A good children’s book is a work of art, and as such, it helps us see the world differently.
That’s part of what I said a couple months back when asked to speak about how I choose books for Orange Marmalade. Here’s what I mean:
One of my daughters was recently working on an essay for art school
Chuck Close at work from betweenmediums dot com
about the role of art in her life. Part of what she likes about art, she said, is that after she’s drawn something, she sees it differently. This comes from hours and hours of really looking at something – often a face, for her – and considering it. Trying to capture it. Realizing aspects of it she didn’t absorb at first glance. Seeing it differently.
I know this is true of the art of writing as well. When writers write about something, they, too, see it differently. You’ve probably experienced this if you do any journaling. How often we sit down with a tangle of thoughts or emotions or questions, and as we journal, we wind up in a new place.
A drawing by Kathe Kollwitz
Back to the essay: my daughter also said she enjoys the possibility of communicating what she experiences, through her art. This is the challenge before the artist, isn’t it?
When we look at art, or hear a piece of music, or read literature, it helps us to see differently, because we are able to grasp a piece of the insight the artist has labored for. The artist immerses herself in a subject; she sees something new; she seeks to communicate that insight through her art; we then gain a new understanding from her art; we, too, see something in a fresh way.
That’s obvious in great pieces of literature like To Kill a Mockingbird or Jayber Crow. We see racism acutely, we experience the weighty glory of community, because of these writers. But it’s also true of children’s literature.
Children’s literature offers even small children insights. Insights into friendship in Charlotte’s Web, and self-sacrificial love in Shirley Hughes’ beloved Dogger.The call of home, echoed over and over through the years, and the solid, almost sobbing security of a caregiver we see in Sarah Stewart and David Small’s fine book, The Friend. The delights of predictable routines Emily Jenkins and Lauren Castillo portray in their account of What Happens on Wednesdays. The miracles of nature that gently, winsomely steal over us in And Then It’s Spring courtesy of Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead. Adventure and humor, courage and regret, the spice of variety and the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
These are just some of the big ideas, communicated powerfully, freshly, in a humble form – the children’s book. They show up even in books for toddlers in the capable hands of author/illustrators such as Jan Ormerod, Helen Oxenbury, Keven Henkes. Toddlers are tickled by the incongruous, comforted by the predictable, intrigued by seeing familiar things in a new setting, challenged by new ideas; their minds are wide open to well-crafted, beautifully-presented Ideas.
In a story that’s written well, these insights are present without being spelled out. They are intrinsic to the story. If you don’t look for them, you might not even notice them. Just as the artist had to look, and reflect, and ponder, so do we. The loveliness of neighborliness, the stench of bigotry, the tingle of accomplishment, reveal themselves best without a play-by-play, without a tiresome, nagging voice telling us what to think about these things.
Good stories settle into our children’s minds, and Ideas — different ways of seeing — grow out of them in their own sweet time. What a wonder!