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Cats and Sixty Foot Whales: Reflections on Children’s Books

May 4th, 2020 | 18 min read

By Tara Thieke

The most expensive preschools in America bear a pine-scented resemblance to those senna-tinted photographs of a world before plastics, albeit with no unseemly hint of poverty. Within the world of Waldorf, Montessori and Wild Forest schools the hand dominates the machine, wood and stone beat oil and metal, and the screen has been banished. Just as organic milk is more expensive than soda pop, simple hand-crafted toys have become the hallmark of the wealthy.

It’s not just the toys which are different (a Montessori-educated teacher would reject ‘toys’ in favor of ‘work’). It’s the steady routines, non-cluttered spaces, slow and comforting songs, and a now rare type of children’s book. A visitor will find no shadow of “F is for Fart” or “Cora the Cow Plops a Patty” in a 30,000 dollars a year classroom.

The books currently pushed by the publishing industry have had the edges rounded off, the complexity of a Beatrix Potter picture liquidized into the flat 30-second sketches found in a Sandra Boynton book. The people who own the publishing industry, though, like all wealthy individuals, usually want the best for their children. And that means books of a different character.

These exclusive schools and their devotees fill their children’s minds with writers like Elsa Beskow, whose stories take place in an often-fantastic but slow-paced world peopled by flowers, gnomes, bats, owls, and talking toads. These little creatures bond with the young child and help them to navigate the confusing world of their elders. Many of these books emphasize colors, rhythms of the day and seasons, and show an interest in plants absent from today’s children’s literature and media.

What’s stocked by most libraries, preschools, and book chains is not nearly so serene. Here quantity trumps quality as deluges of new releases pour down each week. Within these books nearly every image a child will encounter is flat: a sander has been taken to the human form (and everything else) until one is left with a paint-by-numbers worksheet quality.

Realism has vanished, let alone the mysterious realism which can be found in many of the books written between the late 1940s to the 1970s. When the choice is between serif and sans-serif, the publisher inevitably chooses a sans-serif world. There is no place for the child’s eye to linger because everything has been shorn down. Everything except boogers.

Some contemporary illustrators do use the flat image to great effect and these books possess a charm in their own right. Christopher Haughton uses color brilliantly while writers and illustrators like Adelina Lirius, Kevin Henkes and Teagen White have a genuine gentle loveliness about their work. The very best of these books, though, still place a ceiling above the world, a world deliberately disenchanted. Enchantment suggests a maker and so, it seems, it must be reduced to mere magic.

So for the good. Then there is the bad, which is so very, very bad, and there is so very, very much of it, and by and large it is what most people are able to access.

Here the child encounters a world of noise, hastiness, and sneers. Perhaps it’s telling that the highest praise in children’s literature seems to be “you’ll die laughing.” There’s nothing to do but point, mock, and laugh. There is a miserable nihilism looming behind “F is for Fart.” Your body is ridiculous, child. You are not fearfully and wonderfully made; look, each animal’s dignity is compromised, they are trapped by the gross machinery of their form. Laugh till your sides split, laugh so loud at everything so we do not need to ask ourselves why there is anything.

It may help to illustrate this further. Perhaps you want to find a book about cats for a child. Try a little search for books about cats. What you will find are mangled and misshapen monstrosities like Splat the Cat, Pete the Cat, or Bad Kitty – dozens upon dozens of books with computer-generated cats, bizarrely sexualized cats, or cats which look as if they are in the process of being strangled. They will be heralded as totally hilarious, so funny!

But what has happened now is the child has encountered the joke before the mystery of the cat, and it is a disservice to both cat and child. Levity is a noble thing, but without gravity it becomes unbalanced, an end in itself that unmoors all the other things children should encounter.

You decide none of these books have anything to do with a living cat. They are mere vehicles for jokes about embodiment and adult sermonizing about self-esteem (an obsessive fixation of adults in regards to children; meanwhile children haven’t even figured out the boundaries of the self). You would like to find a book about the feline entity which has elicited a range of art and myth-creation from the human soul for millennia.

So you do some more work and find some child-oriented scientific works on the cat. Here there will be no drawings, only photographs. The camera is not like the hand and the attitudes it summons are very different; it eschews contemplation of the subject in favor of admiration for technical mastery. This is the cat reduced by the lens to utilitarian questions better suited to the dissection table: how does it sleep, how does it eat, how do whiskers help it survive? After this trivia, delivered via bright bubbles with popping “Gee Isn’t That Neat” condescension, the child will know the cat as seen by a world-weary taxidermist: an object to be measured, not a living creature. The grace of the cat has been obscured with the monotony of data.

Leaving cats behind, we find the burgeoning genre of books which sail over children’s heads but admittedly do elicit glee through odd juxtapositions or the ostentatious sulking of the main characters. There is “Dragon Loves Tacos” by Adam Rubin, a story void of purpose or plot, which features the now-standard bug-child with bulging eyes, barrel body and spindly legs.

Some, like “The Day the Crayons Quit,” by Drew Daywalt, are beloved by adult reviewers, probably because they are mainly written for them. They are exaggerated winks at grown-ups, a sort of meta story-telling aimed at children at the price of plot, place-setting, or sincerity. And of course there is the now-ubiquitous “authentic” retelling of classic fairy tales such as “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka. These books teach children to debunk before they learn to trust, and all too often the child has never heard the source material. It is presented to them in an upside-down format before they ever learn to see right-side up.

These books can seem delightfully clever to the adult who has been steeped in narrative tropes, though cleverness risks bleeding into irony which then bleeds into cynicism, and the inversion of archetypes can be confusing to the child. Even if there is entertainment, and we see quite a lot of silliness in this genre, it is terrible that it comes prior to instilling genuine love or reverence. Gift a small child one of those Hogwartian “chewed up cud” flavors of jellybeans and you can have a belly-laugh at the prank, and because children are empathetic they may scrunch their nose in delight at your own pleasure. But do this all the time, do this before the first jellybean has been encountered on an Easter morning, and the child begins to find simplicity dull compared to the novelty of being rotten.

There are many people for whom this is a non-issue. Time spent considering it may summon recollections of the hand-wringing of school marms, those would-be inquisitors unable to cut loose and enjoy a giggle. But I urge them to reconsider this stance. Put aside images of the fuddy-duddy and return to a Waldorf school on the Upper East Side (Kindergarten – $37,000 a year): there is a reason they do not fill their shelves with Wonky Donkey, Grumpy Monkey or Benny’s Boogers. Why?

Wonder is the first language of the soul: the baby wonders to see his mother’s face; his joy spills over into transcendent laughter. She wonders at her first taste of ice cream and then, ah, the ecstasy of enchantment. This is our birthright. This pattern is repeated, and for many a century we nurtured our children with fairy tales and folklore which guided our children into the world and instilled caution and reverence. There may be dragons, but that well-cared for babies live in a perpetual state of wonder is a sign that all of this, your toes and the tree which looms over the toddler, all this is a gift; and this awe, as the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized repeatedly, is how we learn to know and love the Lord.

Perhaps this is why children’s books and media have suffered decades of assaults.

It may seem trivial that many children’s illustrators now draw human faces (when a human hand is involved at all) with sickly eyes, rounded unnatural bodies and distorted expressions. Sometimes they draw their subjects deliberately ugly, presumably because they believe children find ugliness more fun than beauty.

But if we are what we look at, and a good deal of philosophy and theology teaches us this, then what we show our children matters. And what they are looking at is a rejection of the Real in favor of a caricature: works made by machine rather than by hand; machinery and animals which are for all practical purposes human as opposed to realistic images of God’s Creation with a bit of fairy dust blown over it; and a deliberate rejection of mystery and reverence.

Why is encountering the Real, and seeing it through a veil of enchantment, so critical to children? Why do fairy tales last for millennia? I do not mean to say the fairy tales are real. But the atmosphere they evoke is real enough to children who find the world cloaked in wonder, as is the fruit the best ones evoke (see J.R.R. Tolkien’s discussion of Eucatastrophe in “On Fairy Stories”). A George MacDonald fairy tale is more in harmony with Reality than anything written for children in years. There is a near-universal tendency in children to seek the divine spark in the world around them, to know the names of things and enter into communion with them. These are not foolish urges; they are the imprint we received from our Creator, to name Creation, to know it, to steward it, and through doing so to love Him.

The child who draws back for a moment from the dark wood senses a grandeur about the world, a grandeur which has a maker. The child who learns to make friends with the forest, and to respect its dangers, comes to know that maker and see the majesty of His hand. Fairy tales, classic children’s literature: these are some of the first steps children take to God, and you cannot cut them out without significant impact on the soul.

In 1983 John Senior, creator of one of the more renowned Great Books lists, wrote a small book of his own entitled “The Restoration of Christian Culture.” As he traces back the steps which have led to the decline he sees in his students after several decades teaching, he comes to the conclusion that nothing can replace early encounters with reality, unmediated by screen or even book:

However strongly you reject his juvenile pantheism, Wordsworth is right when he says, ‘Come out into the light of things.’ There is no amount of reading, remedial or advanced, no amount of study of any kind, that can substitute for the fact that we are a rooted species, rooted through our senses in the air, water, earth and fire of elemental experience. Nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu. Perhaps you are tired of jokes about our plastic world, the unreality of Coke, potato chips, and television shows. The Devil’s neatest trick in a blasé world of easy change is to tease us into boredom with the ordinary, saving truths, which are modishly discarded along with last year’s styles. When you plant even the best children’s literature in even the brightest young minds, if the soil of those minds has not been richly manured by natural experience, you don’t get the fecund fruit of literature which is imagination, but infertile fantasy. Children need direct, everyday experience of fields, forests, streams, lakes, oceans, grass and ground so they spontaneously sing with the psalmist,

‘Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all ye deeps, fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, which fulfill His word; mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; serpents and feathered fowls….’

“If they don’t know the facts to begin with – not as something in the National Geographic or a zoo – they cannot learn to sing or love to read the children’s literature which celebrates these things.”

Nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu.

Nothing in the intellect unless first in sense.

But a child’s senses are fluttering sailboats poised beneath the tsunami of modernity. Where are children to find the silence and space to roam without interruption? Where are the creeks in our cities, the gardens, the unmowed meadows? Whether the villain who locks the child’s door is car culture, poverty, plague, or a frantic busyness eating up the hours, it remains that in those cases the child must fall back upon stories.

And what then? Will they at least encounter the names of flowers and trees, the images of creeks, hear stories about life in the garden and life in the wood? Will their gaze be directed to the heavens and to learn the drawings their ancestors sketched between the stars? If the longer, older, deeper quarantine has barred the exits from the asphalt grid, and the on-going lockdown keeps us even from the parks, then books are what remain. But oh, what books!

John Senior went on to chide our crutches:

You cannot use television shows and tape cassettes or astroturf or astrodomes to foster the healthy, natural gymnastics and poetry right reason presupposes. Nor, as I have said, is it just the bad contents of the media: We don’t need bigger and better nature-shows by Jacques Costeau. It is the artificiality of the television itself even when the material is supposed to be the rule. A sixty foot whale splashing across nineteen inches of your living-room while you sip your Coca-Cola is not reality.

It’s no longer a sixty foot whale on our television screens. It’s an endless scroll, fifty thousand videos eternally looping of giggling whales with sunglasses, a noisy beat, and a cheeky attitude on a tablet. It’s a crudely drawn blubbering hippo in a Boynton book with sunglasses, for all intents and purposes no different than a bored adult. The majesty of the hippo and the whale have vanished; the audacity of the cat has been caricatured, diced up, and the child rendered indifferent.

With all the excessive stimulation and reductionist art, how is a child to hold still long enough to take in any of God’s world, or His word? How can one wait patiently to see a whale on a boat off the coast of New England when they can’t sit still long enough to watch the whale on the television because the very idea of a whale has been made a farce? The reality of the whale is a mystery which cannot be put into words; to begin to even contemplate its existence requires silence and space for its enormous hulk to fill our attention. But how can a child trust real food after being fed styrofoam all his life?

There is no need for the deluge of books and other forms of children’s media, except in regards to the bank accounts of publishers, advertisers, and other content-creators. The churn is the point for them, but it is our duty not to let our children get on the frantic wheel of consumption. They may gain a thrill but they will lose their sense of balance. Mister Rogers is just as fine today as he was forty years ago, Margaret Wise Brown’s classics are just as soothing.

Perhaps even more important is that by passing down books we strengthen our generational bonds, helping children to feel at home in the world: “My mother read this book to me when I was a child and now I read it to you.” See? There is that small root shooting down into the soil. The child is learning about time, about home.

The responsibility of parents and educators is to mediate reality to children so they can learn to know and love God with all their heart, mind, and soul. The wealthy in our country do their best to grow their children’s imaginations and their capacity to think creatively through books rich in imagery, texture, and wonder.

Once, though, these stories were the common property of every child who could sit by his grandmother’s knee. Let us aim to give every child, rich and poor, those stories which plant wonder and gratitude in the heart, causing them to run and sing the psalms, and to consider the whale and the cat the way their Maker intended.

The authors and illustrators on the following list were chosen as creators of illustrated books which contain elements of mystery, reverence, wonder, beauty, attention to detail and names, and are a little off the beaten path. It is certainly not a comprehensive list and it has eschewed all of the Golden Age illustrators and certain mid-20th century bestsellers simply because they are so well-known.

*Some of these books have been re-issued with new covers and even new illustrators. The older editions are, universally, to be preferred.

A Brief List of Books for Young Children

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang

The Flower Fairies series by Cicely Mary Barker

The Brambly Hedge Collection by Jill Barklem

Around the Year by Elsa Beskow

Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, Aunt Lavender by Elsa Beskow

The Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow

The Flowers Festival by Elsa Beskow

Peter in Blueberry Land by Elsa Beskow

Princess Sylvie by Elsa Beskow

Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

The Monk Who Grew Prayer by Claire Brandenburg

The Color Wizard by Barbara Brenner and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

Hildegard of Bingen by Demi

To Everything There is a Season by Leo & Diane Dillon

A to Z Picture Book by Gyo Fujikawa

Mother Goose illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa

Yourself and Your House Wonderful by Helene Guerber

The Saint and His Bees by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg

Roses in the Snow by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Lydia Grace Kadar-Kallen

The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson

Catwings by Ursula LeGuin

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren

A Picture Book of Saints by Fr. Lawrence Lovasik

The Little Lost Lamb by Golden MacDonald (Margaret Wise Brown) and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

A House in the Woods by Inga Moore

Six-Dinner Sid by Inga Moore

Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

The Story of the Butterfly Children by Sibylle von Olfers

The Story of the Root Children by Sibylle von Olfers

The Princess in the Forest by Sibylle von Olfers

The Beauty of Birds by H. Wayne Trimm

A Time To Keep by Tasha Tudor

One is One by Tasha Tudor

Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tudor

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