The Cow Jumped Over the Moon?!
Why children love absurdism.
As the psychologist Susan Engel has observed, we tend to overlook the sheer quantity of stories in our lives simply because we think of stories very traditionally (plots, characters, structure). But our lives, and especially the lives of our children, are full of more fractured narratives. (Exactly what “counts” as a narrative is another dissertation altogether.) Engel discusses a study in which the casual conversations of mothers and toddlers were recorded—each hour yielded a remarkable nine stories on average, told by both mother and child.
The lives of children are full of stories that are unresolved and nonsensical. An absurd picture book is, in a way, no more of a challenge than the narrative demands of daily life. The wonderful picture book creator Chris Van Allsburg, reviewing the new Oliver Jeffers book, This Moose Belongs to Me, observes that while an absurd picture book “need not make sense, it should still make a point.” He seems bothered by the fact that, at the end of This Moose, it is “unclear” what that point is.
But This Moose is still a delight. Why? If we think of a story as a sequence of events that conveys meaning, as Engel proposes, rather than something that has a point, we get closer to its appeal. Plot isn’t always where meaning is found. Sometimes the meaning is found in the feeling a book leaves behind—in this case, the sense of pride and responsibility and anxiety that comes with owning a moose named Marcel.
In some ways, Isaiah must find the absurdist books I read to him strange: the way the illustrations float free of the storyline; the dropped hints of a troubled marriage; the endless references to sauerkraut. But the absurdity of the stories isn’t what’s strange: Ionesco’s stories violate my expectations but not Isaiah’s.
Any young reader these days is used to trickery. Bulldozing the fourth wall, or flipping a fairy tale inside-out and upside-down, is now standard practice in picture books. You can win Caldecott medals for it. And the best picture books push silliness way past the point of sense. In the recent Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, a boy loses his kite in a tree and tosses his shoe to get it down. Then he throws his other shoe. And then he throws—his cat. And so on: a ladder, some firemen, a whale that was in “THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME.”
This is a softer, fuzzier absurdism than that of Ionesco, of course. The narrative frame is intact; it is everything inside that’s scrambled. We could use more truly absurd picture books—books that expose the seams in the adult-stitched version of the world, books that knock down narrative conventions without bothering to stop.
Of course, the artists and writers who create picture books might be reluctant to alienate the people who actually buy them—the adults. But the people to whom those books are read? They won’t feel alienated at all.