The Picture Book as an Act of Mischief

Poet Theodore Roethke said that poetry was an act of mischief. I’ve always liked that. But to my mind, even more than poetry it is the picture book that is truly an act of mischief.

Mischief: “Playful misbehavior or troublemaking, especially in children.” “Playfulness that is intended to tease, or mock or to create trouble.” As for the mischief-maker, my favorite definition: “Someone who rises up against the constituted authority.”

I remember a historical mischief-maker, the Lord of Misrule, who for a brief time around Christmas in medieval England disbanded all rules, and everything in society was inverted. A servant was the lord, the lord was a servant; chaos was encouraged. Anything could happen, and frequently did.

And isn’t this true in the best picture books as well? Status is inverted: the child rules! Or animals. The outside world’s adult-created orders are frequently and happily subverted. Or the book creates rules of its own. In a picture book, mischief is a badge of honor.

I am a firm believer that mischief in a picture book begins with its author and artist: their sense of play, of fun, of teasing, of surprise. In text think Russell Hoban, Peggy Parrish, Roald Dahl, Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, Jon Scieszka. In art think David Small, Lane Smith, Tomie dePaola, Rosemary Wells, Eric Carle, Steven Kellogg. The author and artist must wake up to the child in themselves in order to create a picture book. Wake up to delight, surprise, tease. Wake up to the freedom that mischief allows.

Imagination — the bigger, the better — is, of course, a fellow traveler in all of this childlike play. Daring is, too, perhaps.

Ironically, in the beginning, frequently reflecting the period in which they were writing—puritanical, rational, Industrial, Victorian — children’s books in general were most often didactic, meant to teach a lesson. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the industry of printing and reproduction was beginning, books for children became “items of commerce.” Only then, writes chronicler Susan Meyers, “did cows leaping over the moon, Banbury cock-horses, bridges falling down, mice running hickory dickory dock or songs of sixpence assume any significance in the realm of children’s literature.”

Had there always been Edward Lears and Walter Cranes lurking in the draperies? In the mead halls? Did the new possibilities for printing and reproduction let the mischief-makers out of the bottle? In 1846, the nonsense and illustration of Edward Lear was being discovered by Londoners. Lear loved simply entertaining children. He wrote to a friend, “Nothing I look forward to half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery…but I dare not.” Yet his verses and art never lost this sense of the absurd, “and they were designed to make children laugh, not tremble.”

Randolph Caldecott came onto the London scene in the mid-1800s; and in the 1860s, one of my all-time favorites, Walter Crane. He believed that stories should teach, but by arousing the child’s imagination. He felt stories that aroused the child’s imagination were not only acceptable but “downright necessary.”

The tradition of mischief-making in picture books, then, is long. Indeed, with twentieth- and twenty-first-century picture book writers and illustrators, this state of mind is so pervasive that it makes its way grinning or dancing into the contours of every aspect of a picture book. And to say “what if?” to the most extraordinary and frequently lawless, spirited, outrageous and impossible circumstances.

Think of Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel fame who loved his steam shovel so much that, when Mary Anne was deemed old hat, defunct, and surrounded by new electric and diesel shovels that put her out of work, Mike decided he and Mary Anne would dig a hole for the new town hall, unbidden. So, happily — and mischievously — they took on the whole Popperville establishment by proving that Mary Anne was anything but defunct, as huffing and puffing she indeed dug the cellar of the new town hall in one day. The problem: no way to get out of the cellar. It was a little boy, in another inversion of power, who said, “Why couldn’t we leave Mary Anne in the cellar and build the new town hall above her?” Talk about mischief!

And how about Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola? DePaola, himself a mischief-maker, clearly loves Strega Nona, the wise witch of the Italian village, but it is into childlike Big Anthony that he puts his sense of mischief and play, allowing the character a liberating day of Misrule. On that day, Big Anthony doesn’t listen, and he doesn’t obey! He cooks pasta in Strega Nona’s forbidden magic pot, and pasta flows out of the pot, out of the doors, and into the very streets of the tiny village. Big Anthony, totally out of control. Do you suppose Tomie dePaola was grinning wickedly as he let the pasta roll?

I love the whole school world of Kevin Henkes: Chrysanthemum, Owen, Julius, Chester. But no character more so than Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Surely Henkes became the saucy Lilly herself to know so intimately and understand so well how crucial it was for her to tell her favorite teacher, Mr. Slinger, about her new musical purple plastic purse immediately, mid-class, not waiting, even though the purse was tinkling right throughout show-and-tell. When Mr. Slinger takes Lilly’s purse away until after class, Henkes lets Lilly loose, allowing her to mischievously send Mr. Slinger a note saying: “Big Fat Mean Mr. Stealing Teacher! Wanted by F.B.I.” Talk about Misrule!

Characters as “mini Lords of Misrule” abound in picture books. You are probably naming more of them to yourself now. And you know their stories: Madeline, Curious George, Babar, Eloise, Max of the Rosemary Wells sort as well as Max of the Sendak sort. And these are old friends, but new friends appear every year. Friends like Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman, Otis by Loren Long, Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, Pigeon from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems — at-large child characters in adult worlds. Children love characters that are characters, and they love adult worlds out of control. It gets children’s attention like almost nothing else.

Mischief affects everything in a book. Even shape and design. In truth, shape and design are a critical part not only of the artistry of a book but of the character’s adventure itself — its very motion. This was certainly something that I discovered when editing picture books at Philomel: that — in addition to the words and the draftsmanship — the shape and design of a picture book is part of the mischief.

One of the prime movers of picture books is the shape created by the snowball effect. George Meredith, in his “Essay on Comedy,” writes about comic spirit and the snowball effect as an accumulation of event that gathers the snow of story as it careens up or down toward climax, going too far, and making us laugh or wonder or cheer because it is out of control. The snowball effect functions similarly in picture books. Something happens to unleash the snowball of story — in art and text — rolling faster and faster, up or down hill, as it gathers the snow of incident or mishap or superabundance — like the growing number of animals in Amos McGee’s kitchen in the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead — until something happens to stop it. The speed and growing weight demands redress.

Millions of Cats by Wanda GagWanda Gág, that Minnesota-born American writer, came on the scene in the 1920s with Millions of Cats. Her snowball-gathering story of the little old man and little old woman who had no child rolls relentlessly through the pages of this book as the old man, deciding that a cat of their own might be just the right substitute, “climbed over sunny hills…trudged through cool valleys…at last [coming] to a hill which was quite covered with cats. Cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” Over and over in the best picture books, the artist and author are willing to go far enough. In this case, two cats wouldn’t do. Nor would ten. Nor would fifty. The old man chose hundreds, thousands, millions and billions and trillions of cats. A superabundance. Gág’s woodcut art snowballs lyrically through the book, stealing your eye and telling it just where to go as the hundreds, thousands, millions and billions and trillions of cats make their way home with the old man, and begin to quarrel. The chaos of misrule finally gets redress when the littlest, homeliest kitten somehow prevails, to become the couple’s own.

Can you feel Wanda Gág, both artist and author, going far enough? Can you feel the snowball of story? And supreme designer that she is, understanding that after the weight of all those quarreling cats, their climactic fight to see who will stay, the single small, slightly homely kitty, even in design, is an extraordinarily powerful image.

Shapewise, you can begin to see the picture book is almost a wave of story, and the artist as well as the writer knows that: creating horizontally, letting go to picture after picture, shape is a felt thing. A mischievous thing. Shape is not only lovely to look at, to savor, to appreciate: shape is movement, horizontal movement, a vehicle for story on its way to climax. It takes a sense of mischief to push it far and originally enough.

Readers know David Small, and his books, the touching The Librarian or enchanting The Gardener, books that he created with his poet wife, Sarah Stewart. However, it was the wildly funny manuscript that the usually sensible nonfiction writer Judith St. George wrote that grabbed Small’s internal child by the collar and gave it a shake. The manuscript was called So You Want to Be President?, about the quirky history and known foibles of presidents.

Everything was wrong about this picture book text. It was too long — twenty typed pages. It was certainly too old for kindergarteners. It was about presidents: not kindergarteners’ favorite subject. But, oh, that text! Both smart and sassy, and definitely mischievous. I loved it on the first read. Cecilia Yung, Philomel art director, thought almost instantly of David Small to illustrate it. That was fine with me. I remembered that David had illustrated Gulliver’s Travels in a nice warm and sensible crosshatch that would be perfect. We sent him the manuscript and crossed our fingers. He loved it instantly, and I am sure with a wry grin and mischievous pen, he started sketching president after president even before he had a contract. When the first wild sketches came in, I just flopped down into a chair and said, “Oh, my!” He had worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal and New Yorker — unbeknownst to me then — and he launched into these presidents like a koi fish at a feeding! He sent us sketches for Nixon kicking up his heels in the White House bowling alley, Taft being lifted into a giant bathtub by derrick, Reagan getting fitted in Truman’s haberdashery. And so it went.

Despite having nothing in Caldecott rules that asked for art to add something to text, So You Want to Be President? added mood and mischief, and David Small won a Caldecott medal for his trouble in 2001.

There are almost no limits or rules for the mischievous world of the picture book, except: does it work? Anything goes, as long as it is good: words with wit and tenderness and original moment, art that is art, in unlimited mediums — collage, line, erasers, oils, pencil, computer — a vast variety of mediums and creators mischievously going “far enough” to give their readers something so new it imitates the best of life. Perhaps more than life.

In the 1860s Walter Crane called creating a picture book a “matter of consequence.” But lately, the very future of the picture book has been called into question. Let me ask it out loud: how important is a picture book?

None of us knows what changes the digital age will bring to the picture book. Even so, while it is exciting to see a child read a book by him or herself in whatever form, lucky the parent and child who can cuddle together, child in lap or close, to read a picture book — with all its wonders — and to look at the extraordinary art along with the words as a miraculous extension of life itself.

There is in a picture book, make no mistake, something for the eye, something for the heart, something for the mind, something for the funny bone, something for the senses. The picture book, made through the wit and comic spirit of high mischief and consummate skill, is, and will continue to be, as Walter Crane said well over those hundred years ago, “something of consequence.”

This article  is adapted from the BERL Lecture (originally delivered at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on October 22, 2011) and is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage.

Patricia Lee Gauch

Patricia Lee Gauch, the former editorial director of Philomel Books, edited three Caldecott Medal winners, including Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China, as well as Caldecott honoree Seven Blind Mice, both by Ed Young. 

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Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » What I’m Doing at Kirkus This Week,Plus a Podcast During Which I Ramble a Little Bit

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