The Cow Jumped Over the Moon?!
Why children love absurdism.
The other night, I did what parents of small children all over America do before bedtime. I curled up with my son and read him some inscrutable absurdism:
I look out the chair while eating my pillow. I open the wall, I walk with my ears. I have ten eyes to walk with and two fingers to look with. I put my head on the floor to sit down, I put my bottom on the ceiling. After eating the music box, I spread jam on the rug for a great dessert. Take the window, Papa, and draw me some pictures.
If that reads like something out of Ionesco, that’s because it is. In the late 1960s, Eugène Ionesco, the Romanian-French absurdist playwright, published a series of “silly stories,” in his words, that he’d written for his young daughter decades before. The stories had phantasmic illustrations by the Swiss artist Etienne Delessert; they were published by Harlin Quist, an idiosyncratic publisher who believed that the point of a bedtime book was “to wake the child up, to start him thinking, to stimulate him, to provoke him, and sometimes to torment him.”
When they were published, Maurice Sendak called them “among the most imaginative picture books of the last decade.” Along with Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, they busted the child-lock off the picture book genre. Then they disappeared—for decades, the Ionesco picture books were a legendary unicorn in the genre, discussed but rarely seen.
Now, in a single volume, McSweeney’s has restored Stories 1, 2, 3, 4 to circulation. They tell the tale of Josette, who “is already a big girl—she is thirty-three months old,” and her Mama, who’s usually away or asleep, and her Papa, who’s usually hungover and barely awake but who manages to tell Josette a story anyway. The stories are odd and disjointed and sometimes hardly stories; they are as much about Papa struggling to tell the story as the story itself.
It’s tempting to see such Technicolor absurdity as targeted more toward the adults—the sort of adults who buy avant-garde picture books, at least—than the children. And it is tempting to see it as a weird aberration in a section of the bookstore that, when you’re combing the shelves, trying to find a single non-awful book for a preschool birthday present, can seem insistently, intentionally boring. But neither is true. The picture book genre has always been a breeding ground for anarchic absurdism. Even today, in the carefully landscaped garden of picture book publishing, if you look long enough, you can still find it growing wild.
There has always been a modernist undercurrent to picture books. See: Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Donald Barthelme. In Russia, many of the best-loved works for children were written by the avant-garde—writing for children offered some protection from Stalinist persecution. Daniil Kharms, known here as among the most demanding writers of the 20th century, is considered child’s play in Russia.
Indeed, much of the nonsense literature that we prize for children is hard lifting for us grown-ups. Have you read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass lately? We remember a manicured Carroll, not the sharp thicket of the original. To children, though, for whom sense is less sensible and narrative less sequential—10 minutes of play with any preschooler will confirm this—these books seem no more incongruous than the worker-bee agitprop of Thomas and Friends.
It’s an old observation to say that children are the natural audience of the avant-garde. (Baudelaire said so: “Children see everything afresh.”) But it is true: My son listens to the Ionesco, and laughs at it, without ever seeming to notice that it is strange. It’s a nonsensical story, but it is still a story.
The role of narrative in childhood has been the subject of intense academic interest over the last few decades. Most notably, the psychologist Katherine Nelson has argued that children process the world through “scripts”—they order their mess of experience into a series of mini-narratives: First you do this, then this, then that. They lose the details, but they keep the form, and seem to instinctively organize their lives into a sort of Russian doll of stories. (You can see this, through the musings of a single child, in the fascinating Narratives From the Crib.)
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.