(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her preface to Inside Picture Books, Ellen Handler Spitz introduces this examination of classic children’s picture books with stories from her own experience as a parent, memories of her childhood, a quick reference to a painting, and images of parents and children cozily settling down to share the experience of reading aloud. These elements, along with comments from several young children, are interwoven throughout her text, a psychological look at picture books and an argument for reading aloud as a medium for “parenting through cultural experience.” Spitz argues that “conversational reading,” wherein parent and child discuss the picture book as it is read, can be an important way for adults to convey social and cultural information to young children, because “even when they are not intended to do so, picture books provide children with some of their earliest takes on morality, taste, and basic cultural knowledge, including messages about gender, race, and class.” In conversational reading, the adult acts as a mediator between the child and the text, images, and ideas in a picture book. Reading aloud provides an opportunity for parent and child to talk about cultural norms—how things are—while the child’s imagination is stimulated to entertain the world of possibilities—what might be.

Spitz organizes her discussion by major themes, examining at length approximately forty books (and citing at least briefly forty more) that address particular experiences important to young children: bedtime, the death of a pet or loved one, mischievous or disobedient behavior, and self-esteem. Inside Picture Books is not intended as a comprehensive survey of the genre; noting the phenomenal sales of certain picture books, Spitz concentrates on those that have achieved high levels of popularity over a long period of time, including several that were published before World War II. Spitz hopes that her analyses will not only offer adults insight into the psychological underpinnings of the particular books discussed but also allow them to extrapolate the information she provides and the questions she asks when reading other books to their children.

Spitz offers several examples of conversational reading, describing young children’s responses to specific stories to show how children’s comments can reveal much about their view of the world around them. Spitz shows that children will attach meaning to what they see in a picture book based on their individual experiences; their perceptions are frequently different from, and perhaps even at odds with, the obvious meaning of the story. For example, Spitz found in her research that children listening to Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline (1939) often think the little girls are sad at the end of the story because Madeline has not yet returned home and they miss her, not because they have not received gifts in the hospital as Madeline did. Spitz also recounts reading Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) to a child who suggested that Peter’s father, although baked in a pie, might actually be enjoying himself in a chocolate pie; and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) to a young girl who believed that the caterpillar had a stomachache because he missed his mother and not because he had eaten everything in sight.

Spitz also notes that adults may not recall key illustrations or crucial plot points, even in beloved books they must have heard frequently as children. She cites several undergraduates who incorrectly recalled the plot of Don Freeman’s Corduroy (1968), believing that the little bear without a button was accepted into a loving home only when he had found a button for his overalls and repaired them himself. The recalled plot conveys a completely different message about self-acceptance than the actual story, wherein a young girl adopts Corduroy even though his overalls still lack the button.

Spitz emphasizes that, even though adults may not correctly recall details of books they read as children, childhood interpretations of a story can have remarkable staying power, affecting individuals well into their adult lives. Spitz offers examples of college-age and older individuals for whom certain picture books still have a dramatic impact. For instance, an older woman tells Spitz that she could not drink chamomile tea for years because she believed as a child that Peter Rabbit was given chamomile tea as a punishment for entering Mr. McGregor’s garden. In another example, an undergraduate explains that he carried Judith Viorst’s...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)