Ellen Handler Spitz is a woman who knows well one of motherhood's greatest pleasures: sitting down with a small child and a good book.
But Spitz is a scholar--a lecturer in the department of art at Stanford University.
In "Inside Picture Books" (Yale, $25), Spitz looks at the experience of reading to a child and finds that parents are doing much more than sharing a quiet time or easing the transition to bedtime with a happy ritual.
The best children's books, the titles with staying power, are not simple.
They "dare to tackle important and abiding psychological themes," and they do so "with craftsmanship and subtlety." They "convey meaning on several levels," which is why they appeal to adults. (Contrast here the difference between reading Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" and "The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist.")
"Even when they are not intended to do so, picture books provide children with some of their earliest takes on morality, taste and basic cultural knowledge, including messages about gender, race and class. They supply a stock of images for children's mental museums," she writes. "Read by loving parents and respected adults or older siblings, they stand firm against later experience."
"Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, pictures by Clement Hurd, is comforting for adults as well as children. Some points we may have overlooked in our reading.
The clocks in the bunny's room are set at 7 at the beginning of the book. By the last page, the time is 10 minutes past 8. "An entire imaginary hour has elapsed between the book's first and final moments. This slowing down is exquisitely appropriate to its theme: the transition between day and night, activity and repose."
This is even more appealing now than when the book was written, about 50 years ago.
"Today's American children are, of necessity, clamped squirming in the vise of our rapidly paced, technologically driven culture. . . . Today's children are bombarded with prefabricated stimuli--images, sensations, impressions that occur fast and furiously. . . . 'Goodnight Moon' absolutely refuses speed."
Probably as well loved as "Goodnight Moon" is "The Story of Ferdinand," by Munro Leaf, drawings by Robert Lawson.
Ferdinand is an atypical bull who, unlike the other young males, just wants to lie under a cork tree, smelling the flowers. His mother is concerned.
"Seeing him across the pasture alone in his favorite spot, she worries about him and asks him why he does not lie with the other young bulls. Ferdinand shakes his head and pushes her away gently with his hoof. This tender image, by marking the outline of Ferdinand's beloved cork tree, makes patent, in the form of a black line that bisects the page, the invisible psychic barrier that exists between a child and his or her solicitous mother," Spitz writes.
As we all appreciate, Ferdinand's mother simply leaves him be.
Although Ferdinand is mistakenly selected as the roughest bull and taken to the city for fighting, he refuses.
"He is returned to his cork tree in the meadow, where, in peaceful contemplation, he remains." Yet a "disquieting undercurrent persists here in the black silhouette of Ferdinand, who faces us away from his tree. This image may unintentionally betray a measure of sadness, belying the book's final words, 'He is very happy.' "
Also questioning gender stereotypes is Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hatches the Egg." Horton, who takes over the egg from the irresponsible Mayzie bird, "presents a challenging picture. Radical and unsettling, it is at the same time filled with hope," as we see what hatches--the newborn is an elephant-bird.
Little girls might have "highly complex" feelings about the resolution of this story, Spitz suggests, as "the neglectful mother looks ugly, mean and angry," and "the tale ends with no integration of parental roles."
Critics might say that Spitz is perhaps reading too much into these lovely works of children's literature, but her reflection on them simply adds to their appeal and lets us look at them in an unaccustomed way.
This, actually, would seem to be a child-rearing guide of sorts. For in her preface, she writes: "If anyone were to ask me what I consider to be the most important feature of parenting, I would say, without hesitation and without wishing to beg the question, simply, enjoyment--enjoy your children. Delight in them, rejoice with them, have good times together, treasure the days of your life that are spent in their company. Days that--although it may not seem so to harried and often worried young parents--are limited."