Growing An Instinct for Beauty
I am a bookworm, raising a flock of bookworms (what is the term for a group of worms? A…. squiggle? A squiggle of bookworms?) after me. I was an only child, spent a lot of time in silence, and I read a lot. Possibly, one of the best gifts my parents gave me was a lot of good books. I have in front of me right now a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit, illustrated by Michael Hague. This book made its appearance on my fireplace one Christmas morning long ago, and I pored over it. At that time, I had a ragged bear named Winston whom I loved with something approaching ferocity, and a story about a faded-but-loved rabbit made perfect sense to me.
Now, decades later, my toddler carries around Winston (who was resurrected out of a box in my mother’s home) and I read the same copy of The Velveteen Rabbit to my children. It’s a tender story, and the paintings which accompany it are so life-like that they embody the theme of the story – love is creative, it bestows life-giving blessing into others’ hearts, and it makes Real things that before… were not. What we love, what we give our time to, creates who are at our core. As children, when we spend time looking at books that are beautiful, we are learning and practicing a certain way of engaging with reality which we then carry with us and use to engage all Reality.
What kind of way? A way that is receptive, contemplative, and loving. I think we can trust beauty to teach us that, even (especially) to young children. I want my children to approach their experiences in life the way they approach a book– and how is that? They receive it– take time to notice the images and meaning in front of them. They contemplate it– compare what they have noticed with their own knowledge and experiences. They love it– they delight in it and look for what is beautiful in it. I suppose you could say that I hope my children learn to “read” a walk in the woods, a struggle in school, or the face of a stranger the way they would a book: receive it, contemplate it, even love it.
These are big goals for a simple picture book, and I freely acknowledge that more is required to raise a truly human being than reading beautiful books to them. But I have seen some encouraging results stemming from this education-by-beauty. If you, like me, think that raising a child who can be stopped still by the glory of a sunset is a worthy goal, then let’s continue together to note some principles which we can use to identity an excellent picture book.
I will propose an “example book” for every principle, each of them loved well and long in my own family. I will also note in brackets the age at which I started reading these books to my own children, in case that is helpful– please know that most of these books go on to appeal to a wide range of ages.
The more human the art is, the better. When you flip through a book, considering if you should buy it or bring it home from the library, try asking: Could a computer easily generate these images? How much human investment of time and artisianship was necessary on the part of the artist/illustrator? When you look at a picture that was a time-consuming creation from a person who cares about the story they're telling with it, you are entering a relationship with the artist as well as the art itself. Computers don’t have this reciprocity. The pictures our children view, whether on a screen or in a book, will fill up their imaginations, which are really a sacred space in a way. These images should be worthy of our children. Two examples of this principle are:
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlottle Zolotow/Maurice Sendak [3 years+]
When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant [4+]
Note: there are some interesting and beautiful abstract illustrations out there-- however, I think that pictures which carry a more human touch are preferable for young children for several reasons. Also, my own children simply have never fallen in love with a book illustrated abstractly, and they are my chief source of data.
Illustrations should invite our attention, instead of grabbing it. I get the feeling that some books were illustrated so that children who have been raised on the constantly-changing images of ipads and television will sit still long enough to hear the words, or to convince new readers, with a sort of desperation that “READING IS FUN!” Good illustrations aren’t desperate; they aren’t insecure about their importance. We do not welcome these types of books into our home– the ones that are a jumble of text and colors. We do, however, welcome richly-detailed books into our home. These books are not busy, they’re detailed. They reward sustained attention and thereby encourage it. Two examples of this principle are:
Alfie Gets In First by Shirley Hughes. Here’s a detail I enjoy: as the family enters the home, a problem arises and a ruckus ensues– notice the cat which, in previous pages, was peacefully napping on the column, turn an indignant look at the family and then jump down to find a better resting spot. [2+]
The Owl and the Pussycat by Jan Brett. The text is a poem from the 1800’s by Edward Lear that is fun to memorize with your kids. Apparently, Lear invented the term “runcible”, which in this book describes a spoon. Its meaning is unclear or perhaps non-existent! In other poems, he refers to a runcible cat and a runcible goose. All Jan Brett’s books are packed with detail. [2+}
The art in a book should deepen our experience of the story. The artwork in a book should help us more deeply understand the story/message. Images and text have a symbiotic relationship, so that each is richer because of the other. Two examples are:
Angus and the Cat by Marjorie Flack [1 ½ +]
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost/Susan Jeffers. The text of this book is also a poem. My older elementary children first memorized the poem, then had the delight of finding it illustrated. Its quiet hues help us enter into the scene described in the poem and add silent details and explanations to the words of the poem. [4+]
Whatever the materials or style demonstrated in the pictures, they should be executed with technical skill. Even if I value the text of a book, or even if it is a gift, I typically do not keep it if the pictures do not show artistic mastery– the ability to use texture and color with good effect, the ability to draw figures from different angles, and so on. You have permission (from me) to get rid of books you do not think are worthy. Go ahead! Stories that are true or good deserve beautiful pictures to go with them, and risk having their value dismissed because of poorly done artwork. What I hope is that by filling my home with books that are beautiful, I am giving my children a standard by which to judge other images and experiences in their life. They are growing a gut-level instinct for beauty with every picture they view. Two examples of this principle are:
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter Her artistic skill is able to make animals look completely realistic as they sweep the floor, dance a jig, or do blatantly UNrealistic actions. My children love this story and always are annoyed by the intrusive neighbor. [2+]
Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. This is a good example of how a high standard of artistic skill does not mean the same style for each book. These pictures are very different from Beatrix Potter - much less realistic, but no less masterful. [2+]
Illustrations ought to be an appropriate and purposefully-chosen match for the kind of story they accompany and for the target age of the child. Simple illustrations are easier for a very young child to understand. For this age, I prefer pictures that are not too full of detail – they often have the background of a picture almost empty (a perfect example of that is the Little Bear series by Else Minarik/Maurice Sendak). As children grow, they are better able to appreciate illustrations chock full of detail. Art should also match the feel and tone of the book. Two other example are:
One is One by Tasha Tudor Her pictures are charming and lovely, a perfect match for the whimsical, nostalgic tone of her books. [1 ½ +]
Empty Pot by Demi This story, set in China, contains illustrations with the type of art you might see on a porcelain ginger jar, with clean pictures and deeply tinted colors. All Demi’s books are gorgeous. [3+]
Let us joyfully take on this incredibly profound (and incredibly easy, I think) task of inviting our children to receive, contemplate, and love what is Real as they encounter it in books and beyond.
What principles would you add to my list? Do you have the perfect example for one of the principles? I’m always learning and would love to hear!
Erin Graver lives in a village-within-a-city in Kansas surrounded by books, daughters, oak trees and friends. After graduating from Notre Dame, and later the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC she taught high school alongside her husband before "retiring" to teach her own children, attend book club meetings, speak at the occasional retreat, drink coffee, and do laundry.