Picture books

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
CRITICISM. Inside Picture Books. By Ellen Handler Spitz. Yale University Press pound;16.95.

Picture books are arguably a very young child's most important experience with cultural objects, yet they are chosen, read aloud, and interpreted by adults. Ellen Handler Spitz's intention in Inside Picture Books - while endorsing the value of shared reading - is to raise adults' awareness of what else is being taken in, besides the story, as the pages turn.

She selects mainly 20th-century American picture books and examines them thematically along psychological, ethical and aesthetic lines, the psychological approach being paramount. Her pedagogic goal is "to enrich communication between adults and children by demonstrating approaches and posing questions that can be extrapolated from the samples given here and reapplied elsewhere".

There is so much to consider. For example, she knows that the issues of race, gender, ethnicity and their representation are a dilemma in children's literature and shows that they will be encountered continually. Another objective is to suggest some partial answers as to why certain picture books have survived for so long. Reader responses, mainly from three and four-year-olds, are threaded throughout.

Spitz, whose field includes the arts, pyschology and culture, targets a very wide audience: teachers, therapists, scholars, parents and grandparents. Her book will best answer the needs of the non-academic groups. Parents and grandparents could find guidance, both explicitly as mediators of picture books and implicitly through Spitz's comments on the role models provided by the books she selects (Peter Rabbit's wise mother included). She stresses the necessity for an adult sharer to attend carefully to all the responses of th child listener.

Her strengths are well demonstrated in the chapter which deals with catastrophic loss. Rightly, she is critical of the superficial "psychological self-help" books for young children that have recently appeared, believing that issues of deep emotional significance are best dealt with through the power of metaphor and symbol.

Children's feelings of exclusion are explored sympathetically through Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams (1960), and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (1970).

Mischief and disobedience from a child's point of view are discussed through books including Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram and illustrator Satoshi Kitamura (1982). Highest tribute is paid to their creative achievements, but Spitz reminds us that both books perpetuate a familiar gender stereotype, and by implication raise questions about differences in the way girls and boys are expected to behave.

She turns her attention to Willy the Wimp by Anthony Browne (1984, Walker, pound;9.99) not to recommend it, but to interpret it as a "brazen promulgation of a prevalent macho ideology" and a display of gender bias and racialprejudice.

Readers who know this book may well disagree. In any case, with its parodic mode and ironic register, Browne's book is an exception among the others Spitz selects, all of which can be engaged with at least on a direct level, by a child who cannot yet read.

An important point to make to a general readership, however briefly, is that not all picture books are intended for the very young, yet this book sustains the widely held illusion that they are.

Jane Doonan is a former professor of education at the University of Warwick

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