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On Spies and Applesauce and Such


The arrival of Harriet the Spy with fanfare and announcements of approval for its “realism” makes me wonder again why that word is invariably applied to stories about disagreeable people and situations. Are there really no amiable children? No loyal friends? No parents who are fundamentally loving and understanding? I challenge the implication that New York City harbors only people who are abnormal, ill-adjusted, and egocentric.

The book’s plot is built entirely around Harriet’s activities (she is practicing to become “Harriet M. Welsch, the famous writer “) and their inevitable consequences. All day she makes notes in her ever-present notebook about the people who cross her path — friends, classmates, teachers. Covering her “route” after school, she describes the people on whom she “spies.” When her notebook is found at school, Harriet becomes a pariah, cast off even by her closest friends. There is opportunity to throw some illuminating rays on humanity, and occasionally these rays do penetrate the irony, but the objects of Harriet’s spying are merely depressing types. Her schoolmates, from ghoulish Janie to pathetic Sport, represent not reality but the distortion of caricature. There is a bit of truth in the astringent personality of Ole Golly, Harriet’s nurse, and in the heroine herself, whose stoical containment of her personal tragedy arouses strong but reluctant sympathy for her.

Many adult readers appreciating the sophistication of the book will find it funny and penetrating. Children, however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them. This is a very jaded view on which to open children’s windows. For realism untouched by sardonicism several books come to mind: Joseph Krumgold’s two books and some by Mary Stolz, notably The Dog on Barkham Street (Harper), in which none of the characters, not even the tramp uncle, is a type. They are individual, inconsistent, and completely understandable. There are many other good stories of the past years that are honest in their realism; and among the new books there is Virginia Sorensen’s Lotte’s Locket (Harcourt). The Danish setting may not reflect the American child’s world, but all children can see themselves in Lotte’s possessiveness, her jealousy, her need always to be first. And what about Eleanor Estes’ The Alley (Harcourt)? Here certainly is a real New York setting — Brooklyn to be exact. Adults who have forgotten the reality of play life might consider the children’s “casing” of the neighborhood pure romanticism. But surely even those grownups, viewing the characters objectively, would call them real. The personalities are fluid, changing, often amusing, but never set rigidly in the cement of satire.

The ambivalent approach to children and the things of childhood reveals short memories and self-consciousness and results in books that show the child in his defense armor, as most adults see him and not as he feels himself to be. This point of view produces not only the Harriets and the Eloises of literature but certain types of picture books also. At ease under the eyes of adults quick to respond to cleverness, some artists use tricks to take the place of storytelling. Torn paper and bits of yarn applied to a page to make pictures, like Abner Graboff’s in The No-Sort-of-Animal (Houghton), may produce extraordinary effects, but techniques are seldom noticed by young children, who care little how the pictures were made; they care only that the book says something they enjoy. The writer or artist not directly in tune with childhood should avoid trying to write or draw for children. If an exciting idea for a story captures his imagination and he tells it to the best of his ability in text and pictures, he may unwittingly find himself the creator of a book that children love.

We have grown accustomed to the books with pictures resembling the child’s own elementary artistic efforts. Also, there are texts that seem to have been lifted directly from children’s natural oral expression. Such a book is Rain Makes Applesauce. The remarkable, massively detailed illustrations may catch children’s fancies and keep them searching among the fine lines, colored patches, and jolly figures, but the words — “My house goes walking every day / and rain makes applesauce / Dolls go dancing on the moon / and rain makes applesauce,” and so on — are not going to keep children returning to the book. Children love nonsense, but unless the nonsense in a book is more ingenious than any they can make themselves, they are likely to be scornful of the “silly, silly talk.” Most children are not really interested in finding in books just what they have with them every day. They look for something more from grownups.

Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford) and the first four chapters of Kornei Chukovsky’s From Two to Five (University of California Press) are honest accounts of children’s unself-conscious oral expression, chants, and rhymes. These books are lively, often funny, and throw a searchlight on childhood. They are for adults, as such books should be. To give children their own play words and pictures that resemble their own imperfect art is apt to make them self-conscious in everything they do.

Literary and artistic experiences can be more delicious than those we give by merely catching the ball children exuberantly throw and tossing it back to them.

There are writers and artists endowed with incisive memories, and touched by a special genius, who have things to say to children. There are writers and artists who know little about children but who have wonderful stories to tell. And there are others who have nothing to say; and all the sleight-of-hand, cartwheels, and headstands they can devise and execute will do no more than momentarily catch the children’s eyes.

From the February 1965 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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