09 Oct 2010

on picturebooks and impatience

I posted these two articles to my Facebook wall this morning, before 8 a.m. I don’t like being all over Facebook like that, especially before most people I am friends with are awake, but I did it anyway. I’m weird. Get over it.

First, a video:

This is a little talk from David Foster Wallace, about the differences between commercial and literary fiction. Ignoring any inherent debates between the value of High Culture Lit vs. Low Culture Lit, I thought the most interesting part of Wallace’s argument was this:

Literary fiction requires time, it requires quiet, it requires focus and concentration, and it’s getting harder and harder to ask readers to do that.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem: we can try to train kids to see the value and enjoyment of reading a book that’s “hard” or “dense,” but I think a lot of English classes ARE trying to do that and failing. I have always been A Reader and I made it all the way through an English B.S. without that appreciation.

So do we ask the writers of commercial fiction to Beef It Up? To trick lazy American readers into loving literary fiction?

Or do we give up the crusade?

And then there was this article from the New York Times:

Picture Books Languish as Parents Push “Big-Kid” Books

I’m sure there is a lot about this article that screams “ALARMIST!” “QUOTES OUT OF CONTEXT!” or “WAH! WAH! OUR BUSINESS SUCKS!” but after spending a semester literally knee-deep in picturebooks, I think there’s some truth to the changing perception of the picturebook and what it’s for.

When I was giving storytimes, I plucked picturebooks from the shelf at random, looking for something large enough to be visible around the room, something with short enough text to keep the attention span of my infant-4-yr-old audience, and maybe some repetition or humor for a little interaction.

It’s very easy to see picturebooks like this. I didn’t even LIKE picturebooks all that much at that point in my life, even though I was reading 2-6 every week.

And that’s because I was BUSY. I had a program to present, I usually had about an hour to make sure music and props and chairs and everything was ready. I wasn’t really thinking about the picturebooks at all, except as a means to the end-of-this-flipping-storytime-oh-my-gosh-this-is-exhausting.

A year later, I adore picturebooks because they are works of art, and not just any art, but this crazy, special art that somehow combines images and words to create an almost tangible story or an experience. And I don’t think most people get that. Maybe more people considered picturebooks to be a “Literary Experience,” during some “Golden Age of the Picturebook” in the 70s or whatever, but something changed.

The NYT article focuses on economic and educational causes, but isn’t that just another way of saying:

“We’re too busy balancing our budget and getting our kids how to pass arbitrary standardized tests to slow down and focus on something literary, or to encourage our children to do the same?”

This has been stirring around in my mind all morning.

In other news: I wish David Foster Wallace would have written a picturebook.

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