Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Kolbert Report

The December 4th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert surveys several picture books published in 2006. Within it, I found the single most cynical statement about children's literature I've seen this year:

If, as Joan Didion famously put it, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live," why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up. A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and you will go to sleep. End of story.
Whugh! The last thing I need is a heapin' helpin' of guilt loaded onto my family's bedtime reading, but there it is: the whiny little devil on my shoulder during our evening read, whispering, "innnnnstrument of controlllll, innnnstrument of controlllll!" in my ear.

I disagree with her almost reflexively, and yet I can't come up with an argument that counters her strongly enough to satisfy me. What parent, after a particularly trying evening with L'Enfant, can't wait to get those darn stories over and done with to have a little peace? But then again, what parent doens't want to pass along the best moments from his or her own childhood for their kids -- which frequently includes sharing favorite children's books?

The idea of children's literature as an opiate doesn't sit well with me.

Kolbert also describes Good Night, Gorilla thusly:

On the last page, the animals are uncaged and -- I assume -- like more and more kids across America, still fooling around after the adults have conked out.

Whoops. Read it again, Liz.


Scott said...

Leave the cynical New Yorker out of things when it comes to story time. While I don't have to deal with her tinyness (Beth) all day long like Libby does, I can't think of anything I enjoy more than coming home and reading to my daughter. While I like peace and quiet as much as the next fellow, a little girl instantly saying " read read" as she holds up anything from Goodnight Moon to the bargain basement Shapes! is literally music to my ears. I just can't get enough of it. Ms. Kolbert/Ms. Didion should look on reading to the rug-rats as a time to BE with their kids (do New Yorker authors actually have families? Or did they just grow from cynical plants?) and show them that they love them rather than "just one more step to getting them out of my hair!"

jess said...

"I disagree with her almost reflexively, and yet I can't come up with an argument that counters her strongly enough to satisfy me." I had the same reaction to the article - thanks for putting it into words. And in my experience, it's the child clamoring for more books (or the same book...again) and the adult ready to stop.

julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julie said...

Recently, I tried to describe this review to a friend. But I couldn’t do it. Was it about irreverent books versus earnest books? Wild characters versus characters that come home and go to bed? I’m sure there are important themes in this article, but I'm not sure what they are.

kittenpie said...

Urk. I hate her already and I haven't even read the article. (Bad unbiased librarian, bad!)
My girl brings me books to read at any time, and also reads them alone at times, so I hardly think it's just that. And doesn't she know that the New Yorker own illustrious former editor White was also a giant of kids lit? Sheesh.