Stop Making (so Much) Sense by Dev Petty
It’s night time. We cuddle up as we always do, and I begin, “Once upon a time…”
Isn’t that funny? Why do I do that? The books I write and the books I enjoy don’t usually start with “Once upon a time” or end with “Happily ever after.” Part of it is just trying to concoct a story, bleary eyed, at the end of a long day. But conventional, fairytale storytelling, the kind with tidy endings and linear story-lines, is deeply ingrained in me and it’s a lot of work to break free from it.
This is a box I strive to think out of. A box built from once upon a times, happily ever afters, dogs that chase cats and princess movies. Even though I was raised in the 70s and had first editions of some truly experimental writing, and even though I try to write unconventional picture books, I still have a box. And my kids do too, even though their shelves are filled with strange and wonderful books. I see it when they begin their own stories with “Once upon a time” and end them with “happily ever after.” Those storytelling conventions are powerful and lasting and they start forming a box at a young age.
The good thing is that you need conventions to be able to break them. You have to find the edges to step over them. And chief on my list of ways to break out of boxes is to bring home a big, toppling over stack of funky, weird, unconventional picture books. Why? Because these books hand a crowbar and a hacksaw to the kids and say “Go to town on that box, kid.”
I’m talking about The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster- which is a masterful story about a romance between a dot and a line. Or my favorite book growing up, Remy Charlip’s Arm in Arm which, on the very last page, ends with a repeated reflection of hands holding a sign that says “This is not the end.” Then there’s Shaun Tan’s Eric, a story with a magical and mysterious ending that often shows up in our dinner conversation. These are the books which leave more questions than answers, they leave you with ideas. They remind us we don’t always need a happy ending- the journey can be it’s own reward. These books say, “Kid, life is a little messy. Sometimes things are unexplainable, sometimes life is even downright absurd. Get used to it.”
When we provide books which are outside the box, We’re not just saying “think outside the box.” We’re showing kids the box itself can change shape, or maybe the box isn’t a box at all. If I can bring in an art metaphor, it’s like moving the markers over to the side and giving them oil paint and pastels, glue, paper, tinfoil, clay and a palette knife.
That’s what’s so special about picture books, especially the ones that buck convention. They are like an early intervention program, which catches kids at a formative moment and shows them something they may not see in the longer books they’ll go on to read as they get older. Novels, of course, can generate ideas and questions too, but it’s different, isn’t it? As we add more words, we lose that space, that abstraction. And when kids READ abstract work they learn to THINK abstractly, to think interpretively. What a great thing that is for kids in a world that is complex, non-linear, fluid and sometimes untidy.
When we, as parents, offer up strange, unconventional books, it’s like giving our kids permission to be strange and unconventional. We don’t have to hit them over the head by buying a book about being yourself. The very act of reading an absurd or sparse or metaphorical book can, itself, challenge traditional roles and expectations. Why put a “Question Reality” bumper sticker on your car when you can give them a book that actually questions reality? Yes, books can help you to grow yourself a Grade-A analytical, disruptive little rebel. Every parent’s dream!
There’s even an intrinsic artistic value to exposing kids to unusual books. Their reading world is potentially opened to graphic novels, books without words, poetry, experimental fiction and even just doodles on scraps of paper. Weird books add to children’s cognitive and artistic palette. Maybe, years later, they will begin their first creative writing project with something other than “Once upon a time.”
The type of books I’m talking about are like Rothkos and Mondrians, Mattas, Kandinskys and Bacons. They are clocks melting from the sky and people made of cubes and canvases splattered with paint. You may not always like them, and you might not want them in your living room. You may even argue for an hour with your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving about whether a five-year-old could have painted them or not, but you look at them and you stop and you remember. You remember a waiting place and a lost thing and a missing piece, the dark, a box of yarn, not the end and a place where the wild things are.
Dev Petty’s debut picture book, I Don’t Want to be a Frog (Random House/Doubleday) will be released on February 24th. Told in hilarious dialogue, this book is about a frog who wants to be anything but a slimy, wet frog. Before writing children’s books, Dev worked as a senior visual effects artist in film on The Matrix films and dozens of others. She lives in Albany with her husband, two daughters and critters. For more information, visit her website at www.devpetty.com