Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sub texts

As a graduate student, I do a lot of reading as I research and write my dissertation. Most of it is pretty dry stuff---scholarly books and articles, unpublished dissertations, monographs, etc. Of course, I read a lot of the same types of things as an undergraduate student for my research papers back then, too. But as a graduate student, I have learned to read in a different way from the way I did in college. I not only read the text itself, but also the items that go before, under and after the text: introductions, acknowledgments, and footnotes and endnotes. It may seem obvious that one should read these things, but I've noticed from my teaching gigs that undergraduates rarely read footnotes, for example, which often means that they miss crucial information that the author has tucked into the small print. Footnotes and endnotes often point to the author's sources, or perhaps to a different scholar's theory on the same topic. Acknowledgments often pay tribute to those scholars whose ideas have helped the author formulate his or her own, revealing the web of connections in the small communities that make up academe. Introductions often provide a road map for the ideas ahead, laying out for the reader how the author went about conducting research, formulating his ideas, and finally finding the evidence to support his argument. Even the book dust jacket can reveal something interesting about the author, whether it's the name of his spouse (oh he's married to that professor?) or her educational background (oh she studied with that famous professor?). Altogether, these pre-, post- and sub-texts add layers to the experience of scholarly reading.

Why do I bring this up in a blog on children's literature? Two books that I recently checked out of the library make use of the areas usually not considered part of the "reading experience" of a picture book. In Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin with pictures by Betsy Lewin (Simon and Schuster, 2000), Betsy Lewin has included an "artist's note" on the title page. Maybe I just haven't looked closely enough (and I certainly haven't read a lot of picture books in the past 25 years), but this is the first time that I've seen such a note, in which she describes how she created her vibrant watercolor drawings. I was fascinated to learn that she first created brush drawings in black watercolor on tracing paper, then photocopied the drawings onto watercolor paper, and finally added the color washes. This allowed her to experiment with different colors as many times as she liked without having to redo the black drawings themselves. After reading this, I took another look at the pictures. I would never have guessed that a photocopier had been part of the artistic process, but its use means that the black ink lines are never faded, washed out or blurred by the colored washes of paint. Each black line is crisp and clear, and this really allows the character of the cows to pop off the page. It's not surprising that the book was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2001. What is surprising that (as we learn from the back flap of the dust jacket) Doreen Cronin is not a professional artist but an attorney, and this was her first picture book. (We also learn that she collects antique typewriters, no doubt a plus for a book about cows that type!)

Mo Willems, author of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003), is known for making use of the entire book for his artistic endeavor. The story starts on the opening endpaper and finishes on the closing endpaper. I had heard a lot about Willems from both my sister and my friend Susan, both graduate students in library science (and both focusing on children's literature). Although I read Knuffle Bunny first, Pigeon is Willems' first book. As in Knuffle Bunny, the story starts as soon as you open the book. On the two-page spread of the endpaper, Pigeon is dreaming of driving a bus, which zooms across the page. We turn the page, expecting to find the title page, but instead we meet the bus driver, who sets up the title of the book: "Hi! I'm the bus driver. Listen, I've got to leave for a little while, so can you watch things for me until I get back? Thanks. Oh, and remember:" (we jump to the next page, which is both the conclusion of the driver's request and the title of the book) "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" We turn the page again, and the story moves forward: the bus driver walks off and the pigeon peeks in from the corner of the far page. We start to turn the page to discover what the pigeon is up to. But wait! You missed something! Tucked below the image of the smiling bus driver walking away is what looks to be boring publication information. You know, the copyright, Library of Congress cataloging data, etc. But if you read closely, the copyright is not your typical copyright: "All rights reserved for humans, not pigeons." Even in something as dry as a copyright, Willems finds a way to add a little humor. (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was also a Caldecott Honor winner, in 2004).

It's doubtful that children will notice these two little extras, but the discovery added to my enjoyment of both books (especially since at this point, I'm really reading more for myself than for the benefit of my six month old, who enjoys books only as much as he can fit them into his mouth). So, as you read, read like a graduate student and remember to look for those extras that can add to your reading experience.

See, graduate school IS good for something in the real world!