Aesthetic Analysis of Children’s Books

Child_lit discussion archive: all rights reserved for individual contributors.


10 Jun 1998
Marc Aronson

It is easy enough to see how to begin discussing children’s books in a primarily aesthetic fashion, that is by putting off to one side the entire issue of their utility — for good or harm. Once you judge a book — as we just saw in the post on Smokey Night — by how it will or will not work in a classroom, by how it may or may not inculcate values we admire or disdain, by what hidden, latent, or manifest ideological aims (also known as “messages”) in the text or art — you are judging it by its utility. The book itself as an artistic object is secondary to the book as a means of transmitting ideas and images.

That is precisely what I object to. A story follows. Yesterday after work I went to NYU library to do some research. I ran into a old friend from high school — a very well known militant black feminist. We used to have great arguments on just these topics in the hallways at school. Like me, she returned in middle age to get a graduate degree. Her doctorate is in film studies and she is studying Griffiths, in particular Birth of a Nation.

There is no film more replete with terrible imagery and story lines than that. And yet she, from a militant black feminist point of view feels we have misunderstood him and the film. Because we are so quick to be shocked, outraged, and angry at it — for all the obvious reasons — we never pause to understand it, to view in the context of all of his films. Remember his next was called Intolerance.

So I say instead of contenting ourselves with the “gotcha” school of criticism — in which we prove our sensitivity by winkling out “errors” and “harms” — lets look at what GraceAnne raised, why are there so many OK, mediocre books — all of which work very hard to avoid error and transmit “good” values.

Or here’s another aesthetic issue — many authors are now writing in multiple voices. Roger Sutton says this is hard for teenage readers, who have trouble with flashbacks. I’ve also heard this from some teenagers. And yet those same readers are totally comfortable with the rapid point of view shifts of MTV.

A series of aesthetic questions would include why writers are chosing this form, whether in individual cases we feel that form serves or handicaps a given work of art, and then how this overall develop tracks other kinds of multiple narrative all around us.

A parallel set of issues is around the use of photo collage, as in Vladimir Radunsky and Lisa DiSemmini (sp?) How are their achieving their effects, what effects are they achieving?

These are all just rapid off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. But see the difference, once you move away from making use the measure of value, you have every aspect of pleasure, intelligence, wit, creativity, taste, and experiment to savor.

I’m sure all of you have had recent reading experiences that brought you pleasure. How did the author/artist achieve that? What choice of words with which set of images created an experience of pleasure? Isn’t that worth understanding?

The most recent one I had was a sentence Bruce Brooks wrote for a sample he created just for a class I was teaching: “His voice always made me think of water freezing — he spoke slowly, and coldly, and with the certainty that what he took a long time to say would eventually solidify.”

Magnificent.


10 Jun 1998
Constance Vidor

Marc’s refreshing and spirited comments on the value of appreciating literature from an aesthetic point of view reminded me of Michael Joseph’s comment of a few months ago about literature being a separate imaginary space–I love that idea and I feel sure that the feeling of being inside a different reality, one that has an internal strength independent of the outside world, is what makes us fall in love with reading.

I think there _is_ an over-emphasis on ideology in the criticism of children’s literature. Some writers do manage to consider both ideology and aesthetics in an integrated way — Jerry Griswold’s _Audacious Kids_ combines sociological, historical, psychological, and aesethitci perspectives quite brilliantly! So, in a different way, does Hugh Carpenter in _Secret Gardens_.

The book review journals need to do a better job in this regard. I’m appalled, absolutely appalled at the lack of aesthetic standards evinced in the average book review of –pick your review journal and fill in the title here. This is especially true for picture books! How often have you ordered a picture book that was well-reviewed, only to find, on receipt of the item, that it is a “dumb blonde” of a book–beautiful to look at, but without one bit of linguisitic wit or imagination?

Critics need to perhaps cheer a little louder for linguisitc beauty when it occurs–as in J. Patrick Lewis’ _The Frog Princess_, in which trees are “aching with ice” or as in Sally Mavor’s _The Way Home_, in which each perfectly chiselled phrase expresses the story’s emotions in a pure, intense, simple, effortless way that is absolutely astonishing for its musical grace and understated linguistic elegance.

Perhaps publishers and editors might have some influence here, as well.


10 Jun 1998
June Cummins

“Critics need to perhaps cheer a little louder for linguisitc beauty when it occurs–as in J. Patrick Lewis’ _The Frog Princess_, in which trees are “aching with ice” or as in Sally Mavor’s _The Way Home_, in which each perfectly chiselled phrase expresses the story’s emotions in a pure, intense, simple, effortless way that is absolutely astonishing for its musical grace and understated linguistic elegance.”

These suggestions really made me think. Hearing these discussions, I’ve realized that it’s not in my criticism or in my childlit posts that I give equal weight to aesthetic issues and ideology. But I naturally do this in the classroom. When I teach, I am always concerned with both *how* an author says something (or *how* an illustrator shows something) and with *what* is being said (or shown). I can’t imagine discussing Gary Soto’s work, for instance, without showing my students both the ideological issues he brings out (which are almost impossible to ignore) and the interesting, innovative ways in which he uses language and imagery (he was a poet before he was a children’s author, and this gives me a great opportunity to discuss how a poet might treat language differently than a non-poet). I can’t imagine *teaching* literature without a conscious awareness of authors’ and illustrators’ artistry.

So why doesn’t the aesthetic aspect surface in critical articles? This is true, of course, not only children’s literature, but almost all academic criticism. Sometimes I read older scholarly articles, and I’m almost *embarrassed* when the critic says something about how beautiful or moving certain writing is. Why is this? Is it because aesthetic appreciation is subjective?

I do think that when we venture into aesthetic criticism we need to keep im mind that it’s not enough to say “it was beautiful.” We should be both specific and detailed in our explanations of *why* something is beautiful, well-wrought, etc. (like Constance was above). I still believe that we need to consider both aesthetics and ideology as we think about literature. But we do often give aesthetics short shrift in scholarship.


11 Jun 1998
Marc Aronson

It has been interesting to read as people take out their secret treasures of aesthetic responses to book — like jewels hidden away from public sight. Of course a discussion of aesthetics is not a collection of soft affirmations — I loved it, it moved me — actually it should be quite as challenging and tough as any political wrangle. But that gets to something June said — which also relates to the CS Lewis debate of a while ago. The idea that one’s aesthetic response is subjective is but one school of response. Until quite recently in historical time — and I think we actually believe this but don’t defend it — critics believed in taste. Response to art was not subjective, it was objective — you judged an art by universal standards of art. Don’t we really still assume this — that is why we feel our responses matter, we think our own senses somehow match what is true about this art work. Not just true for us, but true.

For the same reason, we get alarmed about ideological issues in the art. But it is easier to make that case, because we feel less certain about what is or is not an artistic truth. This relates to the Lewis b/c — as someone said at the time — the idea that the test of a kids’ book as its enduring value rested on a belief in universal values.

So in encouraging us to look at art, I’m also wondering how we judge art. The more we understand about what gives us pleasure, or disturbs (which can be a good thing) in an artwork, the more capable we are of reacting to the next book, the next painting, etc.


11 Jun 1998
Drew Clausen

“Response to art was not subjective, it was objective — you judged an art by universal standards of art. Don’t we really still assume this — that is why we feel our responses matter, we think our own senses somehow match what is true about this art work. Not just true for us, but true.”

Unfortunately, the political climate has been one that told us that even a picture of Christ in a jar of urine is art, and the Virgin Mary enshrouded in a condom is art. You protest such things–even on asthetic grounds–and you are suddenly part of the vast right-wing conspiracy and are naturally out to squelch free speech and labelled a censor. So much for those universal standards.

“So in encouraging us to look at art, I’m also wondering how we judge art. The more we understand about what gives us pleasure, or disturbs (which can be a good thing) in an artwork, the more capable we are of reacting to the next book, the next painting, etc.”

Yep. Unfortunately some reactions are not acceptable. The trouble is that we aren’t really allowed to judge art anymore. We’re supposed to simply accept it at face value and make no comments (although worshipful gushing is still allowed). It’s no wonder that so many of us tread lightly on the question of aesthetics rather than be called a Philistine for daring to pronounce a work of art “bad.”

We might be able to get away with comments such as “that’s not to my liking,” but we dare not invoke any sort of universal standards by which art is measured. Absolute truths, we’ve decided, aren’t worth the trouble; we sent them packing years ago.

Guess someone hit one of my hot-buttons!


11 Jun 1998
Violet Joyce Harris

A few thoughts:

Members of the group have and continue to discuss the aesthetic merit of works. The primacy of aesthetics or the intrusion of ideology/politics or whatever term we select is a debate that will never end.

I am quite interested when reviewers, critics, and so forth have an opportunity to offer an analysis that can be described as “raceless” but choose to insert race. For example, it is not uncommon to read a review in journals which will state something to the effect: A five-year-old African American boy. However, it is not as common to read a review in which the “White” characters are identified as such. What sorts of responses would result if that were the case? Sometimes the racial or ethnic identity is important; at other times it is irrelevant. Are we to have an immediate set of characteristics when we read the phrase militant Black feminist? Black feminists range from Michelle Wallace to Audre Lorde to Rosa Parks. Just as no one image comes to mind, nor would I expect Black feminists or any Black person to respond to Birth of a Nation, a work of art, poem, a dish of food, or whatever in a monolithic fashion.

A few years ago, there was an adult novel set in Vermont( I think) about the Beans. I did not “position” myself as a Black person when I read the excerpt. What came to mind was, I like this novel, maybe I’ll buy it because the language appealed to me as well as the characters. As the reading continued, the author, intentionally or unintentionally “positioned” me as a Black when she wrote that the characters decided to engage in sexual intercourse as Blacks would; I cleaned up the language because she used the “F” and “N” words. Did I respond aesthetically or politically to the episode? Maybe both. I didn’t buy the book despite the literary quality. This happens in children’s books as well. For instance, I enjoyed the way Konigsburg structured the narrative in The View From Saturday. Reading along, I was struck by the description of “brown” skin as abnormal. AS a reader, my immediate response was brown skin is normal to me and how will this affect others with brown skins, especially children who read the novel? Would I censor or not share the novel? Absolutely not but I would engage children in a discussion of this imagery AFTER we discussed their personal responses to the text and we examined the work as a literary product. I find that in discussions with adults, these three levels of responses are often intertwined.

I want to raise a question I previously posed. Does anyone have examples of children’s literature written by people of color that are in the vein of Sambo, Tikki, Five Chinese Brothers, etc. and which are similarly hallmarks of culture, popular and otherwise?


11 Jun 1998
Roger Sutton

As someone who finds much contemporary visual art silly, I was prepared to laugh Serrano’s “Piss Christ” into the same loony bin to which I had already consigned Jesse Helms. But when I saw it, I was stunned with its beauty and, I thought, reverence. I don’t think this is “worshipful gushing.” I would hesitate as well to say that Serrano’s photograph is by any objective standard a masterpiece–not because I don’t think it’s great, but because it’s a picture that changes the rules, changes the standards. What would we measure it against?

Okay Marc, you can start picking on me now.


11 Jun 1998
Ed Sullivan

Marc Aronson brought up a really interesting point when he talked about critics evaluating art by an established set of standards. It reminds me of the scathingly negative reactions French critics had of the first Impressionist works. Those artists were breaking conventional standards standards of taste and creating a set of new ones.

Evaluating books is also not entirely subjective. There are certain literary standards that most people would probably agree a book would have to meet in order to be judged one “of quality.”

And, talk about subjectivity . . . My wife is always fun to go with to museums. She has a very simplistic way of evaluating art: “I wouldn’t hang it over my sofa.” Hardly an in depth appraisal, but hey, she knows what she likes. I’m not sure how she judges sculptures or other works of art that cannot be hung. Maybe “I wouldn’t have that on my coffee table.” I’ll have to ask her about that.


11 Jun 1998
Janet Zarem

I forgot to post this to child_lit, and sent it back only to Violet Joyce Harris. JZ

violet joyce harris wrote: “(long quote snipped — fcl.) I am so glad Violet brought this up. As a reader and writer of reviews this practice has been on my mind for some time. I have had teachers tell me they were so glad to know that a particular ethnic or cultural group or character appeared in a book because they were trying to make their bookshelves and their class reading more representative of the world at large. But then I am also very aware that mentionning characters are Black or African American in one book, and not mentionning that they are White or Euro American in another, is a clear reflection of American political-cultural expectations (pardon this excessively awkward phrase) “default” setting to White (and probably Christian)–which implies, whether it is meant to or not, that “brown,” for exmaple, is abnormal or requires some special demarcating notice.

I used to think this had to do with literal realities, ie., that in the United States most people were, in fact, white (of European descent) and Protestant or Catholic. Yet, it is clear from other political realities and countries, that the “default” setting is more a reflection of the group who traditionally manage the political power and funding, than a matter of demographics. The majority of people in the world are female–yet one would never guess this from reading or viewing the news. Sometimes I despair that humanity can not seem to honor our differences without emphasizing them in ways that are hurtful.

I also wonder if, say , African American or Latino or Asian writers are free to write books featuring White characters. This seems quite rare to me. Lee and Low Books publishes books written and illustrated by people of all ethnicities about people of all ethnicities, but they are, I believe, the exception. I would be happy to have my ignorance corrected in this matter. It is more common in illustrators. But I believe there are very few books like “One April Morning,” by Nancy Lamb (a picture book about the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing), illustrated by Floyd Cooper, which represents all Americans with a touching and powerful illustration of two African Americans on the cover.

“I want to raise a question I previously posed. Does anyone have examples of children’s literature written by people of color that are in the vein of Sambo, Tikki, Five Chinese Brothers, etc. and which are similarly hallmarks of culture, popular and otherwise?” Yes, please, if anyone knows.


11 Jun 1998
Dick Macgillivray

I think Ms. S. has a good method for judging art. Mine is just a variation on that: would I like to live with that (whatever it is) forever? If not, better to see it in a museum or gallery. If so, try by whatever legal means to make it mine. Of course it’s all subjective, but then aren’t most things? Even the ‘community of readers’ concept merely aggragates the subjective responses.


11 Jun 1998
Resa Matlock

The issue of squeamishness, which from comments made here on the list I’ve suddenly realized is an important part of what one perceives as beautiful, profound, or moving, is, to state the obvious, a delicate one. On the one hand you’ve got your not-so-maidenly aunt — a bit of a hypochondriac, if truth be told — who refuses to ride in the elevator with a rubber snake unless someone agrees to stick the snake in her pocket. On the other hand you’ve got your daughter, proud owner of said snake, who leaps screaming from the tub when her 13-month-old cousin sees fit to do with her bowels what every parent could tell you that his child too has seen fit to do, at least once during infancy, while bathing in a tub of warm water.

So, ok, natural functions of the body, and books about them for children, are things we come to terms with once we get on intimate terms with our children. We do this in the name of art, because all things related to our offspring are seen through a glass lightly, as though coated in a fine film of pink, no matter how odd they might appear to outsiders. Actions which would’ve set our hair and brains on fire before the birth of our young now barely manage to curl our admittedly limper tresses. But we also, I think, would prefer that our children not allow themselves to become unduly upset by situations where grace and dignity and a minimum of embarrassment would stand them in better stead. Knowing as we do, what with extended life expectancies and an increased probability that dementia will overtake us before the undertaker does, that the chances are very good that at some point the fruits of our loins are either going to wind up strapped to a table or having to watch us get strapped to a table while someone pokes and prods us with what we can only hope will be perceived as blunt instruments, it seems kinder to prepare ourselves and them to work on their sense of detachment when it comes to most, if not all, things icky. (Just got back from a week with my grandfather, who’s still in the ICU but now off the ventilator, just in case anyone’s wondering why the sudden preoccupation with things medical.)

And lest we forget the rubber snake: teaching children to not allow themselves to wander too freely in and around the zone of hysteria is something we would probably all agree is a worthwhile undertaking.

But what then if we add religion to the equation? Throw an icon in with the snake and the processes of elimination? Keeping these areas of life separate — especially those involving snakes — out of respect for others’ beliefs and a desire to stave off an excess of coarseness — this also would seem to be a worthwhile approach to life and art. At least, that is, until you read about sects whose members work themselves up into high-pitched frenzies, or who speak in tongues, or practice foaming in shades of blue and green. And oh dear, yet more snakes, only this time they’re alive and poisonous, with only a longed-for freedom from sin standing betwixt the practitioners and the serpents’ fangs, the lightest prick of which will leave the former either dead or seriously deteriorated around and about their withers.

So what to do, even if you’re not a dues-paying member of Postmodern Ironic Detachment Anonymous, but laugh? Not a finger-pointing, geez you’re ridiculous, kind of a laugh, but more an aching, amused kind of a laugh, as in, What will the human species come up with next? And for those who would disagree with that reaction, I give you permission to see it another way, as long as that other way does not involve offering millions of dollars to your fellow countrymen if they should succeed in killing the person who has offended you and your cherished belief systems, nor involve arriving at the conclusion that placing a bomb in the foyer of the local clinic qualifies as a Christian approach to problem-solving.

Which leaves us, as we struggle to evaluate Art, with one foot stuck to the Excess Baggage carousel, poised somewhere between squirming over the need of artists to wrap our precious icons in barbed wire, toilet paper or viscera, and recognizing that the icons of others are not half as precious to us, and therefore fairer game to other Artists; and that yes, relativism does have its place at the dinner table, even when it steadfastly refuses to wear a bib, take off its hat or quit slurping as it drinks its soup.

And for those who would insist that it can’t all be shades of gray, that there must be absolutes, I can only nod in agreement. And offer this. To tie a man to the back of a truck, no matter what the color of his skin or the panels of the truck, and drag him down a country lane, scattering body parts along the way until he is dead; this, we can all say without any doubt whatsoever, is _not_ Art, not even of the performance variety. Anything less despicable, though, I’m afraid, is open to other interpretations, one of which may be that it’s better than a rubber snake dangling from a pocket, and another of which may be that it’s worse than a tubful of poop.


11 Jun 1998
Kathy Templeman

I don’t often get a chance to read the larger publication reviews, but I’ve noticed recently that reviewers noting race note all races, i.e. African-American child, Caucasian child. This is probably within BayViews, which is a review source put out by the Assoc, of Children’s Librarians of Northern California. Probably not all reviews/reviewers in this source, but it is happening more often. Is this occuring elsewhere?

As for you other question, I’m wondering, do you mean re-tellings of questionable material such as _Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo_ by Julius Lester, or newly edited materials, such as the new edition of Lofting’s _Doctor Dolittle_ by the McKissacks, or…?


11 Jun 1998
Sara Jane Boyers

I shouldn’t be jumping into this discussion since I am deadlining on revisions for a new book, but….. I’ve been quickly scanning the discussions and can’t seem to hold myself back:

Drew said: “Yep. Unfortunately some reactions are not acceptable. The trouble is that we aren’t really allowed to judge art anymore. We’re supposed to simply accept it at face value and make no comments (although worshipful gushing is still allowed). It’s no wonder that so many of us tread lightly on the question of aesthetics rather than be called a Philistine for daring to pronounce a work of art “bad.”

I’ve been a major participant in the art world in this country as a collector, art history major and, with my first two children’s books on contemporary art and poetry, someone who speaks a lot to schoolchildren on art and poetry, especially 20th Century art. There are standards by which we judge art. There are emotions with respect to how we individually confront it. Both are valid – whether for paintings hanging on museum walls or in the picture books we present to our children.

I created my books as a Trojan horse. I felt if children and their parents enjoyed my books, they familiarized themselves with artist and poet stylistically and (partially through the bibiligraphy and list of museums I insisted appear in each book), they might further venure into fine arts.

I also created my books because of Serrano, because of Mapplethorpe, because of Jesse Helms. Art to me represents an opportunity to stand in front of a work (or to read it, listen to it) and CONVERSE with it, discuss it with others, look at the standards, look at one’s own feelings. Art in a children’s book – literary or visual – should offer the same opportunities. It’s an abstraction – portraying the artist’s thought and experience, portraying the history of the time, portraying the text of another’s thoughts and experience.

Yes, we can make our judgements. Yes, critics analyze it in terms (as in PB’s) of the marriage of two voices (I call it the “conversation”). Yes it is subject still to formal criticism. Yes there are and should be limits. And yes, we have to decide if we want it on our walls. Primarily it is subject to whether it makes us think, makes us dream, makes us feel. Sometimes the feeling is negative. Sometimes positive. But we are analyzing for emotion AND for quality. As Marc Aronson says, we hone our response the more of it we see. By viewing. By reading. By looking into ourselves or observing another’s (especially children’s) reaction, we start to learn what is good. Quality is represented by a feeling of warmth, of satisfaction as well as often, a disturbance, a question. “Piss Christ”, as Roger Sutton has said, was surprising in its elegance. Rather than the one-liner repeated through others, he viewed it and questioned. It worked! Isn’t that what we want? To reaffirm the curiosity? To have the right to affirm or dissafirm? Not to follow.

A quick anecdote: When I speak to young teenagers about my books, I often get the question: “Well why would a painting that is an all white or all black square be considered art?” I love it! First, I realize that these young kids already know about Ad Reinhardt or Malevich, whether or not they know them by name. Then, I am just amazed at the depth of the question… it leads to more. Anything that leads to more, that establishes an avenue of curiosity is ok for me. And, if they hate it – then they’ve learned something about themselves (so watch all you illustrators out there who create black squares!). On the other hand, rejoice, all you writers, illustrators, librarians and teachers who can’t wait for the question that leads the student into another arena of investigation. As an author, that’s what I want.

And … to bring this back to the beginning: I’ve been discussion with a major artist about using his work in connection with the Witches lament from Macbeth which I chose as a possible pairing as I saw the “conversation” between the lament and his work. The scene, “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” contains the lines, “Liver of blaspheming Jew, …… Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips”. These are not exactly PC today. But, don’t they raise a discussion? Don’t they raise history (what DID Shakespeare and his compatriots feel about others in their time)? What are we trying to do with children’s literature? Tikki Tikki Tembo and others of this genre raise issues. If we don’t raise issues, what are we giving our children?


12 Jun 1998
GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Marc wrote:
“Until quite recently in historical time — and I think we actually believe this but don’t defend it — critics believed in taste. Response to art was not subjective, it was objective — you judged an art by universal standards of art. Don’t we really still assume this — that is why we feel our responses matter, we think our own senses somehow match what is true about this art work. Not just true for us, but true.”

Ah yes, we believe in taste, and objective judgments, otherwise why do we pluck up our courage and sign our names to that review? I am firmly a-hold of two conflicting beliefs on this one. I believe that there are standards, and I believe they depend a lot. I still can’t judge rap music, but it is clear to me that some of it is better than others, and that as a musical form it matters. Jazz doesn’t make music for me in its classical form, but I know that it is good, even if it makes me want to leave the room.

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