The New Literal Mind

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 17th, 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.

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