Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thoughts on reading and picture books

Last night, after stories and songs and settling Cora into bed, I came downstairs and turned the monitor on. All was quiet, her bedtime music faint in the background, for about 15 minutes. Then, some stirring. Then, she said loudly, "I am tired of your tricks! I am coming down the chimney to eat you up!"

We've been reading various versions of The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. We've read the original story, we've read The Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark, and we've read the particularly delightful The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Now the original, you might remember, has the wolf actually gobbling up the first two pigs, coming down the third pig's chimney and falling into a pot of boiling soup, and being eaten up in turn by the third pig. The other two revision versions do not feature much gobbling of anyone - the little fishes escape, the little wolves all live together and the pig learns to be nice.

A friend asked me the other day how I handle scary things in stories with Cora - things like wolves swallowing little girls whole, wolves gobbling little pigs and then being cooked, stepmothers demanding the lungs and liver of beautiful girls, and the ever-popular red-hot-iron-dancing shoes. Scary stuff indeed, and stuff I absolutely gobbled up as a child myself. I mostly handle it through these multiple versions, showing that stories can change and be changed - this removes some of the power of authority from the originals, and gives some of that power to Cora. She can choose which version to hear, or to think about, or she can create a new one that is somewhere in between (she is a big fan of having the wolf vomit up Little Red and Grandma - not, I think, a version you will find in a picture book anytime soon). So, I told my friend about this.

Then, another friend who was there mentioned that in the Waldorf philosophy - the educational world her children were raised in - there is a bias against picture books, even for very young children. As my friend explained it, the idea is that you only read aloud to your child without showing the pictures, or from books that have no pictures. This approach, the philosophy says, allows your child to create his or her own pictures and learn to rely on and exercise her imagination.

"I don't think my daughter would stand for that," my friend replied.

I didn't really say anything at the time, because I was surprised at how horrified I felt! On the one hand, I see the Waldorf point. On the other hand, I don't see Cora's imagination being fenced in by the pictures she sees. She likes it when we get to the end of a book and there's a picture of the person who wrote the story and the person who drew and colored the pictures. She likes studying the pictures and talking about them - we both like the books where there are things happening in the pictures that aren't part of the text. A recurrent element for example, like the chipmunk in each picture of When Will It Be Spring?, always doing something different, always near the main character Alfie, a small bear cub. Or the details of a dress, a castle, the way the only color in the Olivia books is red, and so on.

And I think that when it comes to scary things, illustrations can help to make the scary manageable - it delineates it, the same way talking about fear puts it in a linguistic container, instead of letting it spill all over your mind. One of the pages Cora particularly likes to look at in the three pigs book is a close up of the wolf's slavering face - she sits and traces his teeth with her finger and stares into his eyes. Then she closes him up in the book. Safe. And then she pretends to be the Big Bad Wolf, and tells me how much she loves him.*

Right now I'm reading a new book by Maria Tatar called Enchanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood. In this book she explores "how literature touches us when we are young, moving and transforming us with its intoxicating, enthralling, and occasionally terrifying energy." She writes mainly about the books we read to ourselves as children, but also about picture books and the stories that are read to us.

At one point she quotes the poet Dana Gioia as saying, "The books we read are no different from the people we meet and the cities we visit. Some books, people, or places hardly matter, others change our lives, and still others plant some idea or sentiment that influences our future."

At the end of the introduction she says something I really love: "Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and with story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit." I believe this is also true of art, of the stories visually told.

*I admit to being particularly pleased about her affection for the Big Bad Wolf, as he was my invisible friend for much of my childhood.


Grandma Jan said...

Do you remember when you wouldn't let Grandma Shirley use the bathroom because the Big Bad Wolf was taking a bath at the time?

david k. said...

follow me! - it didn't register in my half-fried brain to look for your blog, but here i am, i got lots to catch up on!!

Cindy W. said...

Seems to me like there's room for both the stories with pictures, and the stories to be listened to & imagined (those are for telling in the dark). There are so many fabulous artists out there. Have you read Jan Brett's "The Mitten" - it too has a mouse (or some critter) on each page to search for.

One boy I babysat regularly would have me tell him stories in bed at night...but he always had specific ideas about the story such that he would end up telling it himself. He was especially fond of imagining himself as a miniature, who could fly. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey, can I ask you something about "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf" book? Is it yours? Does it have any illusttrations of the wolf eating pigs or the wolf with a fat stomach? Thanks in advance!


mek said...

Betty - the Three Little Pigs book was a library book. As I recall, it didn't show pigs being gobbled - it just said that it had happened. I'm not even sure if the wolf's stomach got bigger in each picture, actually!