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  • Between Image and Child: Further Reflections on Picture Books 1
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

Publisher’s Note

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can, even now, hear my mother’s voice as she read to me each evening when I was a child—both picture books and poetry. I remember the cadences and inflections, the lilt and verve, of her special reading voice. Nuanced and expressive, it pronounced each word more slowly and distinctly than at other times and lingered lovingly over syllables or phrases. Not at all like her normal “hurry-up” voice, this one had the capacity to transport me to faraway times and places, to send tremors through my spine, to conjure exotic pictures in my mind even as her fingers pointed to details of images on the pages of a book, and, best of all, it embraced me with an auditory ambience of coziness and warmth. In those evening hours, we stretched and grew together. We could be anywhere, with anyone; it was anytime; I could do, or have, or feel anything; and then, when it was over and all the clouds of make-believe had dissolved, the safety of her presence remained to hold me.

Unlike my mother, my father did not read at bedtime; he came in quietly, sat down beside me, and sang a lullabye. “Sweet and low, sweet and low, wind of the western sea. . . .” The quality of his voice seemed to match the words, as I lay under the covers with my eyes closed, imagining blue waves, smelling salt air, waiting for the special kiss I knew would come when the last notes faded.

In early childhood, the differences among spheres of functioning are not yet firmly established, and because young children come only gradually to distinguish clearly between dream, fantasy and waking states, between self and other, [End Page 177] between a picture and the thing pictured, the artifacts presented to them make a deep and lasting imprint on the psyche. Favorite songs and stories are endlessly repeated, and, just as tastes are registered with high intensity; similarly affects have a pungency, immediacy, and lability that in later years diminishes. In studying imagery in picture books, I have come to realize ever more poignantly the added power of the context of a child’s cultural life, the crucial role of parent, adult, or older sibling, as a mediator between the child and any cultural object.

Over the next few pages, I would like to share four picture books with you. Each of them deals with the theme of body image and identity formation in early childhood, and they are all over a half century old. I have chosen mainly to study books with long histories—ones that have lasted for decades—because of their staying power. They have proven to possess a unique attraction for generations of parents and children. I believe that psychoanalytic psychology, both dynamic and developmental, can help to explain that power.

Recognizing that imagination is a vague term in ordinary parlance, I wish to narrow its scope in this context and take it to mean the conjuring up of inner possibility—the provisional working through and mastery of primitive fears and the gratification of impossible desires—by means of fantasy and mental adventure, by inventive action and magical transformation. Unusually fine picture books, encountered in the shared presence of adults, can, by stimulating such imaginative experience, serve to strengthen young children internally for their ongoing discoveries of the limitations of the real.

Dorothy Kunhardt, gifted author of Pat the Bunny (1942), 2 an incredibly long-lived book for the very youngest child that joins visual and verbal with tactile and olfactory experiences, created even earlier, before World War II, a book entitled Now Open the Box (1934), also addressed to toddlers. Nearly twice as wide as it is tall when closed, this book opens out to form an elongated shape with its text hand-printed on left-side pages in rhythmical run-on sentences with word repetitions that mirror not only the shape of the object itself but also the tendency of [End Page 178] young children to join one idea to the next and...

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pp. 177-190
Launched on MUSE
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