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Guest Post – Imagination and Picture Books: Gleaning Wisdom from 11 Sources by Ellen Handler Spitz

We are pleased to yet again feature a piece today from Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz. You may recall her previous pieces on this blog Who Was Beatrix Potter? or A New Consideration of Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night or Happy Birthday Lore Segal! Ellen Handler Spitz Celebrates the Return of “Tell Me a Mitzi”. In this round-up Dr. Spitz considers some of the texts we use when considering the whole of children’s literature.


Gleaning Wisdom from 11 Sources

2019 Ellen Handler Spitz

(This essay is dedicated to Leonard Marcus)

To remark that the English word “imagination” springs from the word “image,” which means “picture,” is to recognize, after a bit of pondering, that the relations between a child’s imagination and the picture books he or she encounters prove more complex and variable than might appear at first.   “To imagine” often means to generate mental pictures on the basis of thoughts, wishes, emotions, abstract ideas, or simply spoken words.  Picture books, however, supply images readymade.  How then can they spur the innate capacities of children to generate images of their own?  How can they stimulate imagination?  Consider the fact that, before picture books were widely distributed and regarded as an indispensable accoutrement of early childhood, young people listened rapt while tales were spun by grandparents and other grownups.  Famously, Walter Benjamin laments the loss of story telling in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller.”  As narrators’ voices filled their ears, children’s minds’ eyes filled simultaneously with mental images they supplied for themselves to elaborate parades of characters, scenes, and plots.  The same held true for children who—as in my youth— harkened to the radio.  With sound alone to amuse them, they needed to originate pictures of their own, to hallucinate them, if you will.  When picture books are seen in light of this history of aural transmission, it might be concluded that, rather than priming imagination, they do just the opposite and shut it down by offering pictures preconceived by others, normally, by adults.  In what follows, let’s consider eleven books that, within their pages, teach us how picture books can in fact do just the opposite and prime the imagination, enriching it rather than preempting it.


  1. Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. 1990


Alison Lurie’s thesis is that the best children’s books capture life from the perspective of youth, a perspective that often proves, as she puts it, “subversive,” which is to say running counter to given rules and dictates laid down by adults.  I want to focus on her Beatrix Potter and Kate Greenaway chapters, as these are the two that deal with picture books.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was a consummate artist who produced delicate and refined drawings  illumined with pastel watercolors.  From childhood on and throughout her life, Potter roved the out of doors and sketched from nature with scientific inquisitiveness.  She kept many animal pets, whom her imagination transformed into characters, and her literary work, like that of William Blake, is inextricable from her art.  Although she cherished small animals, she never sentimentalized them.  When her character Old Brown, a long-suffering owl, bites off the fuzzy tail of annoying Squirrel Nutkin, children looking at the page are not spared the results.  When Peter Rabbit is chased by Mr. McGregor with a rake, we are shown the tines.  Potter renders her animals so that children can readily identify with them; thus, her famous Peter Rabbit is both rabbit and little boy:  the more rabbit, the more boy, and vice versa. Potter’s pictures confront children with their own groundedness in the natural world.

Lurie remarks that Potter often portrays scenes from the vantage point of a creature or small child.  Plants are seen from below and objects in zoom lens.  Children, beholding Potter’s pages, feel transported into them and hence into the stories she is telling.  In this way, her pictures stimulate imagination. By lifting beholders bodily, as it were,  into realms of fancy— fancy grounded in nature and stocked with recognizable creatures usually smaller than children’s own bodies and beloved by them, such as kittens, frogs, mice, and, of course, rabbits — Potter’s art stimulates imaginative experience.  It enhances the words of her tales.  Lurie intimates, as I read her, that, in Potter’s long-lived picture books, the elements of imagination are quite physical—like a pang, for example, when naughty Peter Rabbit squeezes under the gate.

In her Kate Greenaway chapter, Lurie argues that certain children’s book writers and artists possess the singular gift of creating what J.R.R. Tolkien dubbed a “secondary” world.  Lurie persuasively shows how artist Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) succeeds in doing just this.  Greenaway primes the imaginations of her audience by doing so.  She populates her pictures with spring and summer sunshine, tidy ever-blooming gardens, sweet-faced little girls in pretty pastel frocks that never show a speck of dirt.  She herself, on the other hand, often lonely and unhappy, dwelt in industrially grimy, overcrowded, laboring London, and she used her art to project and escape into a world that seemed more appealing—an idealized romanticized realm of  perfect childhood, one which, Lurie rightfully claims, derives from Wordsworth’s lyrical innocence.  Children encountering Greenaway’s picture books are primed to measure themselves by her vision and to follow wherever her paths may lead.  For me, they led to remorse, for I never felt myself to be as endearing and sweet as Kate Greenaway’s flawless children, whose winsome charm put me to shame and drove me to imagine alternatives.


  1. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Ed. Leonard Marcus, 1998.


Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988) was the doyenne, the grande dame of children’s literature in the United states during her reign as Editor in Chief of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper and Brothers (now Harper Collins), premier publisher of American juvenile literature.  Nordstrom recruited and superbly edited the giants of her era including, notably, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and Maurice Sendak.  Distinguished scholar Leonard Marcus gathers here a selection of her spiciest, most piquant and wise letters to authors and artists and, while the term “imagination” rarely appears in its pages, the idea is ubiquitous.  Nordstrom’s radar for excellence was nigh infallible, her taste impeccable. Crucial to her credo was that each child reading one of “her” books must feel “considered.” By that, she meant “warmed and attended to.”  Perspective and language must conform to that of a child.  She goes back and forth, for example, in 1952, about whether E.B. White’s spider, in Charlotte’s Web, should be portrayed with or without a face. And, if the former, what sort of face.  Unspoken is the thought that, without a specifically pictured face, each child must invent one, for, “After all,” as Nordstrom points out elliptically, “Charlotte is a spider.”

Nordstrom, also in 1952, shamefacedly admits that, had someone approached her with the idea of a book about a little girl named Alice who dreamt she fell down a rabbit hole and braved madcap adventures there, she, Nordstrom, a staid adult, might not have recognized its potential.  Consequently, she is fiercely  en garde against the intrusion of such blindness;  the essence of her role, as she sees it, is to stay in tune with a child’s mind.  Apropos pictures, she writes in 1965 that picture book art must seem “original and inevitable and something we couldn’t resist.”  When a would-be artist correspondent replies that his pictures would be beautiful and big, she deems his answer “cynical and disgusting.”  Implicit is her sense that imagery must tie in not only with words but with essence so that children can indeed feel warmed and inspired.  The best pictures linger; they remain implanted in the mind for decades.


  1. Ellen Handler Spitz, Inside Picture Books, 1999.


Inside Picture Books is devoted to an overarching question: what makes a long-lasting picture book, a classic?  The answer accorded priority is psychological: in other words, the argument goes that a fine picture book will significantly address themes faced by children as they grow.  Each chapter treats works that tackle a topic relevant for young children:  nighttime separation, fears of abandonment, curiosity, naughtiness, identity and self-acceptance.  While writing this book, I read picture books, along with my research assistants, to three-and four-year olds at Harvard’s Peabody Terrace, and I’d like to highlight one moment in particular because it demonstrates how pictures can indeed stimulate children’s imaginations in ways beyond what an author, artist, parent, or teacher might foresee.  Doing so expands my original definition of imagination to include inventive interpretations of pictures as well as the generation of new ones.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) tells of a little boy who improvises his own bedtime adventure and draws it with a purple crayon.  The very conceit is an open invitation for children to imagine pictorially on their own.  Toward the end of the book, Harold is tired and wants to go home but can’t remember the way until he recalls that the moon, which has been following him all along, is framed by his window.  He draws this image and finds himself back in bed.  Four-year-olds in our study asked us how Harold could be inside when he was walking around outside. As they gazed at the pages, they began to reflect. One child hypothesized time (outside before, but inside now).  Another (apparently perceiving no contradiction) insisted: “He was inside the whole time, but he was walking around outside”.  A third claimed similarly: “He was inside and outside at the same time.”  When challenged as to how that could be so, a little girl imaginatively replied: “You could stand in a door and be half in and half out.”  Attending to these musings on the pages of Harold demonstrates that picture books can and do function to prime youthful imagination.


  1. Philip Nel, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 2012.


Philip Nel’s affectionate dual biography of picture book artist Crockett Johnson and his author wife Ruth Krauss forms a natural segue to my previous mention of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Johnson’s most successful work.  Nel proffers a myriad of sparkling gems that illuminate our theme.  He points out for starters how Harold “shows that the mind can change the world.”  From this particular picture book, Nel claims, children learn that, while their everyday behavior may be under adult supervision, they can, if they like,  “improvise, invent, draw a new path.”  In Johnson’s book, there is no world other than the one Harold himself invents:  with a simple crayon, you can be and do and have anything you can imagine.

As a boy, Johnson re-named himself apparently because there were too many Davids (his given name), he doodled on prayer books in church, sketched continuously, and modeled in clay; he also liked to sing and made up both hymns and stories.  To ponder his experimental, arts-rich childhood is to grasp how one child’s imagination may flourish as he grows.  Later on, when Johnson marries Ruth Krauss, the two of them strive to correct the uncritical transmission of cultural stereotypes that plague children’s books.  Pictures can be powerful conveyers of prejudice, and both Johnson and Krauss seek to empower children to imagine otherwise.  On the subject of inspiration, when Nel reports on Johnson’s routine practice of beginning to draw at 11:00 at night and then working until 5:00 the next morning, he reveals a biographical source of inspiration for the lovable character Harold, whose remarkable inventiveness with a purple crayon begins similarly after nightfall.

Krauss always strove to write as a child speaks, immersed, that is, in the here-and-now of life.  For her book, The Happy Day, Krauss sought control over all the commissioned drawings made for it as well over as their placement.  Pictures were core to the tale she wanted to tell. She and Johnson both recognized that, for young children, the ordinary visual world itself is full of surprise and adventure.  Their sensibility matches one of the great psychological texts on early childhood, Selma Freiberg’s The Magic Years of 1959.


  1. Jonathan Cott, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, 1983.


Jonathan Cott begins his book by telling readers he loved to saunter through the Children’s Room of the Donnell Library in New York City picking up books until one day a quizzical little girl asked what he (a grownup) was doing there.  After mumbling something unsatisfactory, Cott set out to write a book so as to discover a better answer.  This seems to be that children’s books matter throughout life, and Cott’s mode for proving so is to devote chapters to authors and artists of note.  His reflections on William Steig seem apposite.

Steig, a prominent New Yorker cartoonist, became a picture book author only at the overripe age of sixty.  Cott highlights Steig’s treatment by Dr. Wilhelm Reich, a quirky experimental psychoanalyst for whom the notions of crazy and creative are entwined.  Verbal language, Reich taught, masks emotions, and Steig often accords priority to pictorial over verbal imagination; although occasionally, to the delight of all, he brings arcane words to his pages.  Nearly always, Steig populates his stories with talking animal characters who stand erect.  Children, he believed, readily grasp that book animals are symbolic, that a dog for example can represent a child; and that using animals is “saying something about life itself.” Apropos, Cott sees Steig’s beloved canine character Dominic as “a prototypical picaresque hero,” a Don Quixote, if you will.  Associative paths plot imaginative moves for Steig, as we see for example in Dominic, where an iridescent peacock’s tail trails off into flowers, which, when touched, give rise to tinkling music.   Encountering Steig’s work, children may feel the urge to leap into the air, cavort with him, and delight in the sheer physicality of life, as per the unforgettable reunion scene that graces the culmination of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969).  That work, Steig’s masterpiece, foregrounds the topic of love, which is central to Steig—central both in terms of theme and process.  When asked his own favorite among his picture book repertoire, Steig chose Sylvester because he said he had felt “excitement” while making it:  exuberance, exhilaration, and the presence of love, which, arguably, his art conveys in turn directly to children and stimulates them to love and to imagine with him.


  1. Selma Lanes, Down the Rabbit Hole, 1971.


Selma Lanes begins by comparing children’s books with advertising and film; all three genres, she claims, share the qualities of inventiveness, experimentation, and aliveness.  She goes on to discuss an idiosyncratic compendium of topics, including publishing practices, criticism, themed books, and authorial personalities.  She devotes one valuable chapter to social issues, a discussion that bears indirectly on imagination.  Titled “Black is Bountiful,” this chapter raises the specter of prejudice and racial/ethnic stereotyping in picture books.  Lanes starts with The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), written by Scotswoman Helen Bannerman for her two young daughters who had been in India.  This small book eventually achieved renown only to be excoriated a half century later in the US for its purportedly derogatory racial stereotyping.  (Inside Picture Books [vide supra] also discusses this work.)  How is it relevant for children’s imagination?  We may pose this question: if characters of a race, class, or other group are portrayed pejoratively, do these negative portrayals stamp the imaginations of youthful beholders?  In the case of Little Black Sambo, I stand with Lanes that the original story is heroic and psychologically brilliant despite its admittedly (yet unintentionally) disparaging images.  The overarching issue is complex, and Lanes’s reflections stimulate us to ponder what contribution picture books can make to the formation of youthful imagination, which, in turn, may influence the direction of paradigmatic social change and reform?



  1. Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones, 2002.


Jack Zipes’s book makes a good segue here, for Zipes, an internationally renowned expert on fairy tales by the brothers Grimm, tackles social issues in the wider world of children’s literature.  Here, he devotes a chapter to the most famous German picture book, Der Struwwelpeter, 1845, often translated as Slovenly Peter.  This highly controversial picture book, written by a medical doctor, Heinrich Hoffman, as a Christmas gift for his three-year old son, was never intended for public consumption.  It so impressed Hoffman’s friends, however, that they encouraged him and it sold out within a month.  Since then, it has been ceaselessly reprinted, re-translated, re-issued, and re-configured.  Likewise, it has been ceaselessly criticized for its purported sadism.

For our purposes, it is important to note that Hoffman believed children learn best though the eye:  strong images teach lessons more powerfully than words. In Struwwelpeter, little Paulinchen curiously and recklessly strikes a match.  Instantly, we behold her lovely green dress and hair go up in flames; she fizzles next into a pile of ash.  Conrad is not supposed to suck his thumbs, but he disobeys his mother after she departs; a tailor arrives with an enormous shears and chops them off.  Kaspar refuses his soup day after day and wastes away into a stick figure; eventually,  only his grave marker is pictured, with a soup tureen beside it.  In each case, punishment stems directly from the crime committed, and Hoffman believes that his brightly colored graphic pictures assure his harsh lessons will be taken to heart.  Children encountering them are meant, importantly, to notice that the moral power to resist wrongdoing rests in their own hands.  Imagination plays a key role here by fostering identification and the conception of alternatives.


  1. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic, 2019.


Intersections of imagination and race are the primary focus of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, whose searching new book argues, in her own words, that  “the dark fantastic may provide some answers for why magical stories seem to be written for some people and not for others.”  Thomas, growing up in an African American community in Detroit, Michigan, was told by her mother that magic did not exist and, as a little girl, she felt the European fairy tales were not meant for her.  Thomas urges all of us who are concerned with children’s books and with the education of youth to strive for “a fantastic that is restorative, transformative, and emancipatory [and that] has the power to remake our world.”

Although Thomas directs her attention principally to chapter books and young adult fiction, what she has to say relates in valuable ways to the theme of this essay.   The presence of child and adult characters of color (protagonists, heroes, and heroines) on the pages of picture books matters deeply to children of color, who can—when such pictures exist, which has been all too rare until very recent history —find themselves mirrored and thus included in their earliest cultural-literary experiences.  However, it should not be missed that the positive representation of people of color matters as well to children who are not of color.  This is because, as Thomas’s book has caused me to grasp, imagination can be stifled by absence.  In other words, if mages can, as we have seen, prime the imagination, and, if there are no images of heroes or heroines of African American or other racial and ethnic origins, then how can they be imagined?  This is an idea worthy of serious consideration as we move forward in the twenty-first century.  Thomas calls for artists, authors, and editors to attend to the diversity of child audiences and to enable them to see themselves reflected, acknowledged, and affirmed.


  1. Maria Tatar, Off with Their Heads, 1992.


Maria Tatar, Professor of German literature at Harvard, is distinguished for her scholarship on fairy tales;  she has argued for their psychological richness and power.  Here, she devotes a chapter to the work of Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), premier picture book artist and author.  Although Tatar never analyzes Sendak’s imagery as such, she makes points that bear on our topic of imagination.  Regarding Sendak’s masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), she quotes Sendak: “’When I write and draw I’m experiencing what the child in the book is going through.  I was as relieved to get back from Max’s journey as he was.”  Sendak thus reveals how his imagination carries him along as he works; his description may remind us of Crockett Johnson’s character Harold, whose adventures similarly arise from a linked chain of associations, both emotional and cognitive.  Children exposed to Sendak’s picture books are subtly inspired to associate likewise.

Tatar faults Sendak and, with him, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), however, for “endow[ing] children with a power over the text they do not in reality possess.”  With this point, I must disagree.  As we have seen (vide supra,  #3), children actually do possess amazingly resilient interpretive faculties, faculties hailed by the eminent psychologist/educator Jerome Bruner (1915—2016), who taught—as did Jean Piaget — that children mentally construct their worlds.  When, on the other hand, Tatar claims that Sendak “resurrect[s] the burlesque humor and grotesque realism of … folk culture,” she gives us a rich entrée into some of the peculiarities of Sendak’s art  —his big-footed, neck-less, large-nosed, lumpish children, in particular.  She thus reminds us, by implication, that pictorial imagination has deep roots in history as well as in personal psychology.


  1. Those Telling Lines, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (Barbara Ellman)


Great picture book artists are occasionally honored by museum exhibitions.  Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) is the subject of this fine catalogue, written by Barbara Ellman.  Burton’s youthful dance background prances through its pages, and her linear artistic style with its dynamic curves, swerves, and rhythms reveals how what we love to do inevitably propels our imagination.  Working in an era before children’s books were lavishly produced in saturated full color, Burton’s art is often limited to black and white, thus privileging its linear elements and foregrounding her innate sense of design.  Children viewing her pages find pattern, fluidity, and a vibrancy that stimulates response.  A perfect example involves Burton’s masterpiece, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel (1939), which tells the story of a man and his trusty steam shovel who accept a challenge to dig the town hall basement in just one day.  Apparently, Burton, who was more of an artist than a writer, got stuck when Mary Anne (the steam shovel) had “’dug herself into a hole.’”  How was she to get out?  It was the grandchild of Burton’s friend who suggested  that Mary Anne could now simply become the new town hall furnace—a child’s brilliant and picturesque solution clearly fired by Burton’s imagery!


  1. David Wiesner and the Art of Wordless Storytelling, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2016.


This seems to me the ideal book with which to close.   David Wiesner, a uniquely gifted RISD-trained artist, three times winner of the prestigious Caldecott award for the finest picture book of the year, originated a mode of narration that forgoes verbal language altogether.  From this exhibition catalogue, we gain insight into the processes by which remarkably inventive narration can proceed in visual terms alone.  Wiesner, in dialogue with the curators of the recent exhibition of his work in Santa Barbara, explains that he doesn’t write a story first and then illustrate it.  His stories grow out of visual ideas, as he puts it, so that “’the writing process and the visualization process [are] one and the same.’”   He claims to have been influenced by Marvel Comics, Peanuts, Mad Magazine, cartoons on TV, and movies.  He was nourished by the art of Edward Gorey, Max Ernst, Salvatore Dali, and René Magritte.  These paragons of line, perspective, and eerie, complex renderings of space intrigued him;  he experimented, drawing constantly.  Alternate realities also engrossed him, and he manipulated them stunningly in his non-verbal telling of the Three Pigs (2001).  Starting with the age-old story children know well, Wiesner lulls his reader into complacency.  But, wait!  As soon as the wolf blows the first house down, the threatened pig, instead of  retreating to his brother’s, simply exits the story, similar to what we do when we wake up in the middle of a scary dream.  The second pig steps out of the story too, and the third, into another realm for which Wiesner adopts a different style of drawing.  He has the pigs fold the pages of their story into a paper airplane in which they fly until it collapses under their weight.  Eventually, the wolf’s breath, as he tries to blow down the house of brick, scatters the very letters of the words of the story.  Enchanted and puzzled, children are propelled pell-mell into their own imaginations.  Questions abound.   Protean, metamorphic, and infinitely malleable, the visual story needs to be co-constructed by each child who encounters it:  a paradigm picture book, fertile of imagination.


A version of this essay is available in China, in Mandarin translation

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.