Reading picture books to children can be done in many ways. If you are a teacher and your charges are very young, there is often a semi-circle of children around you, or at best, a gathering of children in close proximity. If you are a parent, grandparent, favorite aunt or uncle, you are probably reading to one child who is often seated next to you, either on a couch, roomy chair, or, if later in the evening, a bed. These thoughts of how we read to children were brought to mind yesterday while posting Aubrey Siino’s review of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Sweetest Fig.
I can’t believe there is a person alive (yes, in the whole world) who hasn’t read at least one of Van Allsburg’s flights of fancy. Although his most famous book is probably The Polar Express, I’d like to address his cautionary tale of the malevolent dentist, Monsieur Bibot. This is not a paean to your friendly neighborhood dentist. I’m certain there are folks who would shudder to read The Sweetest Fig to their child of choice, under any circumstances, and that got me to thinking about reading all kinds of cautionary stories to young children. Any tale from the brothers Grimm comes to mind, as well as more recent additions to the oeuvre, such as Wolves in the Wall written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean.
Why would we subject a child to the likes of Monsieur Bibot? And if we do, how do we go about doing it? Well, to begin with, you sure aren’t going to read The Sweetest Fig to a child unless in very close proximity to the young listener. That means with the reader’s arm lovingly around the child’s shoulder, encouraging a good snuggle at any of the scariest moments. Reading dark stories to young children is a wonderful means of teaching that child how to cope with an imperfect world without having to address such an overriding arc of intent. Lesson #1 – we can get through this together; Lesson #2 – we can talk about what is making us afraid; Lesson #3 – we can persevere (read to the end of the story in which there is usually a not too hidden moral (i.e., lesson).
Words are only part of the story with picture books, illustrations are the other. Illustrations are often instructional roadmaps for the child too young to read. As Aubrey points out in her review of The Sweetest Fig, Monsieur Bibot’s hands, balled into fists, are a clear, but often unnoticed sign of danger. Dave McKean’s sharp images and dark colors (often enriched with saving flashes of bright colors) enhance Gaiman’s playfully scary text of Wolves in the Wall. A good reader should be as attentive to the illustrations as to the text and should be encouraged to share this attention with the child being read to.
It is important to raise children to believe themselves capable of both recognizing and meeting with some reserve of confidence those walks in the woods to grandmother’s house, or visits to their local dentist or even, maybe someday, a visit to the principal’s office? Picture books of dark cautionary tales can be positive opportunities for the overall well-being of our children. Read more, fear less. – Sunny Solomon