Getting into the heads of children and creating stories that reflect their ways of thinking isn’t an easy thing to do. Some picture books do this quite well, really standing out on bookshelves. I’ve got two new ones on the mind today.
Actually, the first one is not new but has been re-released in a new edition. The Thinking Book, written by Sandol Stoddard Warburg and illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff, was originally published in 1960, but AMMO Books re-released it in May of this year. “Once it was morning like today and you said Good Morning but I didn’t say anything because I was thinking,” the book opens. The few words in bold throughout the book are spoken from an adult’s point of view. (One assumes it’s a parent.) The rest of the story consists of stream-of-consciousness words from the child speaking.
The adult is goal-oriented, instructing the child to get ready for the day (reminding me of several 2015 picture books about hurried and harried adults, including Antoinette Portis’ Wait), but the child has a mind that wanders. From pieces of dust, to fruit, to colors, to pebbles and waves, to a circus: The child has a grand imagination and isn’t hesitant about fully attending to it. Often the adult’s words prompt the child: “Put on the overalls now” makes the child think “of all the things under and over and all flip and flop snip and snap the way kites fly ....”
I’ve read online some folks noting that this book captures well the mind of a child with an attention deficit disorder. That hadn’t even crossed my mind, though I can certainly see that. My first thought was how well it reflects the minds of imaginative young children, attention disorders or not – particularly, toddlers (who have fluently grasped their language) and preschoolers. It’s also a fitting commentary for today’s hurried world: “Hurry and scurry!” the parent says, and the child resists: “But I was slow as pudding to bake as a turtle half-awake as a peach in the sun ….” At the end, right after the parent resorts to begging, the child notes he simply can’t put on his shoes or even lace them up: “I was thinking…” – as if that is the only explanation for his delay. And, for children, it often is. It’s a big world, after all, with a lot to take in.
Giselle Potter’s This Is My Dollhouse, released in May, works on multiple levels and also digs astutely into the minds of children when they play imaginatively. It’s the story of a girl with a DIY dollhouse. It’s made from a cardboard box, and she’s created everything in and on it, including the brick exterior, the wallpaper, and most of the furniture. She makes “fancy clothes” for the family out of ribbon and tape. The fried eggs they eat for breakfast are made from paper and colored pencil. The elevator that takes family members to the second floor is a paper cup. The rooftop pool? Why, it’s a bowl of water.
The girl has a friend named Sophie. She also has a dollhouse, “but hers is all perfect.” It’s a store-bought dollhouse with an accompanying family. The dollhouse furniture Sophie owns has some fantastic features (a refrigerator door that opens, for one), and she doesn’t have to make any fried eggs, because it comes with plastic plates with eggs already painted atop them. As the girls play at Sophie’s house, things go downhill fast, and their play feels stifled. Not only is the girl with the cardboard toy worried that Sophie will find all of her ideas stupid, but she’s also terrifically bored with the store-bought dollhouse and its accoutrements. Sophie becomes agitated when her friend suggests she use items around the house to creatively play with and, at one point, ends up staring mutely at her friend. The girl fears that, if Sophie were to play with her dollhouse, she’d hate it.
But she’s wrong. Later, Sophie comes to her house to play, and they have a blast. Sophie gives in to her creative side and accepts her friend’s dollhouse as the fully-imagined home her friend created it to be. And the girl whose dollhouse was made with her own hands feels tremendous pride.
I like stories such as this that work in several directions. On the surface, it’s a story that celebrates imaginative, creative play—not to mention crafting—but it’s also a picture book that stands up for the misfit. The home-made dollhouse family consists of miscellaneous toys: Only three are humans, but Grandma is a toy mouse, and Daddy is a bear. The family members in the store-bought one look the same, our protagonist notes, with their “painted-on clothes and plastic hair.” Nothing about the DIY dollhouse is glossy or perfect, as so many toys from store shelves are. Its own wobbly, shaggy imperfections, however, are what make it fun and are what propel the girls’ play. In the store-bought dollhouse, the TV “always has the same picture on it.” In the DIY dollhouse, the girl can change the channel, so to speak, at any time by gluing down a new picture in her home-made television. Nonconformity wins the day.
It’s also a story that could be about class issues, which I always like to see (because we don’t often see picture books handle class issues with subtlety). Mind you, this is merely one possible reading of this book; Potter doesn’t necessarily suggest via words or art that the girl who has made her own dollhouse is poorer and in a family unable to afford store-bought toys. And, to be sure, lots of middle- and upper-class people like to make their own things. But I do think it can also be an empowering story for a child whose family’s toy budget is tiny or even nonexistent and who has to make his/her own toys with scissors and glue.
Both are books that get into the head spaces of children and are stories that, I think, will entertain them. Two charmers to share with the children in your life.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
THIS IS MY DOLLHOUSE. Copyright © 2016 Giselle Potter. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.
THE THINKING BOOK. Text copyright © 1960 by Sandol Stoddard Warburg. Illustration copyright © 1960 by Ivan Chermayeff and used by permission of the publisher, AMMO Books, Los Angeles.