Amy Stern (bigbrotherreads) wrote,
Amy Stern

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In which I am defensive of Eric Carle

When I was in high school, my favorite movies were The Princess Bride and Heathers. I did my homework to these movies. I fell asleep watching these movies. I bought the scores to the movies and listened to them at school. Somewhere along the line, they went from "favorite movie that engaged me completely" to "comfortable background noise." They were reassuring and delightful. I would look up at key moments occasionally, but it wasn't any particular part of the movie I needed. It was having it there that mattered, and it was probably part of what got me through high school in one piece. I do not think I am permanently scarred from that.

This was my first reaction to reading Daniel B. Smith's article on Slate maligning Eric Carle's work. Actually, it was my second reaction. My first was to rant at my roommate for a while about how unreasonable and unfair it is. Apparently I love Eric Carle's work enough to get epically defensive of him.

Part of this is that I spend an absurd amount of time with collage stuff. I know how hard it is. Nearly all of my favorite artists work with mixed media and/or collage. What Carle did was amazing. Yes, because of the things that the author acknowledges in that post- how it's developmentally appropriate and how kids love it- but it's also GOOD. It's visually striking even to an adult, which is a way that grown-ups can consistently derive pleasure. The narrative isn't that interesting? Dude, it's not for you.

Which is not to say a parent reading the same thing every night isn't allowed to be bored, or annoyed, because s/he totally is. The problem comes from branching out to say that the issue is because of the author or book. Saying "Eric Carle... sucks" is basically sacrilege to me, especially when the logic is as follows:
Anyone who thinks that writing a good book for a 2-year-old is easier than writing a good book for a 32-year-old is deluded. The children's author has a monumental task. First, he must entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the child. That's primary. But he must also entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination of, etc., the parent. This is secondary but, for the continued sanity of the reader-parent, of great importance. Toddlers are strong-willed; they will choose the books they want to read, and the parent has to comply at pain of tantrum. Lesser writers manipulate this fact. They serve only the child. Pat the Bunny is like this: flat, rote, simplistic—cheaply exciting for the toddler, who is happy to know what's coming next and how everything is going to end, but a source of excruciating boredom for the parent.

First of all, STEP BACK FROM PAT THE BUNNY >:(. She did nothing to you and she serves a very important purpose.

But more importantly, there is a time and a place where I genuinely believe that one of the most important things about a picturebook is its appeal to adults. That time is the first few months of a child's life, when the reading is largely to demonstrate what reading IS and develop closeness between the reader and the read-ee. The sound of voices reading, the tactile benefits of holding the book-- when it's all about that, I don't really think it matters much what you're reading as long as you're reading. Once a child is old enough to have preferences, though, the book is for them. Appealing to the adult is a nice bonus, but when it's time for bedtime, the adult isn't there for the story. Adults serve as conduits between the story and the child, and by being that conduit it's possible to develop a stronger relationship. But the adult's primary response isn't supposed to be to the text, it's to the kid.

Which is not to say Sendak (who he holds up as the anti-Carle) is not amazing. Sendak is AWESOME, and he wrote and/or illustrated a lot of things that I love deeply. But the idea that one or the other is "better" by anything besides purely subjective aesthetic preference isn't just laughable, it's insulting, both to children who have favorite picturebooks and to adults who still enjoy children's lit.

No matter how simple the narrative supposedly is, as any academic can tell you, there are always layers to be found. Background noise can be static, but it can also provide benefits that, at the time, are completely unnoticed. I ended up writing papers in college about Heathers, and its portrayal of spectacle and gender. When I became really interested in fairy tales, I used the way The Princess Bride twisted tropes as a way to guide some of my research.

And then I went to grad school for children's lit, and while I didn't write any of my papers on Sendak or on Carle, I totally could have. In twenty years, so could Daniel B. Smith's daughter. She could revolutionize the field with insight we've never even thought of.

Or one day she could find a new book, fall in love with Mo Willems's illustrations, and never think about Carle again. That's okay too! As long as it's her choice to make.
Tags: eric carle, picturebooks
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