Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Children's Books That Aren't

A few recent encounters with interesting books has me thinking about books that come in forms typically reserved for children but feature themes many consider "adult." One such book, authored by Children's Poet Laureate J.Patrick Lewis and the accomplished Jane Yolen, is the darkly humorous Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs. 

Set in a graveyard, it's a book of poetry riddled with morbid puns as each poem humorously accounts for the death of an animal. For example, Goodbye to a Rowdy Rooster on the second page reads "Too cocky by far/ he head butted a car." This poem is accompanied by the corresponding illustration of a rooster embedded in the front bumper of a truck. Illustrations by Jeffery Stewart Timmons are sick and hilarious, and add considerably to the narrative of the collection. They're characterized by dark, textured blacks, browns, and grays, with a spatter of bright red here and there.

Especially because of Timmons' about-the-illustrator blurb at the end of the book ("He has illustrated several books for children and has had numerous pets, all of which died.") I was reminded of my reaction to the loss of one of my family pets in my adolescence. My little sister, age 11 at the time, was devastated when the beloved goldfish 'Freckles' was discovered dead on the tile floor. We found no other explanation other than he must have jumped out, which lead to my choking back laughter as my sister's eyes filled with tears. Was my family so severely dysfunctional that our pets are driven to suicide? Or perhaps this particular fish was cursed with a memory that lasted more than 5 seconds and was therefore painfully aware of his lifetime swimming in circles? In any case, as my little sister cried, I let a giggle slip and fled the room to spare her feelings.

After reminiscing I'm left wondering what is behind this thrust of children's books that aren't (or are they?). Maybe Animal Epitaphs was so enjoyable for me because more often then not I deal with loss through humor, and I grow weary of saccharine accounts of dying pets in children's literature.

Children's books that aren't are popping up more frequently and do pretty well- Go the F*ck to Sleep (Akashic Books, 2011) topped the Amazon bestseller list and attracted much attention when Samuel L. Jackson read the book on The Late Show with David Letterman. There's also FU Penguin: Telling Cute Animals What's What by Matthew Gasteier (Villard, 2009), All My Friends Are Dead by Avery Monsen (Chronicle, 2010), and That's Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale by Matt Mogk (Ulysses, 2011). My suspicion is that these are more than hipster collectibles.

Take a look at a celebrity children's book that isn't- Stephen Colbert's I Am A Pole (And So Can You!). While the book itself is seeped in irony, I don't think the book's success is ironic at all, despite what The Boston Globe reported. A tale of a pole in the midst of an identity crisis (Should he be a fishing pole? A pole-dancing stripper's pole? The North Pole?), the book pokes fun at an overly-simplistic narrative about identity. It pokes fun at lots of things, actually, even celebrity children's book authors themselves. (By the way, if you haven't yet, you need to watch the Maurice Sendak on The Colbert Report.)

For example, take into account I Am A Pole's metallic medallion on the front cover, proudly announcing that the book is "Caldecott Eligible." Sure, it's a funny fake endorsement, but I've noticed that a lot of new picture books are incorporating a single, metallic circle in their cover art. A bit too convenient, it must be a clever marketing technique to get buyers to either consciously or subconsciously think that they're looking at a prize-winning book.While Colbert's cover mocks this trend (or maybe started it?), it also points out that if awards in children's literature such as the Caldecott are important enough to mimic, then they certainly have a huge impact on sales...something to keep in mind while we look forward to Joseph Thomas and Kenneth Kidd's Prizing Children's Literature.

In any case, my question is: In paying attention to what is highlighted in children's books that aren't, are we getting insight into the pushbacks generating from frustrations with children's literature at large? To use examples from the texts discussed here, in Animal Epitaphs the frustration addressed is the saturation of the sappy pet-loss narrative, in I Am A Pole it's the overemphasis on awards (among other things!), and in Go the F*ch To Sleep it's the parental frustration with the romanticized bedtime story ritual.

Now what is the pushback addressed in Aye Jaye's Gangsta Rap Coloring Book? Thoughts?

Finally, I'll leave you with a mind-bending fun fact: when I Googled "Children's books that aren't for children," the first thing that popped up was an ad to buy Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Gail Saltz. Second was The Little Red Hen.

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