Stop making sense
Theodor Seuss Geisel
Overview / Children's books [in full]
The best-loved children's stories are for adults too. Five American illustrators push at the boundaries of the book.
Once upon a time there were fairy tales. But these fairy tales were not for children. Called myths or legends, they were long narratives recounting extraordinary and tragic events. Nurtured by the collective memory, they were transmitted from generation to generation in oral form. After dinner the adults would gather around the fire and recite or recount a piece of fragmented epic. The children were not supposed to hear, but if they were still awake, they could sneak in, and hide under a table or chair, and listen. Even if they did not understand, they could tell if the story was good by how still the grown-ups sat.
Settling down with a child to enjoy an illustrated book is a Victorian concept predicated on the notion of parents spending quality time with children. To let a child climb on an adult's lap to read a book was as novel an idea as space travel. Cherished and almost idolised, Victorian children – like many children since – discovered that fulfilling the high expectations of their parents could be a daunting task, and the beginning of the century saw the arrival of a new genre in children's literature to help them deal with the situation. Ancient fairytales that glorified disobedient children, wicked witches and cannibalistic giants were rewritten, and the heroic child replaced by the good child. As child Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, parents may also have become reluctant to recount fairy tales in their original form because the stories portrayed adults as unable to care for their offspring (Hansel and Gretel), as jealous (Snow White), or cruel (Cinderella). In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim writes: ‘We are not comfortable with the thought that occasionally we look like threatening giants to our children.’
When exalting children's innocence and naivety and insisting on happy endings, we are in fact masking our own fears. The stories we tell our kids are the stories we tell ourselves. The world of make-believe is not only for children – it is a dark realm, populated by adults who are trying to suppress their childhood nightmares. The sentimental illustrations we have come to expect are designed to convince parents that they are safe, as much as to reassure their sons and daughters. Some grown-ups, however, are not afraid to confront their bad dreams. Theodor Seuss Geisel, known and loved as Dr Seuss, was one of them. The author and illustrator challenged our imagination with stories that boast a wicked sense of humour, mischievous characters and irreverent rhymes. Grumpy, eccentric, impish, shy, Dr Seuss resembled one of his most famous creations, the Grinch who stole Christmas. Dr Seuss died in 1991, but with more than 200 million copies of his books sold, his work inspired a new generation of independent and spirited storytellers, illustrators, photographers and designers whose work defies convention and appeals to children and adults alike.
A good example of a new breed of book is The Stinky Cheese Man, a bestselling post-modern view of classic fairy tales written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. As in most of Lane Smith's editorial work, the images are slick, bold and superbly crafted. But there is something disturbing at the heart of this pageantry. A typographical treatment as erratic as the speech pattern of a hyperactive child startles the unsuspecting reader lured by the sophisticated and decorative pictures. A mock Surgeon General's warning, stamped at the bottom of the introduction, informs you that the content is "fairly stupid". To understand the book’s appeal, you have to be either a child, or an adult who remembers what it is like to be small, angry and smart. Or you have to be an illustrator.
No wonder illustrators have an affinity with children – these days, in America, illustrators are treated like kids. Art directors, pressured by their clients or editors, are forced to be the bad guys. Editors become involved and supervise every step of the process. Children's books on the other hand, seem to offer the chance to do serious work and to approach assignments as personal ventures.
Henrik Drescher, a prolific Danish-born children's book illustrator who lives in California, relies on visual puns and cultural artefacts to describe his irrational fears in the face of the world where things, animals and people are likely to spin out of control. Despite some serendipity, his method is quite deliberate – even though his original drawings are prepared on scraps of torn paper with collage elements unceremoniously taped together, they are done earnestly, with the seriousness of a child at play. His pen-and-ink conceptual illustrations for magazines and newspapers are sophisticated and thought-provoking, and the same sensibility is applied to his children’s book illustrations. Poems of A. Nonny Mouse, a collection of skewed classic rhymes, is unconventional in form and content, yet it describes a familiar worry – do I really have to grow up, and if I do grow up, will I have to give up my fantasies? Drescher's bespectacled rats and pipe-smoking birds show the child's angst persisting in the adult's mind.
Drescher does not moralise, but creates an outlet for his own demons. Like Dr Seuss, who avoided the company of children and educators, many successful storytellers seem unconcerned with teaching their young readers. Nor do they provide happy and moralising endings. Often they don't even try to make sense.
Etienne Delessert, who worked with child psychologist Jean Piaget in Lausanne and now lives in Connecticut, has illustrated many books specifically designed for what he calls ‘co-reading’ by adults and children. His latest, Ashes, Ashes, which he both wrote and illustrated, suggests that co-reading implies coexistence rather than coherence: it is as if the poetic text and delicate illustrations run on parallel tracks that never meet. This magical space is filled with seemingly arbitrary allusions: a portrait of Samuel Beckett, a family snapshot forgotten on the floor, a deserted street on the forth of July, a landscape strewn with giant eggs. Against painterly backdrops, Hieronymus Bosch-like creatures with eyes like whales challenge your sense of scale. In the pages of Delessert’s book, a trip to what looks like a peaceful corner of New England can be a disquieting experience.
One of the most persistent subjects of anxiety for both child and adult has to do with conflict with authority. That conflict is most damaging when it is ignored. Illustrators, by the nature of their work, must constantly confront their misgivings about author-ity figures – authors, but also editors and art directors. Their pictures are most effective when they describe the action rather than competing and leave the psychological subtext to the reader.
The conflict between words and images, which plagues so many magazine layouts, permeates children's books as well, and when text and illustrations are in competition, the narrative falls apart. This is why a good writer/illustrator team is critical. Illustrators obviously prefer to write their own tales, but even then it still takes a special talent to combine all the elements into a coherent whole. No one does this with greater aplomb than Maria Kalman, who six years ago illustrated her first book, Stay Up Late, but left the writing to David Byrne (the words are the lyrics of a Talking Heads song). A year later, Kalman authored her first book, Hey Willy See the Pyramids. Her self-consciously primitive style is delightful; just when you think she is a complete naïf, she throws in a beautifully rendered dog or telephone. In the Tradition of James Thurber, whose cartoons defy all the rules of craftsmanship, Kalman has developed a complex and witty language from what one must assume are her technical deficiencies.
But while Kalman’s pictures are childlike, her writing is deft. She is a consummate bard who can tell the most intricate saga through simple descriptions. Her books are travel diaries – pastiches of the passing scene – translated through metaphor and allusion into elegant fictions. She shares sketches, notes, pieces of dialogue and anecdotes with her readers in collages held together by humour. While her first four books – including Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman, Max makes a Million, and Ooh-la-la (Max in Love) – are accessible to children, her latest, Max in Hollywood is perhaps too obscure. Max, an anthropomorphised dog, is a traveling millionaire and poet, a great observer of moods and mores with a gift for the non sequitur. To follow his adventures is as challenging as following a dog in a crowd.
Illustrations by definition ‘illustrate’ the action, and it sometimes takes a non-illustrator – for example, Walt Disney – to capture in images the primitive energy of the fairy tales. Conceptual artist and photographer Cindy Sherman has recently illustrated Fitcher’s Bird, based on a variant of the Bluebeard story collected by the Brothers Grimm. Her book, a series of oppressive, close-up tableaux vivants, as theatrical as a performance piece, illustrates the ordeal of young girls forced to marry a wicked giant. Her allegorical photographs depict in shocking terms the very real fears of a child threatened by the raw sexuality of an adult world that represses its violence with cynical indifference. "For all those who are not squeamish," Sherman rightly warns her readers on the first page.
The innocence of childhood is a myth fabricated by adults to conceal their own fragility. But the most compelling artists are, in the best sense, not fully adult, and they know that the source of their creativity lies in their willingness to confront their own fears and ineptitude. When they share this understanding with children, their work attains an extraordinary power. There is no happy ending, but there is a moral: if you're a grown-up don't try to be a good kid.