Editorial: Cultural Currency

sutton roger 170x304 Editorial: Cultural CurrencyI was late for work, walking down the street to my subway stop. The trash collectors had come and gone, leaving the narrow sidewalk strewn with empty plastic barrels, upright, sideways, rolling about. Coming the other way up the walk were two tough-looking UPS ladies, and I stepped aside to let them pass. No need — the first one looked at the scattered barrels, sardonically muttered, “Well, this is nice,” and proceeded to kick them aside with sure aplomb, Moses parting the waters. The second one, following in her wake, spontaneously and triumphantly announced, “Make waaay . . . for ducklings.”

This Horn Book special issue about picture books is dedicated to those — UPS carriers, illustrators, librarians alike — who keep picture books alive. Those who make the way, clear the way, and light the way, showing us how deeply picture books can plant themselves in our cultural ground. Of children’s literature referents, folktales, Mother Goose, and Alice certainly take pride of place in our metaphorical landscape, but picture books culled from what our parents liked, what the librarians and teachers of our childhood liked, what got to us, in both senses of the phrase, take a close, and often more personal second. Think about Grinch. That’s an epithet that has meaning even for those not familiar with the Seuss story or TV special. (Parody, too, is evidence. The good Dr. was invoked in a New York Times editorial cartoon about the Lewinsky-Clinton business: “Did you grope her in your house? Did you grope beneath her blouse?”) In last year’s movie Air Force One, Glenn Close, as the U.S. Vice-President, called upon Laura Numeroff in explaining her philosophy on negotiating with terrorists: “If you give a mouse a cookie. . . .”* Forget about the hi-tech marketing magic of Sendak’s Wild Things; for a deeper affinity, think instead about all the dogs — and kids — you meet named Max. You can’t buy that kind of fame.

This kind of metaphorical shorthand, even sleight-of-hand, shows what books can do. It is exactly what readers cheer and censors fear: books can become a part of things, putting words and images into a popular vocabulary that we use to explain ourselves. Those UPS ladies made my day. It was clear that the hat of usable metaphors had been passed, and the picture book had put in its two cents.

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Let’s be clear, though, that entree into Bartlett’s is not what makes a picture book great. For example, when I was working as a children’s librarian, my hands-down favorite to close a story hour was Tan and Yasuko Koide’s May We Sleep Here Tonight? (McElderry, 1981), a translated Japanese picture book about an accumulating number of gophers, bunnies, and the like snuggling up for a pajama party after being lost in the woods. We’ve seen variants on this story dozens of times; Bernard Waber’s Bearsie Bear and the Surprise Sleepover Party is a recent, entertaining entry. May We Sleep Here Tonight? quietly came and went (o.p. early in the nineties), spawning neither metaphors nor merchandise. Instead, it’s all archetype, a book deeply inside the larger metaphor that is literature: small creatures seeking comfort in the frightening night. I think you would be hard put to find a literary work that does not in some essential way speak to this theme, reminding us that picture books wander in the same dark forest as the other pilgrims, large and small, of the human imagination.

*I thank my colleagues on the child_lit listserv for these and many more examples.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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