Every Picture Tells a Story

Ellen Handler Spitz is a lecturer in the art and art history department at Stanford University. This essay was adapted from her book, "Inside Picture Books" (Yale University Press: 230 pp., $25)

We never seem to forget our first books: the look, feel and smell of pages daubed with color that pulled us in when we were small. Just a name--Madeline, Ferdinand, Corduroy, Babar, Max and his wild things, Peter Rabbit--brings a smile, a bright image or the fragments of a story; the timbre of someone's reading voice; the faint odor of a pipe or a favorite cologne; the folds of a quilt; the sensation of being held. Best of all, perhaps, these books evoke the memory of having someone all to ourselves and sensing that we are, together with that someone, enveloped in fantasy.

Reading aloud is an activity fraught with advantages--for grown-ups as well as for youthful listeners--and it is a quintessentially relational activity. Through the shared cultural experience of reading aloud and being read to, adults and young children--in moments of intensely pleasurable rapport--participate in the traditional task of passing on values from one generation to the next. Occasionally people argue about the extent to which children's tastes and preferences are formed by early reading, but rarely is effort spent trying to understand how this influence comes about, how psychic tasks are portrayed in picture books--for example, how moral lessons are conveyed, how prejudices are subtly implanted.

Interactive participation of adults in children's cultural experience does not end in the primary years. Long after they have learned the alphabet and acquired a substantial written vocabulary, children love to be read to. They ask us to read to them, and we do. Sitting close and sharing their books, we enter imaginary spaces with them. We communicate across the intervening years to transcend the routines of their daily lives and ours and render it--artfully--more real.

Parenting, never a simple task, seems especially complex in times like ours when widely accepted ideologies and hierarchies that have supported parental authority have been eroded and advocates of a multitude of competing priorities vie with one another in a progressively strident disharmony. In the midst of this fray, self-proclaimed proponents of "children's rights" speak out, but even these apparently well-meaning advocates propound agendas that, on careful examination, often prove naive or troubling. Conscientious parents trying to function in this scene may feel pulled apart--rather like those medieval images of poor St. Bartholomew on the verge of his martyrdom. Picture him splayed out in the center of a painted panel, with each limb tied to a colored horse about to be whipped off toward one of the four corners of the picture--north, south, east and west. Not a comfortable position, to say the least.

As the end of the 20th century approaches, families in the United States are becoming increasingly mobile and diverse. The paradigm myth of mother, father and child living comfortably together in a stable dwelling place matches the reality of only a fraction of today's families. Important issues of race, gender and class have complicated this simple image. Many of the images and stories we encounter in picture books reflect a world at least superficially different from that which swirls around us today. Aided by the intuitive leaps children love to make, however, picture books speak messages of enduring value.

If anyone were to ask me what I consider to be the most important feature of parenting, I would say, without hesitation and without wishing to beg the question, simply, enjoyment--enjoy your children. Delight in them, rejoice with them, have good times together, treasure the days of your life that are spent in their company. Days that--although it may not seem so to harried and often worried young parents--are limited. A great deal follows from this simple thought.

Parenting through cultural experience has to do with individual books and individual children as well as with themes of overarching concern. It is a project best undertaken with pleasure, passion and conviction. We care, and we take care, to know a great deal about what goes into our children's bodies; we need to be no less attentive to what goes into their minds.

When I was a little girl, there was an old book I especially treasured, a collection of illustrated stories called "Walt Disney's Surprise Package." The cover was drawn to look like a birthday present wrapped in striped paper and tied with a pink bow that was being pulled apart in a tug of war by characters who appeared inside when the book was opened. One of the stories was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "Through the Picture Frame." In this tale, a little boy named Hialmar climbs magically inside an oil painting that has been hanging on his bedroom wall. The painting itself is a rather dark landscape, but once he is actually within it, Hialmar can smell springtime, hear birds singing in the trees and perceive small animals such as frogs, moles and groundhogs--even tiny ants and beetles that were invisible from outside the picture. The space inside the frame seems noisy and vibrant. As he walks farther in, he follows the twists and turns of a mysterious river and comes upon a red boat tied to a tree, its sails rigged. He climbs aboard, and his adventures continue. He rides a talking horse and rescues a little princess. At length, Hialmar finds himself sitting once more just inside the frame of the painting with his legs dangling out. The story ends when he jumps down and discovers that he is back again on the floor of his own bedroom.

This tale captures something about my own relation to visual art. It is a story that speaks to those magical acts of projection we perform with respect to works of art and literature--the way in which we put ourselves into these works and incorporate them into our lives. As children, we all performed such acts, and we continue to do so despite our adult sophistication, I might add, that the presence of young children can force us very quickly to abandon.

Charles Baudelaire, writing on the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris, told a relevant story about Honore de Balzac, the great French novelist, who one day found himself standing before a painting of a melancholy winter scene. Balzac gazed at the image of a small house from which a thin wisp of smoke was rising and exclaimed: "How beautiful it is! But what are they doing in that cottage? What are their thoughts? What are their sorrows? Has it been a good harvest? No doubt they have bills to pay?" Commenting on this response, Baudelaire wrote that Balzac's reaction to the painting contained an important lesson: namely, that art is "an evocation, a magical" operation. He added that it might not be a bad idea to consult the hearts of children on this matter.

And so, as you settle down in a cozy spot to read a favorite picture book to a child you know, you yourself may find that you have been transported into the realm of the uncanny. Unexpected sensations may bubble up, words and images may combine to ignite memories, lines and colors may radiate and spin in your mind like spokes on a moving wheel, and associations may fly wildly like glints of light from a holiday sparkler.

Resting expectantly on their shelves, in copies that have faded under the gaze of generations and been made soft by the touch of eager hands, or in shiny new paperback versions with sharper edges and brightly colored surfaces, picture books can be treasures that glow as soon as they are opened. If you snuggle up with them in the company of a young son or daughter, a grandchild or grandniece, a pupil or small neighbor, they will enchant you both. As you read and look, they will transport, amuse, console, inform and inspire you. They may even untie you from the horses of St. Bartholomew and connect you with the empathy of Balzac or the daring of little Hialmar, who actually climbed right in.

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