By Paul O Zelinsky
1997 Caldecott Medal winner
“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children” (CS Lewis)
I am currently a graduate student at Cleveland State University. One of my classes this semester is Literature Based Reading Methods for Children (EDL 312/512). It is the best class I have had so far because it is about nothing but books. I cannot honestly say we have learned anything about methods, but we have learned a lot about books, primarily children’s books.
Every week we are required to read and annotate 20 books. These are mostly picture books so it’s not much of a chore, and it has, indeed, opened my eyes to the a wonderful world of books I knew existed but had long since forgotten to read. My children are nearly all teenagers now so of what use are children’s picture books to us? Oh, what a horrible mistake! These books are wonderful and how blessed are we to have them among us, us old people.
These books, I have discovered, remind us of simpler times and times when we were young. I love the line by Rich Mullins in his song “I’ll Carry On”:
But I’ll carry the songs
I learned when we were kids
I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by
I’ll pray for you always, and I promise you this
I’ll carry on ~ I’ll carry on.
That’s what these books are: The songs we learned as kids and sort of through neglect or through indifference or simply through intentionality forgot about. I am glad for this class I am taking because it is reminding me of all the stories I forgot and introducing me to new stories I had never heard.
These stories bind us together as a people. Not just or merely or even as Christians, but as humans—a people scattered across this land. I confess that a large part of my problem is that I get too caught up in the technological wonders of motion pictures and computer generated graphics of video games. The sensational is spectacular, but what about that which we can, and have to, penetrate with our eyes, feel in our hands, and create in our own minds? What about the hours an author or an artist puts into creating a scene that we can smell? What about retraining children (and adults!) to use their imagination instead of allowing others to do it for them?
How does one create the sense of loneliness on a painted page in a book? The same way Samuel Taylor Coleridge created stillness in his poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: “As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.” Paul Zelinsky creates loneliness by painting the tiniest picture of Rapunzel in the middle of a vast, open landscape featuring mountains and fully grown trees and a vast sky and towering cliffs. Poor Rapunzel is tiny; the world is huge, and she is alone in it while buzzards circle overhead.
The story of Rapunzel is known to most people so I need not rehearse it for you here. What is truly remarkable about this book is the Renaissance style artwork that Zelinsky painted to accompany the story. It is the artwork that makes this story new and fresh. It’s the way he paints love, anguish, fear, joy, grace, anger, sorrow, grief, selfishness, and happiness that makes this book worth taking the time to read. It is the way he mimics Raphael’s Madonna at the end of the book that makes one think: I am reading something more here than a fairy tale about Rapunzel. And, to be sure, someone else recognized his brilliant work by awarding his version of Rapunzel with the Caldecott Medal in 1997.
It seems to me that perhaps children’s books authors know a little something more than we have previously thought and that by keeping alive these stories in the minds of children they are keeping alive a spark of humanity that the Holy Spirit can still access. Perhaps it is these sorts of stories that keep us malleable and open to a work that Christ will do later. Perhaps.
These songs we learned as kids…we should remember them and pass them along to kids so that they too will remember them and pass them along. Rapunzel is a great story to read to children and Zelinsky’s version is a wonderful piece of art to hold in the hands and look at and smell and hear and feel. Most certainly you should read this book today.
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