Sunday, March 21, 2010

Picture (Book) Perfect

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

There’s this story I like to tell about my introducing “literature” to my children. It involves my eldest. He must have been two. I had bought a copy of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to read to him at bed time. I was so proud of myself, suddenly eligible to join the cult of NPRents simply by reading classic Western children’s literature to my children.

My eldest seemed to enjoy the story but then one night he asked me to stop. It seems my venture into classic Western childhood storytelling was scaring the wits out of him! Where Max welcomed the Wild Things and became their king, my child hide from them under his covers after I turned off the lights. And so I learned it wasn’t the “Terrible Twos” causing him to be a “wild thing” - It was the lack of sleep from being so frightened at night!

Needless to say I stopped reading Where the Wild Things Are to him at night. I think we settled on the manic hijinx of The Cat in the Hat instead.

I like the notion of “picture books as art objects” (as Barbara Kiefer defines it) – “a combination of image and idea in a sequence of turning pages that can produce in the reader an effect greater than the sum of the parts.”

Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish immediately comes to mind. The “mixed media” feel – angular depictions in photographs and ink - of the images enhances the surreal dream-like content of the text.

The story is about a boy who trades his father to a friend for two goldfish. When his mother finds out she demands he get his father back. The situation is complicated when the boy discovers the friend who he swapped with has in turn swapped his father for an electric guitar. The story follows the boy through the various hands who have traded his father.

On the opposite end of the visual spectrum – but no less an art object - is Joyce Sidman and Micelle Berg’s Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry. My youngest brought it home from his school’s library. Like Gaiman and McKean’s books, Berg and Sidman use text as a visual instrument to help convey the narrative. Unlike Gaiman and McKean, Berg and Sidman’s images are bright with safe edges. With its Chibi-like illustrations, Meow Ruff is a good introduction to poetry in general – not just concrete poetry.

Embedded in the gray depiction of the poured concrete parking lot: “Parking Lot/ Hot Spot, Black Tar Multicar, Hard Flat Welcome Mat.”

And in the depiction of a tree: “Each Leaf A Map Of Branches Each Twig A Branch Of Leaves Each Branch A Tree Of Twigs Each Tree A Green Haired Slim Chested Great Hearted Gnarl-Armed Strong Legged Deep Rooted One.”

Meow is a cat whose owner has abandoned it in a local park. Ruff is a dog who gets away from his owner and stumbles into the park. A rain storm forces the two – who were initially at odds - to seek shelter together under a picnic table - becoming fast friends.

What’s great about this book is when you have time to think about it, it is a story of abandonment – in Meow’s case purposeful and premeditated – in Ruff’s case just an act of recklessness – that is told in the bright vibrant colors of a child’s birthday card and not the expected subdued colors that signal loss and tragedy.

I think you can take it for granted that the picture book is the first book children experience – meaning it is the first book they interact with physically and emotionally – from turning the pages themselves to interjecting their own ideas as you read.

I remember as a child I had a set of picture books from Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t remember how many were in the set but they had solid colors – purple, red, yellow, blue, green, etc. I remember one was numbers and one was nursery rhymes.

I also remember Little Golden Books - thin, hard covered books, with the marbled, golden spine. I remember the three little pigs and a story with a puppy in it.

I remember the first Rice Daddies post I read. It was a contest involving the first book you read. I couldn’t remember the first book I actually read on my own – though I remember its story. It was about a boy with large hands who was awkward until he found a sport that would utilize his hands – football.

I also remember my elementary school teacher reading Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing to my class. It was a positive and lasting impression (though many scores later, reading the same story to my children I realize my teacher left some parts out).

Books continue to be an integral part of my home – even before the children. My parent’s were avid readers and so are my children’s mother and I. I believe the availability of books and a literature rich environment as well as seeing my parents read all the time fostered a penchant for reading in me.

I don’t know if my children will remember their first book, so let me write it here – Where the Wild Things Are (my eldest) and Go Dog Go (my youngest).

How about you? Do you remember yours? Are they fond memories?

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