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  • The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood
  • Scott Dowling
The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood. Ellen Handler Spitz. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006. 250 pp. $25.00 (hb), $14.95 (pb).

In Ellen Handler Spitz's new book, The Brightening Glance, we are quickly drawn into a setting that stimulates our imaginations as it encourages us to provide aesthetic experiences for children. Although primarily concerned with the pleasures and occasional pitfalls of imagination and aesthetic awareness in children, it is also a book about adult pleasure in providing opportunities and support for these experiences in young people. Its central thesis is the mutual benefit to all of us, of every age, of imaginative interactions with the world and with each other.

Although the author is direct in her intentions, the method she has chosen to develop her ideas is itself a model of an aesthetically pleasing interaction. She lets us experience what she is enticing us to provide for others, especially children. The book serves as an example of the process of discovery, supported wonder, and aesthetic awareness. It is also a very personal approach as she shares events and relationships in her own life as well as the observations and experiences of others. But it is her experience that sticks in this reader's mind, a sharing of her own moments of joy, fear, sadness, and exhilaration from early childhood to adulthood.

I have long admired and enjoyed Ellen Handler Spitz's books and papers. Her critical examinations of Where the Wild Things Are (Spitz 1988), Calvin and Hobbes (Spitz 1993), and Pat the Bunny (Spitz 1989) opened my eyes to themes and artistic devices found in the union of words and illustration. As a bonus, they are wonderful teaching tools for students learning child development. I anticipated that The Brightening Glance would be similar, a series of essays or a developed exposition and critique of the cultural artifacts that appeal to both children and adults. I anticipated a further categorization of such artifacts at different ages, showing their correspondence to the developmental level of the child.

Although the theme of aesthetic awareness is common to her papers and this book, the approach and the content are [End Page 582] quite different. The book is more complex and subtle. Rather than examining works of art, she invites us into a multitude of living situations as observing, naive participants. We are led into this world disrobed of our familiar analytic categories of age, developmental level, or conflict state. We sit with a grandfather and his toddler grandson, watching leaves falling in silent, mutual appreciation and wonder. Distinctions of age and sophistication are blurred, exposing the essential humanness of the ineffable experience. We enter and explore an adolescent girl's room, a private haven full of complex personal meaning. We sit beside her at her bedroom window as, unobserved, she watches her father working quietly in his garden. From this safe and elevated perspective, she enters into an empathic connection that links her pleasure in the individuality and privacy of her room with her awareness of her father's pleasure in the individuality and the privacy of his gardening.

The author sensitively approaches the question of dealing with "the scary" in children's lives, not settling for an easy universal answer to what is "too much" for children. Instead, she shows that "we must try to remain ready to welcome the unexpected, especially when it is a question of the psyches of young children, who are changing before our eyes" (96). Again, as with issues of beauty and value, the child's imagination is a key. Spitz discusses delayed reactions, telling about one little boy who escaped, apparently unscathed, from watching Jurassic Park. Only later, when walking in an unfamiliar place, did he wonder, "Are there any dinosaurs around here? Are you sure?" As she points out, "his imagination is working furiously," and "one approach might be to go along with it: Draw some dinosaurs with him, let him name them. Try to enlist the fantasy and work with it rather than push it away" (98). She stands for truth—though acknowledging and giving many instances of situations in which...


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