I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post again on Shirley Hughes’s Dogger. My initial post argued that picture books about children who lose and regain toys might really be about people who lose and regain people, and thus, in a small way, retellings of the story of Penelope or Telemachus. The comments contextualized the matter for me, and I am now thinking more clearly. I do believe that almost all children’s stories are in some sense the story of Odysseus — in which the hero goes out, gets lost, learns things, and comes home. (I’m not stressed at the moment about relating this pattern to Campbell, or to shamanism, or calling it a Buildungsroman — though all of this is possible.) But what I’m interested in now is the other pattern, the story of the homefront, or the search for the one gone missing. I do realize that sometimes a lost toy is only a lost toy. Still I’m curious, and I’m wondering particularly whether the homefront story — the story told from the perspective of the one not lost, is one we tell primarily in picture books, i.e. primarily for very young children. And whether this has any wider implications for emotional development.
Meanwhile, DR has a rich post raising the question of to what extent a child needs a firm understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality in order to liberate her imagination. We think of kids as being closer to the fantasy realm than adults, of living in a world where there might really be witches and selkies, not to mention Santa Claus. And we’re not entirely wrong; this is not entirely a romantic notion. But DR’s musings suggest (to me at least) that on a more basic cognitive level, a child must know that the fantasy is not real in order to be able to play with the fantasy, to indulge in it, to make it her own.
These thoughts are connected through the question of reader-identification, i.e. the idea that the hero’s journey also must be journey for the reader. In short, the story has to be about getting lost. But if one is to get lost in the story, maybe one first has to be grounded in reality, outside the story.
There’s a much longer and richer account of all this in Francis Spufford’s The Child Books Built, a remarkable book, and the only one I know of that takes as its theme the act of reading as an Odyssean journey, documenting the potential pitfalls. My students hate this book. They can’t understand it because it is too simple.