Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why kids' books are important

I would say that children's books are the most consistently under-rated type of book. A moment's thought would indicate how powerful an effect they can have, and most of us will remember certain childhood books in ways 'more important' literature fails to stick as it drains from the memory. A successful children's book will achieve classic status in a way few other books ever can.

Recently, I was making a list of the greats in kids books. To make it harder, I had to pick just one from each country I could think of. Some were shoo-ins, others fought hard to squeeze into the niche. And then there are those that were the result of a multi-national background. I was aware that Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar was from a German-American, and so much of what it is comes from his background, but I didn't realise how much of it. This recent Guardian interview (well worth reading in total) takes us through the story behind the story. And it's an amazing one.

Carle, like many who have seen the worst in the world (he was forced to dig the Sigfried Line as a 15 year old, with people dying around him) appreciates the motivation deprivation gives, something the affluent don't have. Like many authors his work comes, in part, from his old environment;
For his first six years, Carle lived in upstate New York with his parents, who had emigrated from Germany. In the mid-30s his mother, homesick, took the family back to Stuttgart at a time when everyone was trying to move the other way. War broke out, his father was drafted into the German army and spent eight years as a prisoner of the Russians. Before the war, he had been his son's great ally, a gentle man, an amateur artist. When he came back, he was broken. Carle turns over the memories of this period slowly. He is very careful to get things right.

His mother was supportive of her son's love of art - "in awe" of it, in fact - but was in other ways a rather distant figure. She was not a "warm" individual. "She was a good mother. But ... I hate to say this... I loved her, she was responsible, she was good ... But I don't have this feeling which I have towards my father, as something incredibly deep. When I was little, from the beginning, he read the funny papers to me, told me stories, drew pictures, went for walks. Telling stories and walking and stopping and looking; nothing terribly important. But that has been so important in my life. The older I get, the more I know that's so true."

Carle was 10 when his father left for the army and 18 when he came back, "this sick man. Psychologically, physically devastated." Did he try to coax him back to his old self? "We didn't talk any more much. Only superficial things. I had other interests. I was in art school, an artist. I was interested in women." He puffs out his chest in parody of his 18-year-old self. "This old man, coming from Russia, we got along without you." That's pretty much how it felt, he says. "It's so sad."
And art, as so often was important - perverted for power or (as the Nazis had it) 'degenerate':
The other seminal figure in his childhood was Herr Kraus, his high school art teacher, who at great personal risk noticed Carle's talent and invited him to his house to look at banned art; in Carle's memory, it was Klee, Matisse and Picasso, but he can't be sure. Anyway, it was expressionist and it made a profound impression on him. "I didn't have the slightest idea that something like that existed, because I was used to art being flag-waving, gun-toting Aryans - super-realistic Aryan farmers, the women with their brute arms. That was art. Of course. That was a shock."
Eric Carle. Photograph: Maggie Steber, via The Guardian.

As ever, the involvement of others than the author was critical; and discipline in content another critical factor:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar was initially conceived of by Carle as a hungry bookworm, eating its way through the pages. His long-time editor, Ann Beneduce, wasn't sure about a worm as a central character and suggested a caterpillar. "Butterfly!" exclaimed Carle, and so it was born.

"I often joke," he says, "that with a novel you start out with a 35-word idea and you build out to 35,000 words. With a children's book you have a 35,000-word idea and you reduce it to 35. That's an exaggeration, but that's what's taking place with picture books."
It's easy to project meanings into these books. As vehicles for acorn imaginations, they can be a lot of things. Adults, as ever, can be pretty crude.
The book's success has spawned a lot of crank interpretations. It has been described as an allegory of both Christianity and capitalism. "Right after the Wall fell, I was signing books in the former East Germany and was invited by a group of young librarians to have lunch with them. One said the caterpillar is capitalist, he eats into every food one little bit and then the food rots away. Wasteful capitalist. Interesting. I think that if you're indoctrinated, that's how you will see it."
As a kid myself, I was never a fan of The Very Hungry Caterpillar; my graphic requirements from books were always more stringent than the rough-edged collage of Carle. I may not have been a fan, but I can certainly respect the achievement. It remains a justified best-seller.

But the story makes the best-seller for lots of reasons; one key one, according to Carle (here on the Penguin Books website) makes a lot of sense to me:
The success of my books, I think is also due to their emotional impact. Caterpillar, for instance, is a book of hope. It says that you too - an ugly, little thing - will open your wings and fly. Kids who are insecure and young identify with that."
Insecurity? They know that the future is unwritten, and who knows what current activities will help them in the future. Perhaps they are just more realistic about life's potential.


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