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  • Suspended Animation: Children's Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity
  • Jack Zipes (bio)
Suspended Animation: Children's Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity. By Nathalie op de Beeck. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 262 pp.

This book has little to do with fairy tales and more to do with how American picture books created a "fairy tale" about progress and modernity primarily during the 1919-45 period. It is not a social history of American picture books for children. It is more a case study of selected picture books for children—some of them fairy tales—that demonstrate the changes and conflicts in publishing and artwork and their relations to the socioeconomic conditions of the interwar period that had ramifications for the post-World War II period. Op de Beeck's superb study uncovers many neglected modernist motives and motivations of the culture industry that led to numerous innovations and transformed the earlier picture books into both high and low art that needs serious attention. Moreover, her comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach enables us to grasp that children's literature cannot be understood unless it is studied as part of general cultural movements that have a bearing on how children and adults are primed to view their worlds.

Op de Beeck's study is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and a postscript. The introduction clarifies her terminology and approach. She explains that "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 cels" (ix-x). The combination of words and illustrations in sequence forms a new communication mode; and these combinations need to be comprehended in their own dialectical context and socioeconomic context because picture books were not always produced the same way and can be considered historical, artistic, and industrial constructs that document [End Page 122] changes and experiments in a given period. As op de Beeck emphasizes, "The picture book developed at a time when avant-garde art movements, sociopolitical climates, and changing technologies called for shifts in perceptions" (xvi).

In Chapter 1 ("Here-and-Now Fairy Tales: Old World Tradition and Modern Technology"), op de Beeck examines the tensions between traditional picture books, many of them fairy tales, and the literary and artistic experiments, stimulated by new technologies and ideologies, from 1910 into the 1930s. Wanda Gag's works receive a great deal of attention because they represent both modern and traditional tendencies in the great fairy-tale debate that took place between 1929 and 1931. This debate arose when many publishers, artists, and educators were calling for a more realistic children's literature against imaginative works such as fairy tales. Gag's position was always ambivalent, and as op de Beeck points out, the debate was never resolved because children's literature embraced both types while artistic modes of representation and production changed.

In Chapter 2 ("Picture-Book Ethnography: Representing the Other"), op de Beeck considers some ideological aspects that involve the depiction of immigrants and white and nonwhite subjects. Racial, ethnic, religious, and class tensions made children's picture books dynamic and were often given international settings to ease the tensions among readers in American real life that were never resolved.

In Chapter 3 ("Sentient Machines: Lonesome Locomotives and the Mechanized Modern Body"), op de Beeck is concerned with the anthropomorphism of mechanical things, such as toys, planes, cars, and trains. The focus on machines and work during the Great Depression and the rise of the society of the spectacle corresponded to the changes in working relations that were engendering greater alienation.

In Chapter 4 ("Murals in Miniature: Regionalism, Labor, and Obsolescence"), op de Beeck deals with the representation of domesticity in the picture books of the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the books focus on themes connected to regionalism and nationalism. Most important, many picture books showed how technology changed domesticity and labor. Op de Beeck suggests that the picture books of the 1930s can be read as murals in miniature, "calling attention to alienated labor and warning of a threat to American...


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pp. 122-124
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