Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eric Carle, the Abstract, and the Concrete

Few people understand how hard it is to make a children's book. The challenge of a story geared towards the adult population is to create a compelling narrative that guides the reader through a host of emotions, culminating in a conscious or subconscious epiphany. And while that's certainly daunting (believe me, it is; I'm attempting that very thing for my Master's), the challenge of writing for children is doing those same things while keeping in mind the fact that you’re doing it to shape a consciousness, not just elucidate some moral or concept, abstract or otherwise.

Children’s books are as much a source of knowledge and wisdom as they are a source of entertainment. Hence books like Everybody Poops and Where Willy Went. While the adult world can laugh at the awkwardly juvenile way in which these subjects (defecating and insemination, respectively) are presented through the books, children, by virtue of having spent only so many years alive, don't yet have the framework with which to understand the gravity (or lack thereof) of such topics. It’s like beginning to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and not knowing that Klingons used to be the bad guys in the first series of the show.

Bad hairstyle was the true enemy. (source)

But kids are champs at learning. Kids learn like it's their job, and, in a neurological manner of speaking, it is. The brain's plasticity during the first decade of life is phenomenal. In fact, very young children, as in less than a year old, learn at such a rapid pace that it literally keeps them up at night. Yes, when your six-month-old is wailing at 3:00am in the damn morning, it's because she literally can't handle all the information about the world that has been pouring into her mind.

“But she doesn't study anything,” says Joe McSuperignorant. “She doesn't read, she doesn't understand words. She's not even doing anything half the time.” Oh ye of little understanding, poor Joe McSuperignorant. Before the world brainwashed you into thinking that the only type of knowledge to be had was in the form of doctrinal factoids (i.e. “The sky is blue,” “two plus two is four,” “Draco Malfoy is a tool bag”), we still acknowledged that experience was its own form of knowledge. Unbridled, uncensored, pure experience. Moments of experience, rather than pages of book knowledge, are what one's world is first built out of.

This is where we get the saying “The burnt hand teaches best.” Nothing will get you to trust in the destructive power of fire more than touching the fire (the same goes for breakups). And for kids, especially young kids, like four or five years old, the whole world is a series of “fires” teaching them things through experience. Kids experience things, they experience them again, they see the patterns forming, and the world suddenly starts making sense.

Pictured: child absorbing pure knowledge from the universe. (source)

Enter Eric Carle, color wizard extraordinaire. Eric Carle's books do what a lot of children's books do; it's hard to say he does it best. Frankly, that question gets too subjective to have an answer. However, no one can deny that what he does in his books is very effective.

What is it that he does exactly? He merges the abstract with the concrete.

Do me a favor and go to your local children's library and take a look at the illustrations in the nonfiction books. Then take a look at the illustrations in the picture books. In case you're too busy or lazy to do that (which I totally am myself, ha!), you'll find that the non-fiction books very typically employ actual photos while the picture books use artist-drawn or painted pictures. Even some of the nonfiction books use drawn, abstract illustrations (a lot of the how-it-works books do that). Why is that? The nonfiction books are of the doctrinal factoid sort of knowledge. The picture books are more about a narrative.

That's a keyword here, 'narrative.' See, when a child first forms their concepts of the world, a narrative starts to take place. Children start to put two and two together (at some point, literally), and they begin to see the patterns, the invisible laws about how the world works. Gender norms, language, family life, even something as straightforward as gravity--children, over the course of their childhoods, put together these patterns, finding all the ways they can that life can take shape. Regardless of whether or not those connections made are good or not (google search gender roles and tell me what you find), they are made nonetheless. To use a Hindu metaphor, they blindly feel about the creature they have discovered on the path until, after feeling it out so much, they realize that it is an elephant.

"Wait, don't tell me...giant football?" (source)

Eric Carle's books help kids do that. Let's take his most famous story for example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The structure of the book is quite simple: this caterpillar is hungry and he spends most of the book progressively eating more to sate his insatiable appetite. The reader recognizes that the amount of food progressively increases all while it also changes color. Eventually the caterpillar gets sick from eating so much, creates a chrysalis within which to metamorphosize, and then becomes a butterfly.

And no child reading Carle's book will understand any of the process by which the caterpillar did this. Heck, words like 'chrysalis' and 'metamorphosize' are probably at least a decade off from being graspable words for the target audience. Still, something is happening here. The children are experiencing things.

The genius of Eric Carle is that his illustrations are right on the border between abstract and concrete. They're concrete because simple colors and shapes are used to convey objects. Before writing this article, I haven't seen that caterpillar in years, yet I could still visualize it, green beaded body and all. The food too is just as simplistic in its representation. Basic colors and basic shapes. They're so concrete they're nearly tangible.

At the same time the art style is very abstract. This caterpillar looks approximately 5% like an actual caterpillar, and the food isn't much better. Even the coloration is abstract, using Eric Carle's signature textured approach instead of solid colors. And the weird white background--what's with that? This story takes place in the middle of nowhere. It’s like those odd commercials; just floating in abstract white space, contextless, frameworkless.

"Where am I!?" (source)

But that's the genius! That's the magic! The child is learning to connect concrete things--shape and color--with abstract thinking--that unrealistic, worldless white space. And that... THAT is the basis for forming a grander meaning for one's life.

See, that deepest line between the dots waiting to be connected is what meaning life has. I won't dare argue what that meaning ought to be, or, in a metaphysical sense, whether or not there even is one. All the same, learning how to create a narrative for the world is a skill all of us need, even if that narrative is meaninglessness in general. Learning how to join the concrete and the abstract is what narrative, indeed what art, is all about.

If you want your kid to learn about caterpillars, check out a book on caterpillars. If you want your kid to have a fun, engaging story, check out a fun and engaging story. Your local children's librarian will know plenty. But if you want to imbue your kid with the mental faculties of combining abstract thought with concrete representation, you pick you up an Eric Carle book.

Do other books do this? Yes. Are there other ways of learning this same concept? Absolutely. But did Eric Carle do it well? Hell yes.

Hell yes.

Which of Eric Carle's books was your favorite? 
What other children's book shaped you growing up?


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