There’s a surprisingly intriguing exchange in a recent Bookworm program, where Michael Silverblatt interviews Françoise Mouly about her new line of children’s books, a spinoff of the Little Lit books she’s been putting out with Art Spiegelman. Not surprisingly, Mouly ran into resistance from established publishing houses when trying to put out the sort of books she was interested in; she took matters into her own hands, and started her own publishing house, Toon Books. In the interview, Silverblatt asks her about the psychology behind children’s book, a subject she’s thought about in detail:
FRANÇOISE MOULY: We’re being told certainly when we move around in the world of children’s book publishing that, you know, kids are into fantasy and you have to stimulate the imagination. And actually when I was doing this I learned so much that educators and teachers and attentive parents know: the opposite is true. Kids live in the world, and what they want, and certainly what they want from their books, they want order. And they want a way of naming things. And they want to be able to organize what is perceived as this chaotic series of sensory input into something that makes sense.
MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: In at least two of the books, and many children’s books besides, I recognize that craving for order is matched by the threat of chaos. What would happen if the child had its own way, or what would happen if chaos, say in the form of The Cat in the Hat, were to visit and gain access when the sources of order, the parents, are not at home. And so in another in the first series of books, Otto’s Orange Day, Otto gets only one wish from a genie, and Otto’s favorite color is orange. And so everything turns orange, and the story is – you see, I didn’t realize this before – implicitly about what would happen if the child were to get his own way in everything. It’s very, in its way, secretly authoritarian . . .
(The program can be listened to in full here.) The issue of control that Mouly brings up is interesting to me: it seems intuitively correct that children want a sense of order and control over the world in books. I’m curious what happens if we look at adults as well as children, especially in a world in which the book is being radically reshaped. Are we reticent to accept new forms because we still need this sense of control? A book on a computer screen is profoundly ambiguous: we have no sense of how long it might be, or where its boundaries are when it contains hyperlinks. We can’t control an electronic book in the same way that we could control a book in our hands when we were children. A question, then, which isn’t meant as rhetorical: is it childish to still want to do so?