I once worked for a fellow devotee of the written word who was not just a librarian but the daughter of a librarian. One day she saw me holding Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House On The Prairie,” and, clutching my elbow, exclaimed: “I once sat on a plane next to Garth Williams!”
I can honestly say I have never felt more jealous of anyone in my entire life than I did at that moment.
My employer, being not just a librarian but the daughter of a librarian, recognized the man in the neighboring seat as the legendary illustrator and, being a cheerful and friendly native Oklahoman as well as a sophisticated world traveler, asked him. As she reminisced with shining eyes, I hung on every word. He was so nice! He talked to her for the entire plane ride!
Not even getting up close and personal with favorite authors Eudora Welty and Ray Bradbury, ten years later, entirely eclipsed the thrill I still feel today as I reflect on the fact that I know someone who actually met and had a long conversation with this towering figure in the world of children’s literature.
Why should this be? What is it about the illustrations in our earliest books that evokes such passion in the otherwise mild-mannered breast of Old Mother? And why is it that, when I can’t remember online banking passwords or my kids’ social security numbers or what’s on the grocery list I just wrote but left behind by mistake–these pictures are etched in my mind with crystal clarity?
If, for example, and I’m just INVENTING THIS AT RANDOM, if a high school freshman bursts into my room in frustration at 11:30 pm to tell me I need a copy of Catcher In The Rye NOW and I’ve TOLD you about this a million times and you HAVE to buy it TOMORROW MORNING without fail, I insist she never told me, not once; but if you whisper “Thumbelina” in my ear, Tasha Tudor’s delicate watercolor of the tiny maid sitting on the bank of her flower-wreathed dinner-plate pond springs instantly to mind?
Or…when another child cries why didn’t you get the sprinkles for the ice cream sundae party after school today because we won the Poetry Slamboo, I told you yesterday, I have absolutely NO memory of this; but say “If I ran the Zoo” and right away I see young Gerald McGrew in the wilds of Nantucket as he brings up a family of Lunks in a bucket?
Why? Well, I’ll tell you why. You knew I was gonna do that because you’re onto Old Mother and her Rhetorical Questions. This is why: we grew up before the plug-in drug called all-day children’s television, one of the most invisible crimes against neuron-myelanation ever invented. Picture books were our treasury of visual stimulation, the fodder for the imaginative worlds we created indoors with those antiquated objects called toys, or outdoors with sticks and shells and water and sand and mud–lots of mud, until some grown-up caught us and hosed us down.
Storybook pictures made deep impressions on the infant tabula rasa, and they never really quite disappeared. Not being a science major, I am at liberty to dispute the current thinking in neuroscience that “childhood amnesia” is necessary because it creates room for later memories. I’m like, WHAT AMNESIA?? Not being a science major, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assert that the neurogenesis that occurs in those youngest years does the opposite. Those pictures took up HUGE SWATHES of our brain. We came, we saw, they conquered. Look at all this real estate, they said! Let’s spread OUT. They hogged all the space! Never dreaming it would be needed later! So by the time we’re, like, forty or fifty, that brain is all filled UP. And that is why we can’t remember where we put the car keys. There just ISN’T ANY ROOM LEFT.
I freely admit my mind’s eye is clearly elsewhere, which in this particular rather Darwinian household I am compelled to argue is a virtue lest I be trampled underfoot by children rooting through the bags for the white cheddar puffs I forgot because I got distracted by an oil-rainbow puddle in the parking lot or whatever and so did not retain the list that I was remembering (see, “forgetting grocery list,” above). And while I may be on the eccentric end of spectrum I know the phenomenon is general. Our brains are built out of every piece of material we nourish them with in the early years, growing at breakneck speed until synaptic pruning starts to kick in. These materials, having built the structure, then proceed to serve as the prism through which we view everything. The memory bedrock we’re kidding about here is proof of that. This is not a new observation, and it’s not rocket science either (see, inter alia, George Eliot, Keats, Proust, etc. etc.) It’s the wellspring of creative intelligence, in any field.
Which leads me to my next concern: WHAT are we putting in kids’ brains today? You can’t tell me that the animated cartoons of Winnie-the-Pooh are going to nourish the infant brain in the way that the real, three-dimensional, delicate, subtly colored E.H. Shepard illustrations are. They’re flat! They have no shading! And don’t even get me started on (ick!) anime. Can I just say: Paddington Bear throws a shadow. Thank you, Peggy Fortnum.
And can I also just say: alpha waves are overrated. This lovely E.H. Shepard watercolor does NOT produce alpha waves; it’s a doorway through which we step to actively engage in the imaginary world of Christopher Robin. It does not incline us to obesity or anti-social behavior. Thank you, American Academy of Pediatrics, for getting over Sesame Street and declaring that children under two should not watch television AT ALL. (Old Mother thinks you did not go far enough, but she runs a big-tent operation and is glad to see you.)
Since I am not a neuroscientist, or even a science major, I can envision my brain any old way I want. So I see it as a card catalog. A big one, about six drawers high and twenty feet long. It has TONS of drawers, which is why I can ANSWER a child who asks me what a “posset” is, or what was the last country in the world to outlaw slavery and when (Saudi Arabia, 1961). These are currently the important things for my job. But as for the rest of it–well, I’m sorry but most of the space has been FILLED. After the illustrations of Richard Scarry, Brian Wildsmith, William Nicholson, Robert Lawson, Faith Jaques, et al, (plus all the necessary Tchaikovsky and Dickens ‘n’ stuff that got shoehorned in before reaching the age of majority) there just isn’t that much drawer space left for anything NEW. But it’s really a small price to pay for the advances that have sprung from fertile, well-stocked minds in the arts and sciences over the last century, and having to get REALLY DISCIPLINED about where the car keys live just gives me a teeny little feeling of kinship with folks who brought us things like the steam engine, penicillin, the microchip, and Abstract Expressionism.
And that’s why I would have given anything to be sitting in that plane seat next to Garth Williams all those years ago, and why I say today: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (and Women) who will make up the future pantheon of illustrating greats, filling our children’s beautiful hearts and beautiful brains with the beautiful art they deserve.