Thursday, November 12, 2009

Put down that screwdriver

I’m kind of surprised that there hasn’t been more blogosphere discussion of the article called The Defiant Ones in The New Yorker of a couple weeks ago. It’s a piece about picture books and well worth reading (even though it’s more about parenting ultimately than about books). There was one particular facet of the author’s argument that feels to me like part of a larger trend in the cultural relationship with children’s books—one that I find troubling. In the article, author Daniel Zalewski writes:

“In this confrontation-averse age of parenting, in which the “escalation” of emotions is considered a mark of failure, a favorite way of inculcating discipline is the reading of picture books. The language of a good children’s story is precise and consistent, offering a genial way for parents to address misbehavior.” [Emphasis mine.]

Picture books, in Zalewski’s estimation can be a means to an ends for many parents. If “inculcating” wasn’t clear enough, he writes it explicitly: “Many new picture books tout themselves as disciplinary tools.”  He points out that picture books often reflect trends in parenting and discipline over time.

“[T]he stern disciplinarians of the past—in Robert McCloskey books, parents instruct children not to cry—have largely vanished.”

All of this is fascinating, and I don’t disagree with much in his read on things (comparing No David to a Michael Bay movie is brilliant). What I wish he would have teased out more, though, is how an audience’s perception of discipline in children’s bo0ks can take two very different forms, and that we might be at a moment of imbalance between the two.

I’m sure parents have always used picture books as tools to teach, as exemplars of behavior, etc—that’s one form. But don’t forget that for a child, especially a very young child, discipline is a huge part of their day, whether they read or not. Disciplining the self physically, socially, and emotionally is a child’s whole educational concern for at least the first few years of his life, and to the extent that picture books are largely concerned with discipline, those books are reflecting a world and not necessarily projecting a lesson. It’s no more surprising or deliberate that picture book authors write about discipline than it is that Jane Austen wrote about domestic life on English estates in the late 18th century. And it’s not necessarily any more didactic.

It’s possible for a parent and a child (or especially a child alone) to read a picture book that depicts a disciplinary philosophy and not take a position on or come away with the philosophy on display. Or, to put it another way, it is possible—dare I say, desirable—to read a picture book for the sake of the pleasure of reading a story well told. It would be a great pity if this weren’t that case and if I could not read, say, Traction Man Is Here, to my son because the parenting on display in that excellent book is not up to snuff or because it’s not relevant to the disciplinary challenge my son faced five minutes earlier.  My Henry isn’t proving to be the least bit shy or afraid to speak out, so should I be worried that he loves Nancy Carlson’s Henry’s Show and Tell? I’m pretty sure he just likes the way Nancy draws shaky knees.

In the end, I think the most troubling word for me in the article is “tool.” Maybe it’s just that this comes so close on the heels of the end of Reading Rainbow or so soon after reading this post on the Shelf Talker blog, the one that begins "I've noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child's world" (mirrors are tools, too).  Maybe it just feels like we’re becoming indifferent or even hostile as a culture to aimless reading, un-purposeful reading.

Reading doesn’t have to be a “tool,” a screwdriver to tighten the screws of a particular disciplinary scheme (or, later in childhood, of any other educational agenda). Yes, reading can be a means to an end, of course. But reading should also be an end unto itself, and if we fail to value that, we are in trouble.

-Andrew Karre