Today, some of the best work on children’s literature is being done in the field of American studies. Nathalie op de Beeck’s Suspended Animation and Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence both offer new, and deeply historical, ways of understanding how what children read may affect the ways they think. Op de Beeck’s institutional home is an English department, and Bernstein’s is an African American studies department, but in their new books both exemplify the interdisciplinary rigor that defines the strongest scholarship in American studies.
In Suspended Animation, op de Beeck develops a cultural history of the American picturebook from the 1910s to the 1940s, maintaining a deft balance between formalist close readings, socioliterary context, and theoretically motivated analyses. Her thorough mapping of the term “picturebook” should be required reading for all students of children’s literature. In the introduction and part of the first chapter, she develops a definition that is both expansive and precise. The picturebook is not a “genre” but “a mode of production, dependent on shifting beliefs about childhood, cultural tastes, and standards of judgment” (11). Some of those standards include formal criteria, such as the “complex interdependency of visuals, words, and sequence,” and how the picturebook differs from illustrated texts (which “include images but do not rely on them”) or comics (which favor panel-to-panel closure over page-to-page closure) (xii–xiv). But they also include her sense of the picturebook as hybrid, fusing “old-fashioned print culture and literary structure with mass-produced novelty”: “It has the relative shape and feel of a book, the images and oversize words of an advertisement, editorial cartoon, or store catalog, and the iconography of nursery songs and stories” (10–11). As she undertakes her historical analysis of how “the picture book . . . signifies the anxieties and erasures of those who produced it,” her sense of the book’s aesthetics enables a nuanced examination, ever mindful of the fact that form cannot be abstracted from the conditions in which the work was produced. [End Page 305]
As the previous sentence begins to suggest, Walter Benjamin is a major influence on op de Beeck’s thinking. Indeed, though she has read widely in both theoretical and historical works, Benjamin’s ideas loom largest. Rigorous but not rigid, she allows her readings to be informed by Marx’s critique of culture, not determined by them. To consider how books featuring “sentient machines” affect the reader’s sense of subjectivity, she extends Benjamin’s insight about (in her words) “intimacy with nonhuman objects, such as the camera, train or the automobile” to picturebooks: if relationships between humans and humans get transposed onto relationships between humans and inanimate things, then we may experience the aura of these things (165, 167). If a picturebook functions as an auratic object, “the picture book normalizes the ways that contemporary child subjects interact with technology,” leading op de Beeck to the following provocative claim: Should people, from a very young age, “be seduced into imagining a human relationship” with an object (such as a machine or a book), this process enables them “to place the inanimate object on equal footing with animate, organic beings (especially those of marginal status, including distant, international others who perform cheap labor)” (167). This neatly ties together her analyses of personified machines in this chapter with the previous one’s consideration of “picture-book ethnography.” In both cases, the picturebook naturalizes ways of abstracting people into objects.
But, of course, picturebooks do many more things than that and, in fact, might not do that at all—which she readily acknowledges. What makes her analyses persuasive is a willingness to recognize ambivalence, ambiguity, and the variety of readers that a text may imply or exclude (101). Dr. Seuss’s And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) “offers a revolutionary first-person address, character development, verbal...