But when it comes to the imagination, I’m all for anarchy. And children’s book writers are some of the most subversive people I know. One obvious example is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, AKA the best picture book of all time. This book actually makes my mother uncomfortable, I suspect because she’d rather not be reminded that kids can be little monsters.
The audacious thing about children’s books is that they cast children as heroes and then refuse to spare them from the law of consequences. In the best children’s books, parents are generally absent from the scene as young characters struggle, problem solve, and pretty much take over the world, sometimes even saving it. In contrast, parents are the ultimate deus ex machina, so they are wisely avoided for pages on end. Max and his mother forgive each other at the conclusion of Sendak’s book because that’s what families do, but in the meantime, Max bravely faces and tames his own ravenous monsters.
Roald Dahl is another author known for his anarchic tendencies. The adults in his books are often despicable, for example the aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the headmistress and parents in Matilda. It’s easy to get caught up in this child-against-parent dynamic and feel, like my mother, vaguely troubled by it. However, Dahl’s adults are ultimately peripheral: what’s more important is the creative problem solving practiced by his young characters. After all, if your guardians are deeply evil, it’s a fantastic idea to befriend some oversized bugs and escape in a giant, rolling piece of fruit.
Where most television shows emphasize predictable solutions to paltry problems, children’s books offer their readers endless possibilities. These books go beyond encouraging kids to think outside the box. In fact, said box lies moldering and forgotten as children travel into enchanted forests or ride swift horses into the distance or follow winding paths of friendship in more realistic settings. The promise of unexpected possibilities is one of the great gifts of children’s literature.
I noticed that an Amazon customer recently reviewed Ingrid Law’s book Savvy with disdain. She was particularly bothered by the fact that Mibs and her friends and siblings choose to get on a bus with a stranger, clearly a high-risk social behavior. But Law isn’t writing a TV episode about serial killers, she’s describing an archetypal journey. Questions of protection are left behind when literary characters dive down rabbit holes, walk through wardrobes, or fight secret wars with their peers (see Printz winner Jellicoe Road). Two of the challenges Mibs faces are figuring out how to get where she’s going—in part by solving the discouraged Bible salesman’s problems—and how to make her savvy serve her cause even though it isn’t what she wanted it to be. Not talking to strangers is an easy real-life lesson to remember. Mibs’s problems require far more effort, imagination, and courage.
In Mo Willems’s books, characters are inclined to make assumptions about the world, and those assumptions regularly turn out to be wrong. That’s what it’s like to be a child, of course. Elephant and Piggie work it out together, but Pigeon is on his own, fighting an inexplicably uncooperative, faceless team of grown-ups. When his assumptions get turned upside down he must adapt, and fast, learning to think in new ways. For example, the Pigeon is sure he will love having a puppy—right up until he encounters one. But his enthusiasm is not squelched. Instead he quickly comes up with a fresh solution, a shiny new goal for himself.
In my favorite chapter of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, young Bod sets out to buy a headstone for his new friend, the ghost of a witch. Like Voltaire’s Candide, he is not nearly as frightened by the obstacles he encounters as he should be. When Bod’s original plan doesn’t work, he comes up with a new one, never losing sight of his compassionate purpose even when he must escape from a menacing pawnshop owner.
I was just talking to a teacher who gave his new student a typical writing assignment to test her skills: "Describe your favorite place." When she handed in her paper, my friend expected to see yet another description of "My Room" or "The Beach." But this girl had chosen well: Her favorite place was her mind.
Together, children’s book writers conspire to build a vast, edgeless playground of the imagination where children can deal with surprising situations in surprising ways. In this space, moral behavior is often rewarded, but so is creativity. Whereas in the real world, kids encounter few true opportunities to stretch their creative muscles and take risks, children’s book writers trust their young characters and the readers who accompany them to accomplish miraculous feats in the land formed from ink and myth.