What Are Wild Books?

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“What are wild books?” is the question I posed to Etienne Delessert, who with Steven Guarnaccia has organized a free event, “Where The Wild Books Are,” at The New School Auditorium in New York on April 18, 1–6 p.m. The event is all about “exploring and celebrating international picture books and the publishing industry, emphasizing their role in promoting global literacy and creativity.” With the support of the cultural services of the French, Swiss and Italian embassies, as well as of The Creative Company, the New School and the Parsons School of Design, three renowned foreign critics have been invited to New York to present the wealth of French, Swiss, German and Italian picture books. Japanese picture books and their translations will also be commented on in a video by Junko Yokota. Books from India will be presented by Gita Wolf, from Tara Books, and much more.

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So, tell us about “Where the Wild Books Are.”Young children are trying to understand the world around them; they ask questions, again and again, to their parents, their friends and to themselves. Too many times picture books today simply tell banal or simply entertaining stories about everyday life. A wild book will challenge the young mind by opening different perspectives, by leading a child to a world that does not exist, a world parallel to his real-life experience. The reader will understand that characters are acting in a landscape he has never seen before. The story may be absurd, the characters may look strange, but stories can question the way we think: Life is often strange and absurd, and wild books are a way to prepare children for it. … Over the years we have welcomed a few wild American books, but there is a feeling that the skies are more open on the other side of the ocean. Right or wrong? We asked a few experts to survey 50 years of the best continental picture books.

What were some of the responses?Quoting a respected psychologist: “A change in the last 10 years? Kids have much less imagination!” was his immediate answer. “They are fascinated with the constant communication by phone, internet or video games to the point they can’t invent anymore, or transform reality to build their own stories. …” And in a recent letter to The New Yorker, Dominic Massaro, professor emeritus at the psychology department of the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote that “experts had found that the variety of words in picture books was more extensive than parents talking to their children. … Given that word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words, a potentially powerful leveler of family wealth and class may be as simple as engaging in picture-book reading with children.”

What was the impetus to organize the event?It all started in December 2013 with an essay written by Betsy Bird, collaborator at the School Library Journal, youth material specialist at the New York Public Library, and noted critic of children’s literature with her blog fusenumber8:

She reported that many publishers and librarians are firmly opposed to accepting foreign picture books: “too European, these illustrations! We can’t understand the stories. … They are unsuitable for the American public!” It was a provocative statement. As an author and illustrator of picture books published in the United States and around the world, I felt that a response was needed.

We all want to help our children learn to read, to stimulate their own imagination, develop their creativity while discovering the art and ideas of other cultures. What if the characters in foreign books look “different”? Does it even matter? Does it matter that the face of a great Iranian or Chinese writer looks … different? Few artists know how to create universal characters, representing “Everyman”: Giacometti, Klee, Picasso, but also a few cartoonists and children’s book illustrators.

Sendak’s characters clearly can be assimilated to central European people; André François’ paintings could not have been created here; the images of Seymour Chwast, R.O.Blechman, Randall Enos or Tomi Ungerer transcend the traditional American way of life. These artists open the door to a wild imagination where trees can talk, monsters roam the countryside and engage children in a dialogue that will make them think, laugh, cry. A dialogue that will enrich them, make them victorious, apt to cope with the emotions of “real” life.

How has children’s book publishing changed over the past decade?From the ’60s and ’70s, when Ursula Nordstrom and a few forgotten ladies hiding in backrooms were nurturing the creativity of young artists (because nobody had noticed yet that children’s books could be good business), the field has radically changed. Even editors heading their own imprint have their decisions scrutinized by the marketing department of the house that employs them. More nonfiction, less creative fiction, for sure no wild fiction. Not much that could change a kid’s life! Or prepare a young generation to ask the questions that will entice them to create the startups that governments dream about. …

And art directors in publishing—and in the press—do not take any risks. They don’t fight. From the Wall Street crash of 1987 on, people understood that they could lose their jobs very easily. Have you seen a great New Yorker cover lately? Or a profound OpEd visual comment? It’s the same with picture books­­—a tendency to follow a graphic format with flat colors and no emotion.

So, the solution is …?So, let’s bring some foreign art and storytelling to New York!

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →