- Suspended Animation: Children's Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity
Suspended Animation stands to make a major contribution to the field of children's literature studies, and its impact will also be felt in American studies, art history, material culture studies, and the history of the book. Nathalie op de Beeck's interdisciplinary study of the modern picture book takes into account the materiality of books themselves (beginning with this volume's own high-quality production and wonderful illustrations, including fourteen color plates); text-picture relationships; the world of popular and mass culture within which the picture book arose; modes of production and manufacture; reading practices; and the balance between avant-garde experimentation and folk nostalgia that is a defining feature of modernity and of the modern picture book. She also grapples with modern conceptions of childhood, which took shape around the same moment as and in conversation with the development of the picture book. Finally, her literary, visual, and historical analyses are informed by nuanced theoretical framing and an eclectic, intriguing array of artistic and literary allusions. This is an ambitious, provocative, and important book.
Nathalie op de Beeck's use of "the formalist narratological term 'suspended animation'" alludes to picture books' relation to animation and cinema, arts that developed at the same historical moment as the picture book. According to op de Beeck, "The idea of suspended animation implies technology and alludes to paused images and texts in sequence over a series of pages, an accumulation of information akin to, but distinct from comic strip panels or cinematic reels" (ix). Her subtitle, referring to the "fairy tale of modernity," invokes the fairy tale debates from the early twentieth century that pitted children's librarians against progressive educators: the former—most vocally represented by librarian Anne Carroll Moore—tended toward the belief that children were better served by imaginative literature (including fairy tales); the latter—most vocally represented by educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell—tended to argue that children were better served by works that helped them to understand the urban, industrial world. The "fairy tale of modernity" refers to the way in which picture books balanced both of these concerns. According to op de Beeck, "Picture books of any era constitute a site where young readers inherit a qualified version of the past [End Page 476] and receive a fairy tale, or promise, of lived reality in the future" (xvi). She argues that "the picture book may be the ideal format in which to express the fairy tale of modernity, due to changes in American print culture, the increased ability to mass produce images in affordable texts via offset lithography and the development in thinking of the child as a consumer" (xvii).
Following a careful and comprehensive introduction that sets forth the book's fundamental premises and arguments, there are four chapters and a short postscript. Chapter one, "Here and Now Fairy Tales: Old World Tradition and Modern Technology," discusses the modern picture book's emergence in the first decades of the twentieth century in conjunction with technological innovations and several intersecting cultural currents. As op de Beeck notes:
Although the picture book signifies modernity, it did not spring fully formed from American publishing houses to libraries, schools, and bookstores. Like its formal and thematic influences in cinema, avant garde poetry, and modernist art, the picture book emerged as a cultural artifact only after decades of artistic ferment and technical experimentation.(10-11)
Op de Beeck connects the development of the picture book with the growing tendency to separate children's culture from that of adults. She offers a compelling mix of historical background, theorizing, and nuanced close readings here and in the rest of the book. In her first chapter, op de Beeck focuses on the tension between avant-garde impulses such as those characteristic of the "lost generation" (from whom, she says, the picture book emerged)—including surrealism, psychoanalysis, futurism, and modernist word play—and a nostalgic impulse that likewise infused many modernist experiments. "Picture-book...