Monday, October 12, 2009

On Wild Things and Second Helpings of Picture Books

I found Bruce Handy's October 11 essay in the New York Times an interesting take on the Sendak classic, not because I agree that more kids than we like to admit don’t like Where the Wild Things Are--I am sure that, like most picture books, it’s not universally loved, and probably doesn’t make the same impact on today’s kids it did a generation ago, when it was such a bombshell on the children’s publishing scene. (As I post this, the NYT link is broken, but when it's up, I'll post the link to the Handy essay.)

But it’s an interesting salvo because it does highlight the ongoing tension in picture books between what adults think makes a splendid book, and what kids will, of their own volition, pull out of the bookcase, hand to an adult, and say “Again.”

Personally, the Sendak book that did this for me and my kid was In the Night Kitchen-- helped along by the splendid Weston Woods animation adaptation narrated by Peter Schickele (a.k.a. P. D. Q. Bach). The familiar world of a kitchen transformed after hours into a wonderland aligned more closely with my own fascinations with scale--The Borrowers, miniatures, dolls houses--and with wonderlands, by Lewis Carroll and others.

One book does not fit all. My own “again” books included The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, and The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Stahl. These books had powerful themes that resonated with me. I had a childhood that saw my family transplanted from one hemisphere to another, and me moved from school to school to school to school. So the story of the Little House coming full circle to home was incredibly comforting and reassuring to me. Mike Mulligan is a great picture book, a fabulous read-aloud, and a classic, but it’s the lesser known Little House that is my personal favorite.

For my son, an early “again” book was Halloween Pie by Michael O. Tunnell. We read it when he was about two, and his interest in all things spooky is still going strong, eight years later. We had Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas in our VCR in heavy rotation for about a year at one point. I often thought that things that go bump in the night did for my son what T. rex and velociraptors and Triceratops did for other kids, for similar reasons. Dinosaurs were never really Budza’s thing. But mummies and vampires and creatures from the Black Lagoon? Bring them on.

I do think we have to be less wedded to an idea of some picture book canon, and let kids find their own “again” titles. In fifty years, who knows what stories kids will be reading on their Kindles? But I think it’s certain that every kid will have a title or two that isn’t on anyone else’s classic list...something that aligned with that child’s own wishes and fears and dreams. Another slice of Halloween Pie, please.

Bonus video of Peter Schickele reading In the Night Kitchen here.

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