Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art is the Thing

Reading, or perhaps more the point a book, is a lot like art...everyone knows what they like and what they don't. There's also something for everyone, even those who claim they don't like to read...or at least say they aren't readers. Both are a reflection of who we are, what our personalities are. When you stop to look at a painting or a sculpture and after a few seconds (or minutes) consideration announce "I don't like it," can you put your finger on why? Usually, the answer is "No, but I know what I like." And, yet when almost the identical question is posed regarding a book, answers range from things like, "The characters were whiny," or "The plot dragged," or "The language was too complicated." Very specific measures of like or dislike are employed. So, why is it that a painting seems more complicated to "understand" than a story?

Part of the answer lies in what we bring to the experience, just like reading. Our frames of reference dictate what see, how we see it, and what we take from it. For instance, those who are parents can identify with the toddler pitching a boneless flop-fit mentioned in an earlier post. Those without kids of their own, or close relationships to, say, a niece, may look disdainfully at the mom who struggles to keep said flop-fitter under some measure of control. "How hard can it be?" is the question that scrolls across the observer's forehead like an electronic message board. In a word, very. So, when the flop-fitter's parent reads a tale about a child who does something similar, he or she can identify...but the bystander in the store can't.  Both responses are fine in equal measure...and each will take something different from the story.

Another component is taste. If whiny people drive us nuts in real life, then we're probably not inclined to like whiny characters in a work of fiction. If you don't like bright colors, then bold modern art probably isn't for you. Pastels might be, however. There is this myth out there in the cosmos that wrongly states you are only considered a "reader" if you read literary works. This is sooooo not the case. Like Nora Roberts romance stories? Excellent. Comic books or graphic novels more your thing? Far out! Big fan of Better Homes & Gardens iPad version? Cool! The point is, there's something out there for everyone...all tastes...and each one counts you as a reader.

The same is true for art. From the outside, children's book illustrators are some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated folks out there. Many understandably view books for children as cute little stories with nice pictures. And yet, the same amount of time (probably more), effort, and technique is used as those hanging their work on the wall of a gallery or their living room.  The same principles apply. Illustrators must use color, line, shape, texture, and composition to produce their work...and they must do it over and over because unlike a single painting, that white mouse with the purple plastic purse is going to appear throughout the book on multiple pages and must therefore be consistent. Here's the kicker: each one of those "appearances" is its own piece of artwork. Every illustration in a book is a separate drawing, or photograph, or collage.

But, what is it about illustrations that causes them to frequently be given just a passing glance? Perhaps it's the format...in some circles art isn't considered art unless it's hanging on a wall or sitting on pedestal, so the fact that it's in a book, especially one for kids, causes issues. Perhaps it's the fact that as schools dispense with said classes there's less knowledge or awareness of the benefits of creativity and imagination (which is a whole 'nother discussion for another day) . Or maybe, maybe some just aren't given the opportunity to just investigate what they like and don't...thus later falling into the trap that they must either like ALL art or not...or so they believe. It's the myths that are so damaging. Where is it written that a person must do this? And how does one figure out a taste for something if things aren't tried, opportunities aren't provided? Reading is no different. How would someone find out they like to read vampire novels unless they actually read one? They can't.

What's ironic is many of the world's illustrators went to art school. But, do you have to go to art school to be considered an artist? No. Do your works have to sell for thousands of dollars for you to be an artist? No. Do you have to sell your work at all to be an artist? No. What if you just like to doodle, or simply draw fish, or fashion a bowl out of clay because you simply enjoy doing it? Then, you're an artist...and there's an artist in EVERYONE. It's just waiting to find its niche, to find where it fits in, to be given the opportunity.

Another myth ties to the type of medium used. Too often many think you must be partial to all forms. Not so. If you prefer watercolor over oil, fine. Black and photos are where it's at? Nice! Have no interest in painting, or drawing, but love to work with clay? Perfect. Nothing says you have to be versed in all media. But without giving each at least an initial try, how do you know what you like? How else would you figure out you love chocolate ice cream but not bubble gum flavor? By tasting them.

It's our tastes, our explorations, our adventures, the people we're friends with...everything that makes us who we are that help us determine what we like and what we don't. That determination is different for everyone, just as if you sat ten people down in a room, handed them paper and crayon, and said, "Draw a mouse." You would get ten different mice...each neither better nor worse than the other, just different and therefore perfect in their own way. Which briefly--for this discussion--brings up another myth: perfection. There really is no such thing. At best it's subjective. What I find "perfect" is based on the aforementioned tastes etc. What someone else finds perfect will be based on theirs. In no way are these going to be the same for either of us, nor should they be.

What we like reflects who we are. Chocolate ice cream vs. bubble gum. Vampires vs. romance. Pottery vs. oil painting. Photography vs. sketching. For me, if it makes me laugh...Sold!

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow, 1996

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poetry Pizza

What is it about poetry that strikes such fear in people that they visibly cringe, look at the ant crawling around on the sidewalk or the nonexistent plane flying overhead, and practically hyperventilate? Seriously! Poems are just another form of storytelling. Admittedly, the way they're laid out on a page looks a little strange. But, if you retyped a poem to resemble something more familiar, like sentences, suddenly it doesn't look so weird. And just like stories, how we interpret and understand them all depends on our previous experiences. I don't mean our previous experiences with poetry. I'm referring to things we've experienced in life, our frames of reference.

Everyone at some point early in life enjoyed poetry.  Stop shaking your head. You did.  It's called "Mother Goose."  "Hickory Dickory Dock," "Jack and Jill," "Humpty Dumpty," they all are poems kids get a kick out of. Why? Because they're silly...and kids are silly. They can identify with the silliness. Do they have to understand the "message" in the rhyme? No, and neither do you. Admit it. How many of you out there know the true "meaning" behind "Humpty Dumpty?" Uh-huh. Thought so. Why are "we" so bent on deriving "deep and meaningful messages" from EVERYTHING we read, especially poetry?

The answer lies somewhat in something former poet laureate Billy Collins once said: "Poetry goes to high school to die." He's right. For the most part, we enjoy poetry up to and including junior high...although depending on the teacher the death of poetry may actually take place then. Well-meaning teachers, as Collins points out, introduce certain poems long before a child can actually make sense of what he or she is reading. This idea can also be applied to anything a child reads.  Content and age appropriateness are elements that must be considered. For example, you wouldn't necessarily want to read A Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer to a three year old...especially if said child was convinced one lived in HIS closet (or under the bed, in the basement...wherever). However, a six year old who understands there's no such thing as monsters in closests (or anywhere else in the house) would find the humor in the story. So, why are poems that are beyond a child's developmental stage introduced at all? This is what Collins meant by poetry proverbially choking on a chicken bone in high school.

Think back to grade school. Does the name Shel Silverstein ring any bells? Uh-huh. I thought so. How about Jack Prelutsky? Well, both write poems kids (and adults!) can identify with. And that's the key, connecting to a story. What causes a connection? The "Yes. That's how I felt" moment and all of its cousins. For example, an eight year old can easily identify with this from Prelutsky:

My father's listed everything
he's planning to repair.
I hope he won't attempt it,
for the talent isn't there,
he tinkered with the toaster
when the toaster wouldn't pop,
now we keep it disconnected
but cannot make it stop.
(from "I Wish My Father Wouldn't Try to Fix Things Anymore" in Something Big Has Been Here)

Read this to a group of kids and sprinkled amongst the giggles will be bobbing heads of understanding and a few shout outs along the lines of "Yep. That's my dad." Or, how about this one:

grasshopper gumbo
iguana tail tarts
toad a la mode
pickled pelican parts
elephant gelatin
frog fricassee
puree of platypus
boiled bumblebee
porcupine pudding
steamed centipede skins
squid sucker sundaes
fried flying fish fins
meadow mouse morsels
cracked crocodile crunch
the school cafeteria
serves them for lunch.
 ("Grasshopper Gumbo" in There's No Place Like School)

If these are the types of poems that kids enjoy and can relate to, why then do "we" suddenly make them jump to things like Blake or Dickinson in high school? There isn't, at least initially, a big difference between a 13-year old graduating from middle school to a 14-year old beginning high school. There's plenty of time for Blake and Dickinson...like, college. But until then, a solid foundation must be built just like a house. Or, to use another analogy, you can't make a pizza without the crust.

The good news is, it's never too late to discover a new food. There is something out there for everyone. Some people like anchovies on their pizza. Others prefer plain cheese. Reading is no different. Some love vampire fantasy such as the Twilight series, but don't enjoy Harry Potter. And yet both are considered fantasy. There's no rule that says it's an all or nothing thing. You can like bits and pieces and still legitimately say you like it. Same is true for poetry. You like Silverstein and no one else. Or, you enjoy Prelutsky, Eugene Field, and Ogden Nash and other more silly-type poets over the likes of Coleridge. Fine.

Two other ideas that influence the interest, or lack thereof, in poetry are 1). generalizations, and 2). knowing how to read a poem. Generalizations can be lethal, especially in the arts. Many people say they dislike art and yet are avid collectors of black and white photographs. Um, guess what? Photography is an art. So is literature. In my travels I cross paths with many who say they don't like to read. Yet I'll note they have the latest issue of Car & Driver in their hand and point that out to them. The response is something along the lines of, "Yeah. But, this doesn't count." Why not? There's no rule that says you must read literary fiction to be considered a reader. Again, this goes to the generalization idea.

Knowing how to read a poem, poetry in general, can go along way to appreciating it. Collins has a simple solution: Read it as if you would a story, stopping at appropriate punctuation--not the end of a line--and all the usual reading rules. If it helps, retype it. It's meant to be read out loud, and nothing says you have to get it right the first time. The idea of perfection in reading is overrated and really serves no purpose anyway. Some poems sort of lend themselves to being sung, such as Prelutsky's "Grasshopper Gumbo." Play with it. Try different speeds. See what fits you. Find out what you like on your poetry pizza. For me, hold the anchovies. I'm more of a Hawaiian or Supreme kind of girl.

Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

There's No Place Like School by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

Jack Prelutsky's web site: www.jackprelutsky.com