children’s books and control

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 vs Michael Silverblatt (excerpt) – Bookworm

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?

4 thoughts on “children’s books and control

  1. Alain Pierrot

    Do children -? and adults -? really want a “sense of order and control over the world” in books?
    It is not so obvious! The recurrent taste for thrill and fantasy in oral or written litterature (or story telling and prospective in the news) should be taken into consideration.
    Litterature as a mind experience and exorcism against a chaotic experience of the ‘real’ world?
    However, I’d agree children -? and most adults -? had rather be provided with happy, ‘orderly’ endings…

  2. Kirsten Reach

    I have to disagree with Alain Pierrot. There is a difference between order and happy endings. The reason we have a taste for thrill and fantasy is because it is structured in a world we can understand and visualize. This is an exhausted example, but I will assume you’re familiar with it. “Harry Potter” is fantasy, but it is not chaos. Instead it creates a shared consciousness that millions of children feel they have experienced. What is so striking about Rowling’s imagination is how logical it is – the characters are governed by social rules we can identify and problems with which we can identify. The reader may feel “Diagon Alley” is an apt name, but never would have thought of “diagonally” as a name for an imaginary shopping district. And within the world Rowling created, the children engage in social interaction based upon this fantasy – “Harry Potter” is not just present in book release parties, but in fan fiction and chatrooms and thousands of other creations the fans have made. Why isn’t there a more convenient way for these readers to share their experiences within the confines of Rowling’s (structured) world?
    Any science fiction literature has to be grounded in a social order related to the one readers have experienced so that we are able to identify with the characters. Scifi writers also face an additional challenge of following order provided by physics – does the setting have gravity? If there are chemicals or weapons involved, how do they mix or explode? It has to be comprehensive for the reader to believe in it. Ice-nine in Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” challenges its readers to make a leap of (chemical) faith and believe that a tiny capsule could freeze any body of water. If you couldn’t suspend your disbelief in the beginning of the novel, would you have finished it? Could you invest yourself in the main characters during a climactic scene if you were still unconvinced that a seed crystal could freeze an ocean in an instant?
    But order is not limited to social and scientific regulations in fantasy; order can be stylistic.
    In fact, children’s books can be nonsense so long as they’re structured by a rhythm the readers recognize. “Chick Chicka Boom Boom” still has a beginning, middle, and end. Its appeal is in the repeated sounds and lines, given a linear structure by the letters of the alphabet (which climb the tree in sequential order and fall).
    Adults too look to books for a sense of narrative, for a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. But plenty has been written about our innate need for storytelling.
    I think what makes this entry so interesting is Dan’s final question. If we consider a tangible book to hold a sense of order, of course we would react to an intangible force that could upset this order. Perhaps that is why the digital book makes headlines in the press each week. But perhaps we should not frame this as a fear of life beyond the tangible object. This may be a larger fear – Dan implies it, but does not say it outright – of where books would take us if they were networked because we simply do not know. It could change the book industry, the way we read, or the way the neurons in our brains are connected, and unfortunately, people seem to respond with fear and skepticism rather than excitement.
    What will it take for people to overcome that desire for order? Is it simply the matter of producing an attractive digital book that wins over their affection and trust, or is there another way to make the unknown seem less scary? Is there a way to talk about networked books without the headline, “The End of Publishing”?
    (In this week’s case, the threat of chaos is the stock market and the sense of order is that 401K plan publishers thought they’d have when they retired.)
    Aside from the fact that it is user-driven, what sense of order does a physical book hold? And how can digital publishing expand upon this?

  3. Alain Pierrot

    @Kirsten, thanks for your very relevant analysis and rectification of my remarks; I really should have developed more about thrill and fantasy, and the related literary genres.
    In any case, consistency -? or ‘order’ -? in the narration of a story is one of the criteria that separate good books from hastily edited ones and serious readers such as children are very sensitive to it.
    Successful fantasy – whether ‘hard science’ sci-fi or fantasy such as Rowling’s -? indeed manages a way to talk about our familiar real, actual world plus a few, consistent, counter-factual hypothesis. I’d say the best mmorpg games, where rules are clear to all participants play a very similar role.
    One of the challenges and opportunities digital technology presents could lie in the possibility for the reader to choose a different ‘counter-factual’ hypothesis within the general frame set by the author and explore the logical consequences to a conclusion.
    Still, more on the ‘thrill’ side, there is the fantastic genre (‘fantastique’ as opposed to ‘merveilleux’ as it can be phrased in French) genre, where the story not only doesn’t decide between reality and imagination but fundamentally conveys a doubt about the mere possibility to ‘know the truth’, such as in Maupassant’s “Le Horla” short story.
    I think that some use of a wider, random, manipulation of digital texts by the readers could appeal to this aspect of literature.

  4. Kathleen

    “Are we reticent to accept new forms because we still need this sense of control?” I was in the middle of reading Rosamund Davies’ article “Narrating the Archive and Archiving Narrative: The Electronic Book and the Logic of the Index” when Dan posted, making me think a lot about our, as readers, need for control over form.
    In her paper, Davies (who will be a main speaker at the Sixth International Conference on the Book in just over a month now, October 25-27) explores how we, as readers and digital users, interact with archives. We browse, consult entries we need, and visit sections that spark our interest, basically pursuing only what we want. Since it seems like we can fully control and easily navigate an archive, I think Davies sees the archive as fertile ground for experimentation. Davies’ own hypertext work, “Index of Love,” can be found at The most interesting aspect of the whole work is that upon first impression you think you’ll be able to navigate the site, you know no problem, but you can’t. The first screen that welcomes you is an index, which you can click on to begin crawling through the labyrinth of a relationship’s remnants. Davies describes her work as an “experience of repetition and circularity, but of repetition that is repeated each time slightly differently.” The whole thing is utterly frustrating. You never know how to get back to where you were, links don’t always lead to the same text or video, and in the end, the narrative never comes into focus. But, ultimately, that’s the point.
    I thought what Françoise Mouly said about children rings true for adults: we want to be able to organize what is perceived as chaotic into something that makes sense (that’s why we’re creatures that catalog! file! map!). When we encounter a mess, we need to put the pieces together to understand it. Even though I didn’t think Index of Love was successful as a whole, I think what Davies suggests is interesting. When an author plants a narrative into an archive, it reveals everyone’s deep desire to make sense of experience, to create narrative.
    To come back to Dan’s final question – ?is it childish to still want to control? Dan is right: a book on a computer screen is profoundly ambiguous, of indeterminable length, and without concrete boundaries. So are we reticent to accept new forms? Yeah, maybe. Ha, maybe because it seems a little like growing up – ?stepping out into the great unknown…

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