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Every Picture Tells a Story

July 11, 1999|ELLEN HANDLER SPITZ | Ellen Handler Spitz is a lecturer in the art and art history department at Stanford University. This essay was adapted from her book, "Inside Picture Books" (Yale University Press: 230 pp., $25)

We never seem to forget our first books: the look, feel and smell of pages daubed with color that pulled us in when we were small. Just a name--Madeline, Ferdinand, Corduroy, Babar, Max and his wild things, Peter Rabbit--brings a smile, a bright image or the fragments of a story; the timbre of someone's reading voice; the faint odor of a pipe or a favorite cologne; the folds of a quilt; the sensation of being held. Best of all, perhaps, these books evoke the memory of having someone all to ourselves and sensing that we are, together with that someone, enveloped in fantasy.

Reading aloud is an activity fraught with advantages--for grown-ups as well as for youthful listeners--and it is a quintessentially relational activity. Through the shared cultural experience of reading aloud and being read to, adults and young children--in moments of intensely pleasurable rapport--participate in the traditional task of passing on values from one generation to the next. Occasionally people argue about the extent to which children's tastes and preferences are formed by early reading, but rarely is effort spent trying to understand how this influence comes about, how psychic tasks are portrayed in picture books--for example, how moral lessons are conveyed, how prejudices are subtly implanted.

Interactive participation of adults in children's cultural experience does not end in the primary years. Long after they have learned the alphabet and acquired a substantial written vocabulary, children love to be read to. They ask us to read to them, and we do. Sitting close and sharing their books, we enter imaginary spaces with them. We communicate across the intervening years to transcend the routines of their daily lives and ours and render it--artfully--more real.

Parenting, never a simple task, seems especially complex in times like ours when widely accepted ideologies and hierarchies that have supported parental authority have been eroded and advocates of a multitude of competing priorities vie with one another in a progressively strident disharmony. In the midst of this fray, self-proclaimed proponents of "children's rights" speak out, but even these apparently well-meaning advocates propound agendas that, on careful examination, often prove naive or troubling. Conscientious parents trying to function in this scene may feel pulled apart--rather like those medieval images of poor St. Bartholomew on the verge of his martyrdom. Picture him splayed out in the center of a painted panel, with each limb tied to a colored horse about to be whipped off toward one of the four corners of the picture--north, south, east and west. Not a comfortable position, to say the least.

As the end of the 20th century approaches, families in the United States are becoming increasingly mobile and diverse. The paradigm myth of mother, father and child living comfortably together in a stable dwelling place matches the reality of only a fraction of today's families. Important issues of race, gender and class have complicated this simple image. Many of the images and stories we encounter in picture books reflect a world at least superficially different from that which swirls around us today. Aided by the intuitive leaps children love to make, however, picture books speak messages of enduring value.

If anyone were to ask me what I consider to be the most important feature of parenting, I would say, without hesitation and without wishing to beg the question, simply, enjoyment--enjoy your children. Delight in them, rejoice with them, have good times together, treasure the days of your life that are spent in their company. Days that--although it may not seem so to harried and often worried young parents--are limited. A great deal follows from this simple thought.

Parenting through cultural experience has to do with individual books and individual children as well as with themes of overarching concern. It is a project best undertaken with pleasure, passion and conviction. We care, and we take care, to know a great deal about what goes into our children's bodies; we need to be no less attentive to what goes into their minds.

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