Episode 11 - The Power of Perspective - TRANSCRIPT
People like to say things like little kids are listening to everything and they soak up language like a sponge. What if they don't?
Episode 11 - The power of perspective
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You know what I love about kids? They so often see or appreciate things that adults don’t. We have a walnut tree in our backyard and I very quickly learned to ignore the hundreds of walnuts on the ground. But when my youngest was very small, I remember we stepped outside in the backyard one day and she picked up one of the walnuts - all fat and green - and looking like a beat up old tennis ball - and she said with a thrill, “Mommy! Look! A walmut!” It didn’t matter to her that they were everywhere. That one she found was spectacular.
Another memory - our first fall in the house we live in now, we were welcoming trick or treaters on Halloween and one little girl, as she was jumping off my front porch to go get candy at the next house, stopped in her tracks because she found a bright red leaf on the walkway. She picked it up, turned around, and handed it to me with a huge grin on her face as if it were the best thing ever.
How many of those countless little miracles do kids see all the time? How many do we miss?
I’ve been thinking about some classics of children’s literature. And honestly, I can’t believe I’ve made it to episode 11 of this podcast without even mentioning Maurice Sendak yet. But I’ve been thinking about books like Where The Wild Things Are or Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar which by the way turns 50 in 2019. These are books that - until I took a closer look - seemed to me to be pretty simple or straightforward in the world of children’s books that surrounds us today. Just one of many. Like one walnut in a yard of lots of other walnuts. One bright red leaf in a yard of lots of red leaves.
But in the research I’ve been doing, I am starting to learn what made them so significant and I’m realizing how innovative and influential some classics were.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for example - with its die-cut holes and the differing page sizes - was so unusual at the time that a printer could not be found in the US that could produce the book economically; Eric Carle’s editor, Ann Beneduce, ultimately had to find a printer in Japan.
Margaret Wise Brown’s work was influential in that she was part of the movement called Here and Now, developed by Lucy Sprague Mitchell and her colleagues who also started in 1916 what is now known as Bank Street College of Education. The Here and Now approach to education and children’s literature marked the emergence of a more child-centered focus in children’s books.
And - as for Sendak - well, Where the Wild Things Are was remarkable in that it focused almost entirely on the inner mind of the child - on his imagination and his emotions, namely his anger and rage, in a way that books prior to that hadn’t. Sendak himself has said that "Where the Wild Things Are," like many of his other books, was about "how children master various feelings and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives."
In an article on literati.com, Mark West, the author of Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature, suggests that adults writing for children can’t easily get into the mindset of children and instead they project an adult point of view, thinking that the children understand things the way an adult would. And this, too is evident in Sendak’s work - his ability to maintain the perspective of a child.
In fact, in Jonathan Cott’s book called There’s a Mystery There, Cott quotes Sendak’s interview from 1966 with Nat Hentoff in which Sendak says, “I don’t believe that, in a way, the kid I was grew up into me. He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way. I have a tremendous concern for him and interest in him. I communicate with him--or try to--all the time, and one of my worst fears is losing contact with him.”
Margaret Wise Brown managed to see the world the way a child would. In her biography called “In the Great Green Room, Amy Gary writes that “one day [Margaret] realized she was talking down to children in her her writing. She was handing them a version of their world filtered through her words, emotions, and eyes. Somewhere along the way, she, like most adults, had forgotten how it felt to be a child.” Gary writes that Margaret Wise Brown learned to experience the world as a child, learned to see what they would see, learned to love what they loved.
I particularly like this passage from a review of Amy Gary’s biography. The reviewer writes, speaking of Goodnight Moon, “But while the book’s relationship to reality may be slightly askew, it also feels true to childhood, a period when, as Brown was quick to note, the world adults take for granted seems every bit as strange as a fairy story.”
You know, I think I’ve finally figured out why I love the Kuh-nufflebunny series by Mo Willems. Besides the fact that the third in the trilogy makes me cry. I also love the juxtaposition of photography and illustration because the way Willems has drawn the action of the story in his illustration style but has set the whole story in very real places and with very real photographs … it suggests to me this juxtaposition of reality and imagination - where reality is the backdrop and the illustration is the really real part. It suggests to me the interplay between the adult world and the kid world and it merges the magical element with the quotidian. It shows how the two worlds are always sort of running in tandem. How sometimes a kid’s view of the world chafes against my adult reality. But how sometimes a kid’s view is immensely more inspiring or beautiful or rewarding.
You know what else I love about kids? I love what they take pictures of. I love giving my kids a camera or a phone and letting them take pictures from their point of view. I love seeing what they notice or what they deem worthy of being photographed. Sometimes their photos are completely indecipherable to me. But other times they’re a precious glimpse into the way my kids see the world.
In many ways, the ability to see the world through a kid’s eyes is reminiscent of the windows part of mirrors and windows - this idea of seeing what someone else sees. I think what I’m trying to suggest is that maybe children’s books could have the ability to help adults see what life is like for kids … just like kids books can help kids see what life is like for people who are different from them. But I think the other thing I’m saying is that it’s important too to see how kids perceive the books we read with them. To try to see it from their perspective. To see what they see.
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As I think about these classics of kidlit, I’m noticing, too how - beyond simply the ability of an author or illustrator to see the world as a child would - a compelling children’s book depends, too, on an incredible capacity for creativity. Creativity that enables an artist or writer to take the raw materials of the world around them and the world inside them and to refine them into something new. Creativity that has the power to help us see the things that we might not otherwise see.
Like for example, a hole punch. Eric Carle describes his idea for The Very Hungry Caterpillar saying, "One day I was punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm and so I created a story called ‘A Week with Willi the Worm.’ Then my editor suggested a caterpillar instead and I said "Butterfly!" That's how it began.”
Here we’re back to the idea of alchemy, I guess, though a slightly different take on it, but just this idea that an artist can make something profound out of almost nothing. Can make something that touches so many people. Can make something so uniquely personal that it speaks to someone else. But also so universal that it speaks to a lot of someone elses. And can be personal and meaningful for each one.
I visited the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in September of 2018 for the museum’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. You can’t believe - or maybe you can if you’re a VHC devotee - just how many people continue to be immensely inspired by that book and by his artwork. I saw people of all ages and I saw a lot of different sartorial homages to the work of Eric Carle. Babies in onesies with the VHC on them. Kids in cute t-shirts. Jewelry. Socks. So on and so on. One woman caught my eye - her bright yellow dress featured a large hungry caterpillar all along the bottom. I loved it so much I accosted her in the parking lot to ask her about it.
Felicia: my name is Felicia. I have been coming to the Eric Carle Museum for 12 years. Oh, Wow.
Um, and each time I come I make custom clothing as a form of gratitude and expression of my love of all of his work.
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I've always been really passionate about his work just because of the simplicity of it and the approachability of it.
Felicia’s been collecting Eric Carle’s work since she was teaching preschool, fresh out of college. She now has over 200 pieces of his work and 8 pieces of clothing that she custom made for her visits to the museum.
[03:06] I just love the homage that he gives to other artists as well. It's not just, Oh, here, look at all of my amazing stuff. You know, usually two thirds of the museum is for other artists and I think it's a good inspiration for these kids to be able to see that. It's just not something that comes out of factory. There's art involved with it and there's passion and there's talent that's, that goes behind it too.
So artists and authors see the world through a child’s eyes in order to create children’s books. But maybe children are like little artists. Because of the way that they can see things we can’t see. Their perspectives are fresh and unusual. Their capacity for creativity is immense. They can’t go very long at all without pretending - or at least, my children can’t. I often want to see the world the way my children see it instead of through my own eyes. There is so much value in seeing the world in a way that is different than how we normally see it.
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Here is an example of something that I didn’t see. Something I have completely overlooked. Something that perhaps many of us with neurotypical children have missed.
I will be honest - I had to google this concept to see if I even understood what neurodiversity meant. But even more helpful than googling was my conversation with Eliyanna Kaiser who runs a blog called Line Up the Books in which she reviews children’s books from her perspective as the mother of autistic twin boys.
Eliyanna: I was always one of those people who pictured idyllic parenting as like snuggled up with your kid reading a book, especially a picture book. I mean, that was important to me when I was a child. Um, and it was something I very much wanted to do with my own children. I read to them from the day they were born. But when my children got older into their toddler hood, that became one of the hardest parts of my day trying to read to my children and trying to have that experience with them, um, because they had challenges that I couldn't have anticipated and didn't understand and they were developing in ways that were outside the norm. And were-- made it difficult to do things like sit with a parent and read a book, look at a book, understand anything going on in the book. Um, and that was for me, uh devastating. Not that it's about me, it's about them and their relationship with reading, but, um, but I really didn't know what to do. And so, um, you know, I, I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out and trying to figure out how to connect with my children through books the way that I'm in the way that was going to work for them.
The more I chatted with Eliyanna the more I realized how mired in my own neurotypical perspective I was. It simply had not occurred to me the challenges that arise when reading with a child with neurological differences. Sure, I had thought about dyslexia. But there is a range of experiences that fall under the umbrella term “neurodiversity.” Autistic Spectrum, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, and more. These are all specific kinds of cognitive processing differences that present an array of challenges - challenges that the world of popular children’s books doesn’t make any easier.
Eliyanna: and look all kids with autism are different or unique, just the way that anyone is unique. But when you're talking about a communication and social disorder, when you're talking about not having language, um not having joint attention, um, not being able to develop a receptive understanding of things. So, you know, people like to say things like little kids are listening to everything and they soak up language like a sponge. What if they don't? What if they're not listening to everything and they're not soaking up language like a sponge. What if you want to read a board book to your child about a cat and they don't know board what a cat is. They're not looking at the book. They see the picture. They, they’re not even looking at the picture, if they see the picture, they don't connect it to the word cat. If they know the word cat, maybe they only know one cat. They don't know that this is also a cat. I mean, those kinds of challenges are what my kids were facing. Um, and sitting and looking at a book for them was hard work. It was not pleasurable, it was not automatically something that gave them this beautiful connection with their parents. Um, and so it was something that I had to figure out how to do.
Autism affects 1 in 59 children, according to the Autism Speaks website. And in addition to cognitive processing differences, autism presents significant social emotional challenges as well. In neurotypical children, the social emotional component - the bonding or relationship building - is one of the rewards and benefits of reading together. But hearing Eliyanna’s description made me think again about Molly Bang’s description of pictures which I mentioned in episode 4 - what she might call “shapes arranged on a rectangle” - it made me think about how we make meaning of those shapes … or don’t make meaning as the case may be. And about how making meaning factors into the bonding experience.
Eliyanna: You know, you've got children who they have social challenges and so it's not inherently rewarding to be told we're going to sit here and not do whatever it is that you think you want to do right now and you're going to look at this, this meaningless rectangle, right? And I'm going to say things that are noises to you. Right? They're not words necessarily. They're, they're just noise. And that's what we're doing right now. And, and that's it’s just not the same experience, right? You have to make meaning. And that begins with teaching language and it begins with, you know, figuring out a way to make a social connection with, um, with someone who has a problem with that, who's, for whom, that's difficult. Um, and so it's just, you have to be a lot more creative. You have to be a lot more patient. You have to be willing to, um, to be very repetitive.
One of the fundamental premises I started with on this project is that the magic of reading happens when a parent and child read together. What Eliyanna described was certainly not magical. But - the more she talked, the more I realized that when those magical moments DO occur for a neurodivergent child and parent - and they do happen - it is a magic that has even more significance because it is so hard-fought and hard-won. And maybe it doesn’t look exactly like the magic you thought it would. But it’s there.
Eliyanna: In the end books were the way that I first connected with my kids. So because I was so focused on it, you know, what I, what I eventually realized was that they really thrived in situations where they have structure and they knew what to expect or something was familiar and so I stopped reading a variety of books and started focusing on just a few of them and reading those particular books over and over and over and over and over again until my kids knew them. They knew, they knew those books. They were familiar, as familiar as, you know, their pillow at bedtime. And that was when they first were able to attend to a book and it took that memorization. It took that level of familiarity and repetition and doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. And that was my entry point. And um, for me, the first book that I was able to connect to my kids with and that they were really able to listen to was a Sandra Boynton board book it was Personal Penguin by Sandra Boynton.
On her blog, Eliyanna tells the story of their whole family connecting with Your Personal Penguin - Eliyanna, her wife, their two boys - all 4 reading and re-reading and singing this book together at the end of a particularly difficult day. And in my conversation with her I realized that the way she is able to make books work for her family is that she - not unlike Margaret Wise Brown - is learning to experience the world as a child does - but specifically her own children each with their own unique perspectives - she’s learning to - at least as much is possible - see what they see.
This may mean that she and her family have a very different take on the books that lots of other folks consider as sensitive to diverse perspectives.
Eliyanna: And so if you have, you know, like someone gave me a copy of Jacob's new dress, which is a wonderful book for many children, not mine of a transgender child and you know, that book is just chock full of kids saying boys can't wear dresses, you know, and things like that. The last thing I want is for my child to be confronted with someone who presents a little boy who presents as a male or a child who presents as male wearing a dress and to say boys can't wear dresses. Like that's not what I'm looking for. Out of reading Jacob’s New Dress. Right? But that is what I’d get.
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[09:14] And so for me, I, I really do want books that helped introduce them to the diversity of human experience, but I have to be very careful about how the writer has presented that information, how the illustrator has presented that information.
Other books that may be meaningful to Eliyanna or that are popular or award-winning or otherwise seemingly desirable, may present problems for autistic children who also have a sensory processing disorder. Eliyanna told me about research that shows - through functional MRIs with people with sensory processing disorders - that when exposed to certain kinds of stimuli the parts of the brain associated with pain light up.
Eliyanna: So that's always in the back of my head somewhere when I'm seeing my child, like quickly look away from something and have a extreme behavioral reaction to not wanting to be involved with it. It's like this may actually hurt him.
These types of disorders impact storytime at home, obviously, but in a larger setting as well.
Which Eliyanna is familiar with through her work leading the Drag Queen Story Hour for special needs kids in New York City. The Drag Queen Story Hour is a program that began in San Francisco and now has chapters all across the US and is geared to all types of children and is just what it sounds like - drag queens reading stories to kids.
Eliyanna: The purpose of it outside of the special needs world is to give kids an opportunity to play with gender in um in a safe environment and you know, to read books as well to have read aloud time with a sparkly, fabulous drag queen and usually the books they pick are on topics of diversity. So there'll be on gender fluidity, um, different kinds of families, um, and diversity in general. So racial diversity, religion, that kind of focus for the topics and the picture books and you know, um, so I'm married to a woman and so for me, I was always interested in drag queen story hour and I knew the person running it in New York, um, but when my kids were diagnosed and were sort of at that age, um, and she invited me, I said, you know, I really, I really can't bring my kids to this. It's like, you know, 55 children and like too loud and too crazy and the books you're reading are so abstract. They read books like a Red: A Crayon story, that kind of stuff, just so abstract feel. And um, I was like, it's just not gonna work. Um, and so, you know, of course she entrapped me into like, you know, running the special needs Story Hour.
And so what we do at the special needs drag queen story hour is we try to give kids space if they are defensive and opportunities for input if they are sensory seeking. So we have sensory bins and toys for the kids who need something to fidget with and need that tactile input. And you know, we have space in the back of the room where you can pace and have a little bit of distance if you need a little bit of distance.
I asked Eliyanna about what changes she’d like to see in the publishing world - about what gaps need to be filled. And we started with this idea, again, of Mirrors and Windows.
Eliyanna: Mirroring is the really difficult part. The, the, there really aren't picture books that have children with autism as the main characters. It's not really a thing. And where there are picture books that feature kids have autism, as characters, significant characters, it tends to be very clear that the target audience of the book is neurotypical children and that the book is about understanding an autistic classmate or autistic sibling. And so this means that, um, those kids are usually portrayed as weird. And then the neurotypical child's point of view is the main frame for the story. And it's about understanding that kid. These are not books that you, if you're a parent of a kid with autism you want to read to your kids because they, they send a very harmful message which is you’re strange and that people aren't going to want to play with you and they might say mean things about you because of who you are.
And so, you know, in the last two years that I've been reviewing children's books on my blog, I've gotten a number of books sent to me from publishers and they think, oh, there's this, this blogger who blogs about books for kids with autism and we have this book coming out with an autistic character. She's gonna, love it. And I have to tell them like, this book would be harmful to read to my children, I'm not gonna read it. I'm not going to review it. Um I wouldn't have anything positive to say. Right? And they think they're putting out these beautiful books that promote diversity and the promote empathy and understanding and look, I don't know, maybe they are maybe for a neurotypical child, it's a book that does promote diversity and understanding. I have a hard time seeing that perspective. You know, I, I look at it and I see the harm it could easily do to my children.
I began to wonder if #ownvoices could apply to the autistic perspective too. If a more direct experience of neurodiversity on the part of an author or illustrator would result in children’s books that children with autism could read more comfortably … or that some children with autism could read more comfortably - I want to be sensitive to the fact that there are many different experiences with autism. And, well, actually - that makes me think of #ownvoices again - that it’s all the more important to have a variety of neurodivergent voices at the table - about how we can’t just have one book about a diverse experience and call it done.
Here’s another example of what Eliyanna called “cracked mirrors” - books that assume all children have the same developmental milestones.
Eliyanna: So I sort of noticed this for the first time when my kids were potty training, potty training books to read to your kid at that time to help them figure out how that works. And a lot of them would have this kind of narrative of look at all the things you can do by yourself now. You can brush your teeth, you can pick out your clothes, you can get dressed and you can do this. And my kids could do zero of those things, none of them, right? Like absolutely none. Adaptive or sometimes they're called self help skills are areas of serious challenge for developmentally disabled people of all stripes, intellectually disabled people, people with congenital conditions like in general, you know, like you might never be able to do those things independently and so to have these books that say that show like this baby who can do all these things and you're reading it to your child who's older who can do none of those things. It's just the worst message possible. Right. Like if there's any way you can make a kid feel more abnormal and more failing, that's it right there. So I had to just get rid of all this because I realized like I was, I read them for too long honestly because I just, it just took me awhile to turn it over in my brain and figure it out. You know, that I can't, like this is wrong, right? Like this is harmful and wrong and damaging, but they were the best selling potty training books so I thought I needed them.
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My brain was spinning after my interview with Eliyanna and after I went exploring online to learn more about autism and reading and about neurodiversity. And after I spent some time trying to understand that delicate balance between recognizing the truly challenging circumstances of someone who is neurodivergent - and also appreciating the unique perspective that is directly because of neurodiversity. This is the insight that Temple Grandin has provided for us in recent years - this idea that someone whose cognitive processing skills differ from the norm can provide valuable perspective.
I also kept thinking about the idea of the relationships built around reading. Eventually I wrote Eliyanna with a question - are there some kids with a type of autism that inhibits their ability to bond altogether? She helped me see past my own neurotypical biases and said, “Children who are the most severely disabled still want relationships with people, they just don't look the way you expect and may not be functional in a broader sense. It's important not to confuse nonfunctional (to us) in behavior, with not having a desire for human interaction. This is more about how neurotypical society judges what is normal in terms of social behavior. Autistic people crave relationships as much as anyone.”
The more I think about it - the more I want to add one more thing to this train of thought. Yes, autistic people crave relationships as much as anyone else. I want to add that they deserve relationships as much as anyone else. Of course they do.
And if books can break down some of the barriers that children with autism experience - and enable those relationships or encourage that development - then that is a powerful, powerful magic.
Jacqueline Woodson is an author and is the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; she is also the 2018 recipient of the Children’s Literature Legacy award and in her acceptance speech she said, “Everybody in this world has a right to be here. Every single one of us has the right to safely move through this world.”
My hope is that, in the same way that Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, and Eric Carle so significantly transformed the kids books of the last 50 years in ways that we can’t even notice today - in the same way that their influences are everywhere - my hope is that someone - indeed a lot of someones - a whole range of very diverse someones including neurodivergent someones each with their own unique perspective to share - that all these someones will transform the world of children’s literature - and children - in the next 50 years.
The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.
This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.
Special thanks today to
And Eliyanna Kaiser
And thanks to you, too, for listening.
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Fun to read you can do it whenever you want, on a car ride on a plane ride ,while you’re bik-- not while you’re biking. You can do it on a lot of things. At night during the day on a couch.
That’s true. It’s very versatile.
Would you rather read with your parents, with your brother and sister or by yourself.
I knew you were going to say that. I knew you were going to say that.
Do your brother and sister ask you to read stuff to them. Are they always like “Jasper, read to me!”
Sometimes. Sometimes I will.