The New Literal Mind

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 17, 2009

I’ve noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child’s world. "Oh, he won’t read that," they might say. "It’s a city book, and they live in the country." Or, "Oh, no, she’s got a little SISTER, not a little brother. Do you have something with a little sister?" (Yes, we do, but maybe that book is a little less wonderful than the one with the little brother.) Or, most disheartening of all, a whispered, "I don’t think he’ll really be interested in that," when the child’s skin color on the cover does not match the child’s skin color in real life. (I’ll add here that only white customers make this kind of comment; customers of color — even if they were so narrow-minded — wouldn’t have the luxury of limiting their children only to books about kids like themselves; there just aren’t enough. But that’s a separate post.)

Do these adults think children won’t make the leap? Whatever happened to imagination, metaphor, curiosity? To encountering the unexpected, or trying on new lives through the windows of a book? In my experience, that’s in large part what books are for. As a child growing up in the sand-colored deserts of Arizona, I loved reading about kids in New York City, or the swamps of the south. I did enjoy the odd book about my own landscape, in part because there were so few of them, but if I’d limited myself to books about kids like me in a setting like mine, I’d have likely been bored, for one thing, and grown up with a very narrow world view, for another. In fact, thinking about it, the only Southwest stories I really loved were Native American stories, which fascinated and enchanted me. I was living my life; the magic of books lay in getting to live someone else’s.

As we all know from reading to children, and having been children ourselves, something inside us needs stories that expand us. Children are already open to so much more than most adults; they don’t even notice characters’ skin color—they’re in it for the story. And they’re always, always hungry for something new and fun and interesting and meaningful.

Most days, I have the energy to gently encourage these literal-minded customers to give farther-afield books a chance (and to give their grandchildren a little more imaginative credit). Once in a while, though, I cave, and hand Grandma the book she really wants, with a character that has her grandson’s name and lives her grandson’s life. That happens when I can tell a customer is so set in her way of thinking that whatever I say will fall on (metaphorically) deaf ears.

The increasing literal-mindedness is showing up here and there in children, too, and it disturbs me. It used to be that naming your new stuffed animal was practically a sacred rite of passage in plush parenting; now, if the tag on the creature doesn’t provide a pre-fab name, we’re seeing kids at a loss, calling their new dog "Puppy" and their new cat "Kitty." What happened to Alexander Sassafrass and Robbily Susan? I find myself getting this mischievous, mad gleam in my eye and finding a way to steer that family toward Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

We have many missions as booksellers, but it’s a strange world when one of them is the need to defend children’s curiosity and imagination against the instincts of some of their most loving and well-intentioned guardians. On those days, I just want to see kids playing outside somewhere, absorbed in the microscopic world of bugs and fairies or forts and treehouses, tattered book lying open on the grass, icy glass of lemonade sweating in the sun. Or, if they’re city kids, playing in the stream of a hydrant, giggling and squealing with their friends, and sharing stories.

I’d love to hear some of your most effective tactics for getting adults to trust children’s open-mindedness and willingness to visit lands and lives beyond their own.

25 thoughts on “The New Literal Mind

  1. Chris Barton

    Well, you can always use the “But it’s a classic” approach. I wish those customers of yours could see the appeal of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day (and the rest of his books) to my white sons in 21st-century suburban Texas where it hasn’t snowed in years. By contrast, that recent, well-reviewed book that contains my younger son’s name in the title? A total flop with him.

  2. Randi

    It’s funny you should mention, A Snowy Day, Chris. That’s the first book I remember being read to me in school. Having grown up in the country, I was fascinated by the story’s city scape and by the idea that city kids did all the snow activities that we did in the country. I identified with the main character, too (even though I’m a white female and the protagonist is a black male). It’s a shame when buyers are closed-minded about what a child will read, because often they would be surprised. When I was a bookseller, I found that I could inspire kids to read a book by talking it up, and their parents would always be pleasantly surprised and later come back for more suggestions. Sometimes that’s the route to go. (And don’t even get me started on how kids are never outside playing these days!)

  3. Kat Kan

    I grew up reading all kinds of books set in many different places in the world – and the universe (I read a LOT of science fiction and fantasy, still do!), with all kinds of different people as characters in those books. How else could you ever learn something outside your very small immediate world?

  4. Believer

    My favorite is when the grandparents/parents come in looking for a book with their grand/child’s name (spelled the same way, of course) and the child’s name is a mutant spelling, like Syndee for Cindy.

  5. Gail Gauthier

    I think one of our reasons for reading is to connect with someone–the author or characters we believe to be like ourselves. Even when we’re reading to try out different lives, I think there’s usually something about the book that we connect to. We think a character is like ourselves or like someone we’d like to be. Or something is happening in the book that has some significance for us. The point I’m getting at is that I don’t think it’s at all unusual for adult family members to have observed that their offspring have reading preferences related to their own lives. A rural child may very well prefer not to read a story set in the city. It’s all well and good to say that her world should be broadened with reading, but a parent who doesn’t respect her children’s reading preferences isn’t doing much to support them as readers. If you want to expose your kids to all kinds of different reading, then, yes, bring all kinds of books into your home so they’re available for the curious to pick up with no pressure. But if you’re truly looking for a book gift for a particular child, I definitely understand wanting to choose something you really think the child is going to want and going to read.

  6. DonnaLee

    As the Grandmother of a 5 year old and a children’s book collector since before she or her mother were born, I intentionally look for books that in no way resemble my granddaughters life. It’s so important to show and tell a wee one the bigger world to inspire their curiosity and give them a head full of questions. It surprises and disturbs me that other Grannies who have the freedom to be a little “out of the box” with their grandchildren would choose to be so one dimensional.

  7. shelftalker elizabeth

    Love the comments. Gail, I’m not talking about intentionally steering parents away from their children’s reading preferences. Of course we respect and support those choices. I’m talking about people making unfounded assumptions about what young people will and won’t read, the wholesale dismissal of the idea that a child can relate to someone whose outer circumstances might differ from their own, but whose inner landscape may be very similar.

  8. archiepw1

    Yes, this is so sad! I think if has to do with EVERYTHING in our society being “pre-packaged” for the consumer now….no thinking or individualism required. My son had a funny little stuffed Koala bear that he named “Jamal the Koal” I’m sure he didn’t even know Jamal is a name in other parts of the world beyond his little town, but he imagined it. Aren’t BOOKS the LAST resort for kids to use their imagination to explore worlds beyond their own?! Yikes! I too remember the effect the “new” book our librarian read to us in first grade, “The Snowy Day”. I was totally taken in by the color, and by the little boy with “tan skin” living in the big city, and how a snowy day for him was different than my snowy day in my little city, and yet there were so many joys we shared playing in the snow and enjoying it’s “quietness.” Anita Silvey’s book “The 100 Best Books for Children” would be a great place for those nutty parents and grandparents to start searching for a book for their kids!

  9. Eric Drachman

    As a picture book author AND publisher, this is something I think about all the time. I’ve had people tell me that I should look up the most popular children’s names from 3 or 4 years ago and use that for my characters! The tenet I cling to – one that I learned from an acting teacher back when I was an actor ¬– is that the more specific you are in your portrayal, the more your audience will be able to relate. It’s when you try to relate to everyone, in a general way, that no one connects to your work. In other words, I think if as an artist, you’re very specific in your choice of details, even if the audience has not had that experience, they will relate to that human condition. I love that idea and I find it true over and over again. That said, when I wrote my first book, “Leo the Lightning Bug”, living outside of New York City for the summer, there were thousands of lightning bugs. Then I moved back to Los Angeles and set about to publish it – in a city without lightning bugs. Friends and other critics were concerned that children here wouldn’t get it. Really? They’re bugs that light up! Children, of course, don’t even question that for an instant. Why would parents be worried? Well, for “Leo,” I don’t think it had an impact on sales, and that is, perhaps because the characters were lightning bugs and not humans. I frequently use animals (bugs, rodents, birds, etc.) as my characters, in part so that readers (mostly the buyers of the books) will feel more free to take that leap. In telling the story of a lightning bug or an elephant or a rat, you most definitely CAN be every bit as specific as you would be if the child was drawn in the shape of a little girl or boy and I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received from parents telling me about how that story effected their [human] child.

  10. Spellbound

    One reason I am glad the The Series of Unfortunate Events is no longer the series of the moment is that I don’t have to have this conversation quite as often: [parent] I know this is popular, but I’m afraid s/he will find it scary/depressing. [me] Not if s/he has a sense of humor. Okay, so I have never actually said that to a parent, but I have thought it very loudly. SUE, or any other book or series, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m certainly not saying that if you don’t like it you don’t have a sense of humor. But I am saying that too many parents (more than grandparents, even, from what I’ve seen) underestimate their children and, when it comes to reading [goodness knows about the rest of their little lives], give kids no credit for having a sense of humor, or very much sense of any kind, for that matter. They think if the kid reads about a character who does something bad, the kids will automatically think that’s okay and try to emulate the behavior. It doesn’t occur to them that the kid might be bright enough to understand the context and see that it’s an illustration of how they don’t want to be. And oddly enough it seems like the families who are most likley to think of themselves as progressive are the most likely to keep their kids from reading anything that isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. And now I am officially on to a whole other rant. Sorry…

  11. J. L. Bell

    Parents might be reacting to how much of kids’ media is interactive and customizable. Even with current technology, in fact, it’s possible to imagine how you could offer to customize books for any family’s tastes—change the name and even picture of the main character. Of course, it would be expensive.

  12. Carol

    Thanks for the post. We encounter this situation all the time, and my response is, but I’m sure the child will enjoy the STORY! Just had a grandmother in who wanted a Father’s Day book. After looking at the new ones, she sighed, and said that none of them showed a little boy with his dad. But all was definitely not lost, because, Elizabeth, she left with a copy of My Father the Dog, and was very happy!!

  13. Kenny Brechner

    Well spotted Elizabeth. I was thinking about this recently when I determined to make That’s Papa’s Way our Father’s Day pick regardless of whether the Father in question had a son rather than a daughter. I’ve found that anyone willing to think about it for even a moment will discard their gut reaction, and appreciate the universal value of this particular, wonderful picture book, while for others, the truly literal minded, even a moment of consideration is far too long. For them the statement “well he doesn’t have a daughter” is more like a steel lid slamming shut than a point of deliberation.

  14. Gail Gauthier

    “…people making unfounded assumptions about what young people will and won’t read, the wholesale dismissal of the idea that a child can relate to someone whose outer circumstances might differ from their own, but whose inner landscape may be very similar.” I think family members aren’t the only people who do that. Writers, publishers, editors, agents, reviewers, educators, librarians, and all adults, for that matter, make assumptions about what children will read, and it’s often on the basis of what they think children can relate to. It’s only a guess. The main difference, I think, is that the parents’ decisions will only impact their own children, while the decisions publishing professionals make impact large numbers of kids they have no knowledge of.

  15. George Edward Stanley

    I probably would never do this, but during book signings I have often thought about posting a sign that says: WHEN CHOOSING A BOOK FOR YOUR CHILD OR GRANDCHILD, REMEMBER THIS: HE OR SHE IS PROBABLY SMARTER THAN YOU ARE! I’ve heard parents say, “Find a cheaper one!” or “I’m buying a birthday present for my granddaughter and I thought I’d throw in a book!” I do believe that well-thought-out LISTS OF RECOMMENDED BOOKS from teachers or librarians or bookstore owners – given to young readers – help a lot. It’s hard (or impossible) to trust parents to trust their children to expand their worlds (and minds).

  16. Brussel Sprouts

    The reduction of play in childhood is the reason imaginations have become stagnant and more literal. Children are overworked (homework in kindergarten) and overscheduled (black belts in karate, budding Picassos and concert violists by age 7) because adults think this is the best way to ensure their child’s success. Adults push and pamper their children towards success because of parental narcissism and guilt for not spending enough time with their children (whether by choice or not). This alarming trend in parenting has monumental consequences for children and the adults they grow to be. My suggestion is to present books from a “success for your child” standpoint. The types of parents/grandparents described in your article may lean towards anything that propels their child toward “success.” Using the example of “The Snowy Day,” you may be able to impart that even though Peter does not look like their little Syndee in Texas, if Syndee learns about new experiences, she will become a more well-rounded and therefore “successful” person. Also if any of your book suggestions have won awards (Caldecott, Newberry, etc.), touting this will appeal to the air of success. Also, something as simple as, “Your child is smart enough to understand this story,” may help as well.

  17. Deborah Diesen

    This is a great post, and great comments too. On a related note, I went to a conference some years back where Dr. Susan Stan spoke about international children’s literature. She discussed the importance of kids being exposed to world literature in order to broaden their horizons, but the reality of many books now having their regionalisms played down or removed. She referred to a 2006 Bookbird article by Martin Salisbury called “No Red Buses Please: International Co-Editions and the Sense of Place in Picturebooks.” (I nosed around for it just now, and there is currently a PDF of that issue available online — I tried pasting the link, but the comment section won’t take a link). Anyway, it’s an enlightening article, and provides great food for thought.

  18. Archiepw1

    Brussle Sprouts- very well put! It got me thinking of how to try to maximize on the experience these parents/grandparents are having when buying a book for their kids/gkids… Why ask a question that will make the book purchase MORE than just an “after thought” as George remarked so many book sales for kids are…..How about a bookseller asking this question to get a better idea of who the parent/grandparent is and what they’d like to share with their kids/grandkids, and really help them make the connection that they are choosing a gift that could have a far greater impact than a video game or barbie doll, simply this; “what books did YOU enjoy as a child?” Help them pass on their own joy of reading something they loved and connected with, and then make other recommendations from there.

  19. archiepw1

    Geez, sorry about all the typos everyone! I’m doing too many things all at once. I meant to say; “Why NOT ask a question that will make the book purchase MORE than just an “after thought?”

  20. anonymous

    I agree about the problem with the adults you encounter, but I don’t think that naming a stuffed toy “Puppy” or “Kitty” is a symptom of the same problem. Many young kids choose names such as these–when they get older than four or so, they seem to start branching out on that names. That has been my experience as a teacher, aunt, and mother.

  21. annerietje

    Thank you, “annonymous”! When I was VERY little (in the 1940s) I named my dolls in the way Elizabeth mentioned (i.e., a doll made out of rubber was called “Rubber-Doll,” a doll stuffed with kapok fiber was christened “Kapoka,” and a doll given me dressed in an WWII Army uniform was named “Soldier Doll.” It wasn’t until I was a little older that I actually gave a doll a regular name, “Susie.”

  22. Dorothy Lee

    I find parents who are narrow minded are over-whelming and over-bareing. I feel sorry for the children because there missing out on a variety of reading in all aspect of life, come to think of it (restrictions in life.) Terribly disappointed in those types of parents, God help me, you know. Anyway thats my two cents in.Keep writing those great blogs. The book I wrote has black and white characters I wonder what they (parents) would say in that situation, no doubt narrow mindedness. Admirer

  23. Annie

    One summer I worked at the American Girl store, in the “Just Like You” department–ie, the non-historical dolls. Parents/grandparents always freaked out over the tiny differences between their child and a doll, like “Do you have one with slightly shorter hair?” or “Her eyes are more of a hazel.” But the girls were always more interested in dolls that looked nothing like them. That gave me a little hope in kids’ imaginations.

  24. shelftalker elizabeth

    I feel the need to clarify that of course I’m not talking about little children who name their stuffed pets literally; I was talking about 7-10-year-olds. Young children’s minds are concrete as a matter of development. I’m sure all my tiny-tot toys were named Doggie and Elephant, etc. It’s the older children’s passive waiting for blanks to be filled in that I’m worried about. Thanks for writing in. Glad to know that I wasn’t clear enough in the article, and have a chance to elaborate.

  25. Zelda

    I don’t doubt that you see customers like this, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a trend. Fantasy/paranormal is popular in YA and adult fiction right now, despite the lack of similarity to our real lives.


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