- Books with a Clear Heart:The Koans of Play and the Picture Books of Ezra Jack Keats
Children love to sit and visit the world that picture book author/illustrator Ezra Jack Keats has created. It is a world of simple design and lush detail that grows from an extended urban experience. It is a world, moreover, that is punctuated by play and fantasy, revealing what Keats himself understands—as do the youngest and most sensitive members of his audience—about the very nature of the world itself: that it is a forgiving place, a place of unilateral possibility and reciprocality, a place where the spirit of play reigns supreme.
In traditional psychological theory, play is described as evolving in the child from physical, sensorimotor explorations to conceptual play involving higher cognitive processes. Thus characterized, the ability to play is regarded as following a hierarchy of physical and psychosocial behaviors that parallel in many ways the stages of growth and development described by Piagetian stage theory.
What Keats exhibits, however, in support of our own understanding of the nature of play, is that the ability to play is present at birth and that the developmental cycles explicated by traditional psychological theorists are really descriptions of the "devolution" of play, as it becomes absorbed into the mainstream of adult culture, a culture characterized by a strongly articulated "work" ethic. Consequently, whereas many play theorists herald the transformation of play behavior into higher-level logical thought processes (Piaget; Herron and Sutton-Smith) or complex problem solving capabilities (Bruner, Jolly, and Sylvia; Bergen), Keats laments this transformation, seeing in it a certain loss of innocence, a loss of pre-cultural awareness which is ultimately responsible for every young child's ability to play in the first place. Throughout Keats's work this state of precultural awareness—play—is easy to identify, being repeatedly characterized in the appearance of the "archetype of the young child."
Within the 20 or so picture books that represent Keats's oeuvre, a number of main characters appear—and then fade into the background, and/or disappear altogether. What distinguishes all of them is that either [End Page 75] they remain young (typically seven- or eight-years-old, or less) throughout the handful of books they appear in, or, with the first signs of maturation, they recede into the background cast of minor characters.
Peter, for instance, Keats's most enduring and lovable character, is represented in seven of Keats's early picture books. There is a series nature to these first few books. But as you move from The Snowy Day (1962), in which we first meet Peter, to Pet Show! (1972), Peter's last depiction, there is a distinctive—though perhaps natural—evolution of Peter's character: he matures from a wide-eyed, inquisitive pre-school child to a gangly adolescent. What makes this transfiguration curious, however, is that as Peter ages he also becomes less and less crucial to the main dialogue and action (and ultimately is replaced by Archie, a child of pre-school age who exhibits the same state of pre-cultural playfulness that Peter does in The Snowy Day).
This pattern of maturation-leading-to-displacement is repeated throughout Keats's entire oeuvre. In short, we might say that Keats's main character is not one particular child in one particular book, but rather a host of children—Peter, Archie, Susie, Roberto, Louie, Ruthie, Ziggie—spread out over an entire body of work. These young children, however full-bodied and uniquely distinct they might be as individuals, exemplify collectively for Keats the archetype of the young child, an archetype explicitly rooted in the uninhibited pre-cultural expressions of the early childhood experience.
The Play Matrix
Perhaps at this point it might be helpful to define play. Whereas the term "play" has been regarded as a "linguistic wastepaper basket" assigned numerous contradictory, and often useless definitions (Millar 11), we find play easy to define: it is simply—though, nonetheless, radically—a dynamic relationship of kindness, a recognition of the common ground existing between self and other. Play is an open, flexible bonding process in which...