Sunday, March 20, 2011

Classic vs. contemporary picture book characters

The 11/9/09 issue of The New Yorker ran a letter by Presvytera Elizabeth Tervo of Oakland in response to an article about picture books: “...while many contemporary picture books encourage children to believe that their potential is enormous, and that they can do or be anything they want to be, classic books written for my parents’ generation describe characters who break the rules and have adventures, only to find that the world is too big and scary and that they actually prefer life to be circumscribed and tame.”

When I first read this, it didn’t quite ring true for me. Revisiting it now after more than a year, it still doesn’t, and now I can better pinpoint why. With any statement as broad as this one, you’re bound to turn up more than a couple of exceptions.

Take the classic character Ferdinand the bull. That book was mostly about what he did not want to be—a bullfighting bull. (So what that means, ironically, is that he wanted a tame life—the alleged province of contemporary characters.)

And take the contemporary character Olivia the pig. In all her precociousness, she gives no indication that life scares her. Rather she is one pig who seems to be able to take any bull by its horns. These are but two offhand examples.

But more to the point: it feels like the letter-writer is trying to compare opposites. Yet rather than contrasting, the two qualities she describes can co-exist in the same character.

You can believe in yourself and play it safe at the same time. Put another way, you can be confident and cautious simultaneously. Doesn’t this sound like any character whose arc involves him/her coming out of his/her shell?

The letter-writer is clearly talking about fiction picture books, while my professional picture book experience is largely nonfiction. But before we’re anything, we’re readers. And whether as a reader or writer, I don’t feel either the “classic” or “contemporary” era of fiction picture books can be predominantly characterized by either of Tervo’s observations. It makes for a great conversation, though. Can you think of examples besides Ferdinand and Olivia?

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