Recently, I went to see the movie Inside Out. I was charmed by its cleverness and intrigued throughout by the way it followed, raveled and unraveled its themes. What I didn’t love was the heartwrenching little four- or five-year-old’s voice piping up the movie theater aisle for an hour and a half, asking his dad again and again, “Is this Inside Out? Is this Inside Out?” He was confused by the movie, and a little freaked out, and clearly kept wondering when the kids’ movie he was excited to watch would finally come onto the screen.
I have no problem with Disney, Pixar, and co. making animated films for older audiences. Genre expansion and exploration, huzzah! But there are a couple of things going on here that do frustrate me.
One is that American adults tend to have a reductionist approach to almost everything these days; we’re so busy running around not getting things done that we barely give ourselves time to thoughtfully assess anything. “Animated movie” automatically equals “little kid movie,” so we drag tots to stuff that they won’t enjoy and that will give them nightmares for months. (Spoiler warning: the giant teddy bear’s head getting ripped off? The dog sliced in half and running around? That clown! Happy dreams, kiddies! And I thought Dumbo‘s pink elephant sequence was creepy….) I want adults to think just a little bit more about the experiences they’re giving their kids.
This is true with picture books, too; adults see a picture book and assume it must be for young children, when in fact one of the glorious things about picture books is they span such a range of audiences. But many people outside the field don’t realize that, and with all of the pressure to push kids into chapter books and away from what are seen as baby books, kids at ages 6, 7, 8, and older are being steered away from books actually meant for them.
My other frustration is that, as our adult sensibilities and tastes have morphed across the decades, we seem to be forgetting that children (even the smartest, most sophisticated tykes) aren’t simply tiny adults. We have, as a culture, grown so fond of irony and sarcasm that we have forgotten that, developmentally, young children don’t process those forms of humor quite the way we do. They don’t yet have the accumulated life experience and frames of reference to understand and appreciate the sly nudge-wink humor.
One of my colleagues recently said, “Enough with the ‘meta’!” and I know what she meant. She didn’t mean the kind of meta that works so beautifully in The Monster at the End of This Book, the Sesame Street book by Jon Stone. That book brings children in on the joke as Grover tries to hammer the pages shut, tie them down, begging the reader not to turn pages because of a monster at the end of the book that turns out to be — Grover. No. My colleague meant the kind of meta that amuses adults but leaves kids wondering why all the grown-ups are laughing at a picture book they don’t really get.
In part because of pop culture, and I think in part because so many books are born in New York City via people who are hip, smart, sophisticated, and young, our picture book preferences as an industry are tipping perhaps a little bit overmuch toward a single note, a particular voice, attitude, execution.
I’m not trying to sound like Opie’s Aunt Bea here. Funny is my favorite thing, along with smart. Smart and funny are my pb&j. And kids love smart, funny books. I’m just not sure we’re meeting them halfway. It seems as if we are trying to drag them into our adult world of well-armored, loud-funny insouciance, and that those kinds of books are quickly becoming the only kinds of picture books that sell anymore. And I think that’s because those are the books adults find most appealing — for ourselves.
Young children are still learning about the world around them. They need a huge variety of voices and approaches to that world, from the funny to the thoughtful to the extraordinarily ordinary. I guess what I’m saying is that, these days, I’m hungry to see a little more Ferdinand the Bull and Frederick and The Snowy Day on the pages of picture books meant for young kids.
ADDENDUM: As a result of some conversations about this post I’ve been having elsewhere, I’d like to clarify. I am not saying that books with sly humor and meta formats/approaches/humor are uninteresting to children. On the contrary; they can be and often are brilliant. Often, though not always, these books work best with for children who are six, seven, eight years old and up — old enough to start getting the juxtapositions, references, misdirection, etc. Some of them do also work beautifully for young children — because at their heart, they take into consideration how children see and feel the world. The Book With No Pictures works fantastically with young children. They want to hear it again and again — because it empowers them in hilarious ways. It is not a midlife crisis disguised as a book for four-year-olds. (I’m frankly fine with midlife crisis picture books, too. I just want them to be marketed smartly and to the right audience and not inflicted on four-year-olds.)
I am also not saying that books should not have jokes written specifically to crack up the adults reading them. We adults ALL love those moments, and the kids enjoy our enjoyment. Those moments can work wonderfully and make reading time extra fun – as long as they are extra chocolate chips, not the whole cake.
Also, I am *definitely* not trying to limit children to some rigid notion of “age appropriateness.” Children are drawn to all kinds of mysterious, intriguing books they might not fully understand — books of Goya paintings, complex nature guides, their older siblings’ books, etc. Creating books with layers and levels, with content and ideas to reach toward, makes for curious, engaged thinkers and interesting human beings.
My beef is with books that operate on a single level, a level that appeals primarily to older children and adults but is marketed to and/or bought for younger children. I’m talking about the kind of book that, read aloud to a group of children at story hour, leaves them unmoved by emotion or genuine laughter. I don’t want books marketed to young children whose sole enjoyment for the child is that the adults reading it are laughing.
Make those books, by all means. Just market them better. The general bookstore customer assumes that all picture books are for young children, so they pick up these books meant for older readers, wasting opportunities to share incredible books actually meant for three, four, and five year olds.
Finally, I’m saying that, as a culture, we are a little in love with snark and “cool” and a little afraid of earnestness.