Inside Picture Books


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Ellen Handler Spitz; With a foreword by Robert Coles

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Mention a name from a beloved childhood picture book—Madeline, Corduroy, Peter Rabbit, Max and his “wild things”—and most adults can recollect a bright image, fragments of a story, the timbre of a certain reading voice, the sensation of being held, and best of all being together with someone and enveloped in fantasy. Why do picture book images shown to us as young children linger in our minds? How do picture books shape our lives early on and even later into adulthood? This book takes up such questions. It explores the profound impact of the experience of reading to children. Ellen Handler Spitz reveals how classic picture books transmit psychological wisdom, convey moral lessons, shape tastes, and implant subtle prejudices.

Each chapter of the book discusses well-known children’s books—Goodnight Moon, Babar, Little Black Sambo, to name a few—that deal with a theme of importance to young children. These include bedtime, separation, loss, and death; curiosity, disobedience, and punishment; and identity and self-acceptance. Focusing on the relationship between a child and an adult reader, Spitz explains the notion of “conversational reading” and emphasizes the mutual benefits of dialogue and intimacy. This book not only gives parents, grandparents, teachers, therapists, and scholars a new understanding of the meaning of picture books, it also empowers adults to interpret and choose future cultural experiences for their children.

Ellen Handler Spitz is a Senior Lecturer in the Humanities Program at Yale University. She writes and lectures widely on the arts, psychology, and culture. She is also the author of Art and Psyche and Museums of the Mind.

Visit the author's website.

Click here to listen to a recent interview with Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz. A selection of Readers’ Subscription

"This is a book for each and every adult (professionals and parents) who read to children providing a mutually enriching experience for child and adult. Ellen Handler Spitz has transmitted glowingly and in a wonderfully readable manner her deep and broad understanding of how the adult reading to and looking with younger and older children at books written for and artistically created for children and their readers can be a powerful positive force in the lives of children and their readers (parents).
     In writing this original, scholarly, highly readable book for children’s readers, Ellen Handler Spitz has also enlarged our understanding of how children’s capacities for pretending, playing and imagining is nurtured and enhanced in the context of a personal relationship with the reader. She demonstrates this with a literary, psychological analysis of picture story book classics that are suitable for readers and children of all ages.
     Ellen Handler Spitz is an effective advocate for the practice of adults reading to children. In this book the author describes how this process engages children in reading as an abiding resource, one that helps to organize and consolidate a powerful transcending force, the mutual, warm, trusting bond of children and their parents."—Albert J. Solnit, M.D., senior research scientist at the Child Study Center and Sterling Professor Emeritus Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Yale University

"A spellbinding work. With remarkable psychological insight and graceful prose the author evokes the intimate dreamlike world created by parent and young child at bedtime when they read the picture books that have enchanted generations of young children. She shows convincingly how hidden in the familiar stories such as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are and many others (which she analyzes in detail) are the anxieties of childhood such as fear of separation and loss or the threat of aggression. Encouraged by the brave and funny characters in the story and soothed by the gentle rise and fall of the parents voice the child falls asleep. These interactions, although brief, often have a lasting influence on the child’s imagination and moral development. A truly wondrous look into the complex, passionate inner life of the child. Essential reading for every parent, teacher and everyone who works with or is interested in helping young children."—Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., author of Second Chances Men, Women and Children a decade after Divorce, Founder Center for the Family in Transition

“A spellbinding work. With remarkable psychological insight and graceful prose the author evokes the intimate dreamlike world created by parent and young child at bedtime when they read picture books. A truly wondrous look into the complex, passionate inner life of the child that is essential reading for every parent, teacher, and everyone who works with or is interested in helping young children.”—Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., founder of the Center for the Family in Transition

"This is a splendid addition to the literature about children’s books—a unique synthesis of key ideas from developmental psychology, from psychoanalytic theory and from literary criticism. Both scholarly and lively, it is to be recommended to psychoanalysts, specialists in children’s literature, parents, and all former children. Spitz’s postulates are thought provoking and entertaining. They offer fresh insights into old favorites as well as providing an introduction to less well known books, and new ways of approaching all children’s picture books."—Lynn Reiser, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

"Spitz understands just how important it is to think of the picture book as a vehicle for constructing meaning with the child and for developing a relationship between child and adult."—Maria Tatar, Harvard University

“A work of profound cultural importance, this book addresses the powerful impact of books that shaped our lives early on and that continue to guide us in our adult lives.”—Maria Tatar, Harvard University

“If we really believe ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and I do, then we all should pay much more attention to picture books and what they print on our memory. This book goes right to the core of the issue.”—Pat Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and former congresswoman

“What a marvelously thought-provoking book! Spitz examines a wide assortment of classic children’s picture books that deal with important parenting themes from a psychological viewpoint. . . . The books she examines are children’s classics; but, because she is looking at them from a different perspective, the insights she offers on these works, and their authors, are truly refreshing. The ones that I had read, I want to go back and read again. Those that I hadn’t read, are ones that I now want to read. . . . In the end one comes away with a new appreciation for both the quality of good picture books and the important role that they play not only in entertaining children, but in providing children and parents guideposts in life’s journey.”—Norman D. Stevens, American Book Collectors of Children’s Literature Newsletter

“[A] fascinating psycho-social exploration.”—Victoria Brownworth, Baltimore Sun

"Without jargon or pretension, Spitz celebrates the story and art in [children’s] books while discussing their effects in terms of psychology, aesthetics, morality and culture. . . . Even readers who have known about the books forever will find surprising things to think about. Parents and other adults who read aloud to kids, as well as children’s literature professionals, will enjoy what Spitz shows about the power of these deceptively simple images and the pleasure of sharing them across generations."—Booklist

“It was absolutely a pleasure to read this book. . . . Dr. Spitz understands that reading aloud is a relational activity that involves shared experiences between generations. The author does a fantastic job of describing the joy involved in this experience.”—Meredith Sargent, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic

"Responding to characters and contexts in text and illustrations, Spitz has found a treasure trove of psychological implications in picture books. . . . Concerned parents, and surely devoted grandparents, will find fresh challenges here to help them think more about picture books’ inscribed cultural values and, too often, stereotypes. Teachers and librarians will want to analyze Spitz’s assumptions and examples. General readers; undergraduate and graduate students; professionals."—Choice

"As much a call to action as it is an analysis."—Jennifer K. Ruark, Chronicle of Higher Education

"Because of her faith in the imagination, her hesitations, and her excellent taste, Spitz’s selection and analysis of books in four picture-book subjects—bedtime, loss, anger, self-acceptance—are strong and provide a good model for choosing among contemporary offerings."—Daria Donnelly, Commonweal

“Ellen Handler Spitz probes the complex aesthetic and psychoanalytic affects transmitted by the words and images of children’s books. . . . Spitz writes in a clear and engaging fashion, one that is readable even to nonacademics.”—Linda M. Pavonetti, Journal of Children’s Literature

“I can think of no better introduction and guide to young children’s literature than Inside Picture Books. Drawing from her training in both psychology and art, Ellen Handler Spitz presents a beautifully written treatise on the content and form of successful picture books, and the ways in which these books tap into the imagination of the child. . . . In summary, Inside Picture Books provides a special window of insight into how classic and popular children’s books connect with children. It is a book that is intended to teach parents about the complexity of themes that, at first blush, appear to be presented simply. It is a commentary on the power of the shared experience in imagination between parent-reader and child-listener. It is a book to be enjoyed by adults who have grown up enjoying picture books and a tutorial on how to look more deeply into what the child hears and sees. For developmental and behavioral specialists, it provides a new and fascinating slant on the child’s use of imagination in the service of grown in understanding.”—J. Lane Tanner, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics

"There is something fine and rare in Ms. Spitz’s book, with its interpretations of picture books ranging from Margaret Wise Brown’s ’Goodnight Moon’ to Marjorie Flack’s ’Story About Ping.’ . . . Ms. Spitz speaks to her readers not as an academic but as a practiced read-aloud, knowing the relationship between storyteller and listener."—Edward Rothstein, New York Times

"[A] sensitive, concentrated study. . . . [Spitz] stresses the pleasure of reading with children, its special intimacies and esthetic satisfactions of rhythm and reverie, sadness and humor. She draws attention to the pedagogical necessities of following child listeners’ understanding, of listening to what they ask and feel, and guiding them, and she rejoices in picture books’ power to develop 'inner possibilities.’ . . . Spitz communicates vividly her pleasure in her material and speaks up vibrantly for the importance, complexity and place of shared reading and picture books in young lives and their future."—Marina Warner, New York Times Book Review

"With a background in psychology and children’s literature, Spitz accessibly explains the significance of bedtime classics such as Goodnight Moon and Bedtime for Frances. . . . Spitz offers interesting observations and anecdotal information on how children project their own experiences and emotions into picture book characters, from mischievous Max in Where the Wild Things Are to the curious protagonist of The Poky Little Puppy. . . . Throughout, too, she conveys her own delight in picture books and the wisdom of sharing books with children."—Nancy Pate, Orlando Sentinel

“What an impressive and rich work! The insight is awesome and I know this book will be able to help parents understand their children so much better than so many of the ‘how to’ books that are so prevalent on the parent education market. With every page of this book I was compelled to read on, with the feeling I can’t wait to share what I’m learning with parents everywhere. If you enjoy reading to your children, I know you will enjoy reading this book.”—Barbara Burrows, Parenting Magazine

“[A] touchingly sensitive and wisdom-filled book. I recommend it wholeheartedly to parents and grandparents, to teachers and writers, to psychoanalysts and other mental health professionals, to all those who are interested in children and how to assisted them in negotiating the mine-laden path of growing up.”—Martin A. Silverman, Psychoanalytic Quarterly

“[A] thought-provoking examination. . . . [Spitz’s] book is a must-read for any serious student of children’s literature as well as that core group of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and others who are actively engaged in raising children. Provocative, well-written, scholarly without being dry or pedantic, Spitz’s text makes a compelling case for the power of art and literature, and the responsibility that accompanies such power, particularly when it relates to children.”—Publishers Weekly

“Through lucid analyses of text and illustrations in beloved children’s books, the author provides a thoughtful guide to choosing and using classic books to read aloud with young children. . . . This graceful book is a wonderful resource, full of insights for parents, as well as for child care personnel.”—Alice Sterling Honig, Readings: A Journal of Reviews and Commentary in Mental Health

"[A] brilliant study. . . . [Spitz] organizes her study by the major psychological themes that picture books address--fear of separation (usually first experienced at bedtime, death and loss, disobedience and punishment, and self-acceptance. Along the way, she provides glimpses at the books’ larger cultural contexts and her research into children’s responses. . . . Inside Picture Books is a rich, multilayered discussion of a powerful art form that is relevant to us all."—John Hammond, San Antonio Express-News

"[Spitz] has assembled for study some of the most mesmerizing and enduring children’s books of the last century. . . . Inside Picture Books . . . contains a critically important message, that of parents cultivating a love of reading in their children."—Cailtlin Flanagan, San Francisco Chronicle

“[An] accessible study of the wonderful genre of picture storybook. . . . For parents of young children (birth through 8) and those of us who simply have never stopped enjoying, learning and thinking about children’s literature, this is an excellent book.”—Tampa Tribune

"What is engaging about Spitz’s book is its mixture of perception, warmth and commitment. . . . This is a valuable contribution to a subject which asks for serious consideration: what children’s books are, and what they do, and what important and curious introductions to life are taking place as we turn the pages together."—Quentin Blake, Times of London

"Inside Picture Books is an excellent book, not least because it examines children’s book from a number of angles—moral, esthetic and psychological. All of which makes it sound like heavy going. It isn’t, although it is densely packed and Ellen Handler Spitz . . . provides a close reading of text and picture—but that reading, those texts and those pictures beckon the enthusiast like a siren song."—Susan Perren, Toronto Globe and Mail

ISBN: 9780300076028
Publication Date: April 10, 1999
224 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
23 b/w illus.
Art and Psyche

A Study in Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics

Ellen Handler Spitz

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