died today” “I had a Friend named Peter”, and, chillingly, “At Home with Daddy.” Oh, also, “My Mother Travels a lot”.

I repeat, I’m only to the middle of H.

First step, they go to my office, to the Parents’ shelf. Second step, I’ll decide whether to re-catalog them into children’s non-fiction which is at least less deceptive.

Possible third step, they go Out The Door.

I remember Phil, seeing for the first time two copies of Curious George in the library. He trembled with what? excitement? apprehension? and insisted on getting both of them and putting them down side by side to compare them. I remember Bryan, aged 2 or so, waking from a nap after having a story read to him, and finding the book and trying to separate the page to find his dream story, which he’d incorporated into the real book.

I can’t imagine what we have done to children who, accustomed to delight, find despair and sorrow and no hope. I’m getting these out of the way so our littles can find Frances and Little Bear and Lilly with her Purple Plastic Purse and Little Toot and — of course — Madeline.


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