Human beings are wired to process life through stories. This is particularly true of children. We adults give stories to children as a matter of course, but most of us don’t take children’s literature seriously enough.
Picture books are an especially powerful form of story. Picture books are handed to an audience that is inexperienced, impressionable, and wired to imitate whatever they see. Moreover, because picture books are so short, they are often read over and over, easily fostering a deep relationship between the content and the child.
Most of you were influenced by the stories adults gave you in your formative years. Directly or indirectly, they answered some of the questions children are designed to wonder about.
“What should I do when I’m afraid? How do I know what is true? Is it OK to lie? When should I follow others, and when should I go it alone? What happens when adults fail? How do normal families treat each other? Can I be a dinosaur when I grow up?”
I’m willing to bet the answers you found in children’s books influenced who you are. Admittedly, the influence may be hard to spot. Most books reflect the values of their decade, and that made them almost invisible messengers of ideas that seemed, at the time, self-evident.
It’s a fun exercise to read through a stack of children’s books from different time periods. The enduring classics are usually somewhat timeless, but the random, ordinary ones are amusingly easy to sort into piles without having to look at the copyright date. They demonstrate the popular values of their specific period precisely because the content of a picture book is, more or less, what some adult wanted to tell children about life.
Moralism Also Destroys Story
I wrote earlier that few people take children’s literature seriously enough. However, it is also true that some adults today take it far too seriously. It’s increasingly popular to write with an earnest heavy-handedness that hasn’t been seen since the Victorian period.
For instance, Innosanto Nagara’s “A is for Activist” is described by Occupy Wall Street as “like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year olds.” Similarly, tales of knights who decide to marry the prince instead of the princess and stories about little boys who love dresses—both popular themes in recent years—are obviously intended to catch young readers by the collar and instruct them.
These obviously preachy books are unlikely to wield a huge influence. Kids are turned off by faddish pedantry. However, what about all the other books of our decade—the nice, normal ones that seem so innocuous? What values are they handing to our children?
Have you noticed how many feature a protagonist who refuses to submit to tradition, or even reality, so he can get—or become—what he wants? Sometimes it’s a giraffe proving it can dance. Sometimes it’s a boy who can only be happy in his favorite pair of pants even though they don’t fit the dress code. Sometimes it’s an old man who wants second prize in a marathon even though he can’t run.
In these books, it is important for the characters to get what they want simply because they want it. Other characters are worth listening to only so far as they encourage the protagonist to fulfill his desires.
It’s not that the books are necessarily “bad.” Some are warm and humorous. Some encourage the virtues of perseverance and hope. Yet the cumulative effect is to foster the lie that that identity is entirely self-constructed, that truth is whatever we want it to be, and that a happy ending means getting our own way.
Children’s Books Used to Be Less Preachy
We might be tempted to laugh off the charge and argue this is just what “kids’ books” are like. It hasn’t always been. Many children’s stories from the past are different. The characters in those books also seek things they want, but unlike modern books, the happy ending revolves around the objective restoration of harmony and order. In essence, they are about living in accord with natural law, and they present a different picture of what it means to get a happy ending.
Take, for instance, a gentle classic like “Blueberries for Sal” (1948). The tension of the story comes from the way the human family gets mixed up with a bear family, and the resolution is all about seeing the characters safely sorted and returned to their own homes with their own blueberries.
In “Home for a Bunny” (1956), a rabbit must find a creature of his own species to live with because other animals are obviously unsuitable. “The Story of Ping” (1933) is about a runaway duck who must submit to the ritual of a spanking so he can rejoin his family.
The problem in “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” is solved when the characters discover a way to let a steam shovel do what it is naturally good at. Even Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” (1843) is about a protagonist who learns who he really is by observing nature instead of his own heart.
Little children like this kind of story. From their perspective, the world is weird, chaotic, and potentially scary, and they delight in reassurance that rightful order exists and can be found. They want to know they need not invent right and wrong for themselves. They want the reminder that they are not alone. They need stories like this.
New Stories With Older Rhythms
My point is not that old books are automatically superior or that natural-law-themed tales are the only true way to write for children. The point is that modern publishers aren’t providing one of the kinds of stories we should all be handing our children.
That’s why I bring home books from multiple decades. It’s also why I seek out contemporary stories that march to the beat of an older drum.
Speaking of which, I was excited recently to get my hands on a copy of Matthew Mehan and John Folley’s new book, “The Handsome Little Cygnet.” Their previous collaboration felt like a fresh new tribute to the kind of older books I love, and I wanted to see what they had done next.
“The Handsome Little Cygnet” is a physically pleasing book. Even the size, paper, and binding are top-notch. Unlike the puzzling rash of ugly pictures in recent children’s literature, the pictures are delightfully humane and engaging.
What about the story? The title seems a clear reference to Andersen’s fairy tale. Folley’s cygnet, unlike its Danish counterpart, is blessed with parents who can tell him what and who he is. He is not left to struggle alone. Even so, this cygnet is not entirely content in his identity. There are other, exciting-looking ideas in the wider world that seem more colorful. It takes a misadventure to teach him that listening to his family is what he truly wants.
What Did the Kids Think?
I must be honest: after reading the brief story for the first time, I struggled to decide whether it’s too preachy. Perhaps it’s ironic that stories about listening to parents are so rare they stick out like a sore thumb, thereby feeling preachy, whereas stories about listening to one’s heart are so ubiquitous they don’t feel as preachy as they really are!
Further research was obviously needed. I left the book lying around the house so I could watch my children interact with it. My three-year-old enjoyed asking questions about the pictures. My six-year-old surprised me. Initially, she announced that the story “wasn’t very interesting,” because according to her, “not enough happened.” However, she also pulled it off the shelf repeatedly.
Clearly, something about the book was drawing her back and giving her food for thought. This was a huge vote in its favor, because preachy books don’t invite thought.
This, I think, is key in deciding how to categorize “The Handsome Little Cygnet.” Even though it clearly conveys a moral idea, it does so through a story that is simple on the surface while allowing the reader scope to make connections with other ideas and stories. It’s so understated it encourages children to pause and think. It’s more similar to one of Aesop’s fables than an allegory, and like other fables, it can be interpreted and applied in different ways by different readers.
What children learn about life from this book will vary. Ultimately, whether it has depth depends on the reader. That’s a sign of a rather good book.
As I choose stories for my children, I tend to be picky. Picture books are powerful. They are also fun, which is why I love reading to my children so much. Now that we’ve read “The Handsome Little Cygnet” together, I’m glad to add it to my shelf alongside “Blueberries for Sal” and “The Story of Ping.”