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?
Responding to Bob’s “games provide much more than a cognitive workout”…
Growing up in the 80s, video games were much less sophisticated and probably less effective as a matrix for training consumption. TV performed that role. I remember watching on Nickelodeon competitions between children in a toy store in which each contestant had 60, or 120 seconds to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as they possibly could. The winner — whoever had managed to grab the most — got to keep the contents of their cart. The physical challenge of the game was obvious. You could even argue that it presented a cognitive challenge insofar as you had to strategize the most effective pattern through the aisles, balancing the desirability of toys with their geometric propensity to fly off the shelves quickly. But did that excuse the game ethically?
I’ve played a bit of Katamari lately and have enjoyed it. It’s a world charged with static electricity, everything sticks. Each object has been lovingly rendered in its peculiarity and stubbornness. If your katamari picks up something long and narrow, say, a #2 pencil, and attaches to it in such a way that it sticks out far from the clump, it will impede your movement. Each time the pencil hits the ground, you have to kind of pole vault the entire ball. It’s not hard to see how the game trains visual puzzle-solving skills, sensitivity to shape, spatial relationships (at least virtual ones), etc.
That being said, I agree with Bob and Rylish that there is an internal economy at work here that teaches children to be consumers. A deep acquisition anxiety runs through the game, bringing to mind another Japanese pop phenom: Pokémon. Pokémon (called “Pocket Monsters” in Japan) always struck me as particularly insidious, far more predatory than anything I grew up with, because its whole narrative universe is based on consumption. “Collect ’em all” is not just the marketing slogan for spinoff products, but the very essence of the game itself. The advertising is totally integrated with the story. Here’s Wikipedia (not a bad source for things like this) on how it works:
“The Pokémon games are role-playing games with a strategy element which allow players to catch, collect, and train pets with various abilities, and battle them against each other to build their strength and evolve them into more powerful Pokémon. Pokémon battles are based on the non-lethal Eastern sport of fighting insects, but the Pokémon never bleed or die, only faint. The game’s catchphrase used to be “Gotta catch ’em all!”, although now it is no longer officially used.”
Similarly, the Katamari backstory involves the lord of the universe getting drunk one night and shattering the solar system. Each level of the game is the reassembly of a star or planet. If you succeed, a heavenly body is restored to the firmament.
After an hour playing Katamari, having traversed a number of wildly imaginative landscapes (and having absorbed a soundtrack that can only be described as Japanese chipmunks on nitrous) I re-enter the actual world in a mildly fevered state. The cardinal rule in the game is that to succeed I must devour as much as possible. No time is afforded to savor the strange, psychedelic topography, to examine the wonderful array of objects (everything from thumbtacks to blue whales) scattered about in my path. Each stage is a terrain that must be gobbled up, emptied. A throbbing orb of light in the upper left corner of the screen, set within concentric rings representing target diameters, measures my progress toward the goal: a katamari “n” meters in size. The clock in the upper right corner pressures me to keep rolling.
Video games today may not be as blatant as the consumerist spectacle of the Nickelodeon game, and they may provide richly textured worlds posing greater problem-solving challenges than any electronic media that has preceded them. But it seems to me that many of them do not differ ideologically from that shopping cart contest.
When I think about the part books played (and still play) in forming my world-view, I have to think about them as tethered to a set of circumstances. It is impossible to say, for example, whether it was Gardner’s Art Through the Ages that awakened my passion for visual art, or my teacher Gretchen Whitman, who introduced the book to me and led me through it.
The book is part of a matrix that is difficult to parse. How is one’s world-view formed? Certainly books are a part of the process, but maybe they function more as “tools” then as “beings.” Insofar as they are extensions of the people or circumstances that drove us to them. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that very few of these lists are the same.
It’s interesting that nobody confesses that children’s books formed their world-view. I was profoundly influenced by the books I read when I was a child. The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Wizard of Oz still resonate with me. Dorothy and Laura Ingalls were pioneers–girl scouts, who were always prepared and never complained. They were independent, pragmatic survivors. I’m not saying this is the best collection of virtues one could strive for, but, nevertheless I recognize them in myself and think they were engendered, to some extent, by those books. Also, I must mention the fantastic strangeness of Dr. Seuss (who prepared me for surrealism), Maurice Sendack, Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson.
Children’s books are there at the beginning, digging into our consciousness. The fact that children must, initially, be read to, illuminates something about how the book functions for humans. My son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens–characters, voices, colors–I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
I think people who are resistant to electronic books worry that this intimacy will be lost in a non-paper format. But clearly, it’s not the object itself, it’s the meaning brought to it by and through people. The medium won’t really change that.