cover image Inside Picture Books

Inside Picture Books

Ellen Handler Spitz. Yale University Press, $40 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07602-8

Readers may never look at picture books in the same way after making their way through this thought-provoking examination. Focusing on her subject through the lens of psychology, Spitz (Art and the Psyche) argues that because picture books ""provide children with some of their earliest takes on morality, taste, and basic cultural knowledge, including messages about gender, race, and class,"" it behooves adults to consider more carefully the images transmitted to their kids. Organized thematically, the chapters offer a wide-ranging discussion of art and artistry, visual and verbal cues and the transmission of culture through picture books that resonate with children, often for multiple generations. Whether examining motifs of darkness and abandonment in Margaret Wise Brown's classic bedtime tale Goodnight Moon, a child's yearning for power and independence in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or gender stereotyping in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (comparing the bold and naughty Peter to his obedient sisters, she notes ""the gendering is explicit: good is to girls as bad is to boys""), Spitz provides an illuminating analysis of what is often taken for granted. Sure to spark lively debate, her book is a must-read for any serious student of children's literature as well as that core group of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and others who are actively engaged in raising children. Provocative, well written, scholarly without being dry or pedantic, Spitz's text makes a compelling case for the power of art and literature, and the responsibility that accompanies such power, particularly when it relates to children. (May)