A FIELD APART:
PREVIEWING THE FALL FESTIVAL
OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS
by Ellen S. Wilson
Children relate to books differently from the way adults do. Adults may occasionally
glance through a favorite novel. I once looked at the first sentences of all my favorite
books to see if I could figure out the secret to a great first sentence (I couldn't)
and I have a good friend who re-reads Proust periodically, but that is an every-few-years
sort of project for her. As a rule, however, adults read a book once and shelve it,
or return it to the library, or if it is really good, pass it on to a friend.
children, on the other hand, want to have a favorite book read to them again and again,
every day for weeks on end. Hapless parents wind up with the lines of these books
running through their heads whether they want them there or not. I personally don't
mind knowing Goodnight Moon by heart, but there are books I've grown to hate because
of a sing-song refrain, language that doesn't flow, or, in one particular case, a
graphic illustration of a vampire bat lifting its bloody mouth from a pig's belly
(this one was a gift that enjoyed a brief run as my three-year-old son's favorite).
I choose my own books carefully. I have learned to be even more careful choosing
my children's books because not only am I going to be intimate with their every detail,
but my children's word patterns and, by extension, thought patterns, are being shaped
by them. Children's literature is a field entirely separate from adult literature.
It may look like the same product, with more pictures and fewer words, but it's not.
The boundary separating it from adult literature blurs as the intended audience matures,
but even young adult fiction has rules of its own.
The books of Eric Carle,
a former graphic designer for The New York Times who has been creating children's
books since 1967, are classics that can be found in the homes of most children I know.
Carle is one of three authors who will speak at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's
Fall Festival of Children's Books on October 25th, along with authors Gayle Ross and
Jacqueline Woodson. Carle's books have plot, colorful tissue-paper illustrations,
and often a surprise at the end. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel, 1969) may
be his most famous. The story of a caterpillar who spends a week eating an impressive
variety of foods, falls asleep in his cocoon and turns into a beautiful butterfly,
is satisfying for children not only because of the butterfly on the final spread,
but because the language forms a comfortable pattern: "On Monday he ate through
one apple. But he was still hungry. On Tuesday he ate through two pears, but he was
still hungry." And so on. The little holes in the pages that the caterpillar
eats through give a nice tactile dimension for my 18-month-old daughter. But Carle's
most exciting book is his newest, The Very Lonely Firefly (Philomel, 1995), in which
a firefly finds a whole sky full of friends by the end of the story. Technology that
was not available for Caterpillar causes all the fireflies' tiny tails to light up
when the last page is turned. It's a lovely effect that wouldn't last long in my house
as my children sought to determine the source of the light, but we may buy it anyway.
Ross aims for a slightly older audience with her traditional Cherokee folk tales based
on stories her grandmother told her. A storyteller who appears in festivals all over
the country, Ross is descended from John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation
during the Trail of Tears. I found Ross' tales, told in clear, simple language, delightfully
imaginative. But I am not the audience for these books, so I asked a couple of young
consultants for their impressions. Kate Wymard, a third-grader at The Ellis School,
read How Turtle's Back Was Cracked (Dial, 1995) and said she loves to read folk tales
"because they put pictures in my mind about Indians like the tribe who made this
book." In the story, a vain turtle gets his comeuppance from a pack of wolves,
who chase him off a cliff to punish him. Unluckily for the turtle, he lands on a rock
in the river below, cracking his shell, rather than in the water itself. Kate said
she would change that: "When the wolves throw the turtle off the cliff, it would
be daytime and he would fall on solid rock. There wouldn't be any water at all around
him." The wolves, in other words, should have been able to finish the job.
Kruman, also a third-grader at Ellis, found Virginia A. Stroud's illustrations in
The Story of the Milky Way (Dial, 1995) the best part. The Milky Way is formed by
a mysterious dog that is caught stealing corn and runs across the sky to escape. "Why
I liked the great dog was because it was made out of little tiny stars," Katie
wrote. "I also liked learning about the Cherokee Indians." In addition to
introducing readers to her own native culture and creation myths, Ross stimulates
their curiosity and imagination. These are the kinds of books that help children become
The novels of Jacqueline Woodson are a trickier matter altogether,
but life itself is trickier for the readers that Woodson appeals to. The category
for young adult fiction technically begins at age 13, according to Dallas Clautice,
head of the Children's Department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Woodson's stories
deal candidly with such issues as teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse and racial prejudice.
In The Dear One (Dell, 1991), 12-year-old Afeni Harris lives in a nice suburb with
her loving mother, who is a recovered alcoholic, and her mother's best friends, two
lesbian lovers. Her life has reached an easy plateau until it is disrupted by Rebecca,
the 15-year-old daughter of her mother's old friend, who comes to spend the last weeks
of her pregnancy with the Harris family. Rebecca is from Harlem, and is not accustomed
to the comfort, the nice clothes, the "stuff" that Afeni takes for granted.
By the end of the novel, Rebecca and Afeni are friends, the baby has been adopted
by a nice couple, and the matriarchal society depicted in the book is strong once
more. It is almost a fairy tale, a comfortable way out of a scary situation.
at Blue Hill (Delacorte, 1992), the middle book in a trilogy written for a slightly
younger audience, was read by Meagan Kruman, a fifth-grader at Ellis, and is the story
of a black seventh-grade girl from Brooklyn who wins a scholarship to a mostly white
boarding school in Connecticut. Maizon lives with her grandmother, who wants more
for her bright granddaughter than their neighborhood can provide. Maizon hates the
new school, and the few black girls for demanding she segregate herself from the white
students. She is contemptuous of the white students for saying things like, "You
remind me of the lady who works for my family." But like many adolescents, Maizon
bottles it all up and quietly arranges to leave the school mid term.
between these young adult novels and true adult fiction is mostly a matter of style.
There is nothing gratuitous, no irony. Reading these first-person accounts is like
entering the mind of a 12-year-old who tells you more than you may want to know, with
a degree of realism that can be disturbing. "I wondered why Maizon didn't tell
people that she was unhappy at Blue Hill," my friend Meagan wrote. "I would
. . . not have her lie to other people about it." But 12-year-olds often can't
say what they need to say. Writers like Woodson, who remember, can sometimes say it
Ellen S. Wilson is the book review editor for Carnegie Magazine.
more information about the Fall Festival of Children's Books, call 731-5145.