Saturday, December 02, 2006

review of a review (exciting stuff, I tell you)

There’s a review of kids’ books in this week’s New Yorker, and it bugs me for several reasons.
First, I’m not sure if the author (Elizabeth Kolbert) and I have the same edition of Good Night, Gorilla. Hers seems to end like this: “On the last page, the animals are uncaged and – I assume – like more and more kids across America, still fooling around after the adults have conked out.”
In my – excuse me, “our” – copy the last page shows a sleeping gorilla and sidekick (mouse). The other animals are presumably locked in their cages at the zoo. In any case, they’re not brought into the picture(s) again.
Second, and more important, she seems to divide children’s books into (A) “protectionist” (“To this group what’s important is childhood, a hypothetical state of innocence and fancy.”) and (B) “permissive” (“where anything goes – and nothing goes over better than flatulence”). I’m sure she acknowledges a broad spectrum of many different kinds, but for the sake of argument she simplifies the spectrum into two camps. I don’t have a problem with that.
While discussing the second kind of book, she asks, “Do children love scatology for its own sake, or for an even more fundamental reason – because it irritates adults?”
There’s a lot in here. As in: the protectionist books are written for sentimental adults by cynical adults, while the permissive books are written for cynical children by children-at-heart. And, of course, that children actually prefer one “kind” of book over another.
I’m really not sure kids love nothing better than flatulence. I think they love nothing better than sensing a change in tone, little personal involvement, when an adult is reading to them. And flatulence, for some reason, does that.
To give her credit, she makes a good point by saying that children’s books need to aim at several “readers” at once. She distinguishes child and adult. I’d say there are three: the listener (the child), the reader (sometimes the child, most often the parent), and the buyer (rarely the child, sometimes the parent, most often a more distant relative – or the librarian).
There are more things that annoy about her take on specific titles, but I won’t bore you with them.
Third, her review bugged me in a good way. In other words, it’s nagging at me enough to write this entry. And the bit that’s nagging at me happens at the end, where she gets dramatic. “You don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to die. But we both have to.”
Sleep as metaphor for death is so prevalent in art that I feel stupid not having thought of that correlation in the annoying endings to kids’ books sooner (and without anyone else’s help). It also clarifies why so many “good-night” endings feel out of place.
Why isn’t sleep=death mentioned earlier? Why not analyze all the books about bedtime as books about death? I think it’s a good point, or at least worth investigating. It has made me view our nightly bedtime struggle in a new light. And my memories of it. I’ve always hated having to go to sleep (I’m better about it now, but still feel I’m missing out on things I could do). I also hate finishing novels. Hm.
Maybe what’s needed next is a survey of children’s books that end in sleep. New Yorker, (or Horn Book or anyone, really), make me an offer.

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