Saturday, March 23, 2019

Eric Carle's book of hope

1969 – it was the year of the Stonewall Riots, of Woodstock, and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. It was also the year in which The Very Hungry Caterpillar was first published. Author and illustrator Eric Carle had been playing around with a hole punch trying to make a story about a bookworm when his publisher encouraged him to think again. Fifty years on and his picture book is an international best seller, translated into over sixty languages, and has become a recognized classic of children’s literature. What’s more, it shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s not just the fact that it has dark and light, the sun and moon, the days of the week, common fruit, and the numbers one to five - the brightly painted tissue paper cut-outs are distinctive and carry the simple narrative of transformation that adults and children have come to love. And, of course, at the heart of the story are the five pages of graded size with holes in them to show what the caterpillar eats. The page design is perfectly matched to the story. You see this when the butterfly, emerging from its lumpy brown cocoon, makes a vivid splash of colour across a double-page spread - its wings in harmony with the colours of the fruit in the previous pages. A wall of bright tissue paper circles decorates the end papers suggesting, perhaps, the food the caterpillar consumed. It’s a prompt to reflect on the story you have just read. In these and other ways, form and content are harmoniously woven together in a way that many later picture book illustrators have emulated. In a sense The Very Hungry Caterpillar marked the coming of age of the picture book. Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Jill Murphy, Anthony Browne and the best work of John Burningham were all to follow, helping to raise the status of the simple thirty two page spread layout into an art form in its own right. Together they showed how the verbal and visual could work off each other to create complexity and delight for young readers and the adults who sat with them. They liberated the experience of early reading from the tired predictability and narrative poverty of basal readers, introducing something you could return to time and time again - return to and enjoy. There’s more to learning to read than recognizing words. For example, understanding narrative involves remembering what has happened and predicting what might happen next and the die-cut pages in The Very Hungry Caterpillar naturally support this process. Patterned and predictable language also helps early reading. On Monday he ate through one apple, on Tuesday he ate through two pears, and so on. Eric Carle got it right. And of course, good children’s literature builds on direct experience. In a way you can’t get more direct than food! But more than that all this is the sense of wonder that adults and children can share as they read Carle’s story together. I mean, how unlikely that something that crawls along eating leaves might come to a halt, encase itself in a brittle shell only later to hatch out and take flight as something as colourful – as beautiful as a butterfly? Eric Carle calls it a book of hope. It certainly is, and it was something that seemed to be in the air in 1969 and something that is just as important in 2019.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Writing and knitting

I've spent a considerable amount of time recently  (with Cathy Burnett) trying to develop a credible account of meaning making from a sociomaterial perspective. That journey has taken me down some fascinating byways including cross-species communication, machinic semiosis and into the possibilities of message exchange without sentience. But however you carve it up, it seems that what we call literacy is an exclusively human accomplishment, even when we fully acknowledge the use of signs and symbols in nonhumans. Thinking of literacy like that isn't human exceptionalism - it's just the way it is, a distinction. It's helpful to think of that distinction with respect to text - the word in English derives from the Latin textilis (woven), so we might say text is that which is woven. The etymology is shared with textile (fabric or material) and indeed much has been made of this elsewhere, and part of it is no doubt connected with the historic materiality of the book. The parallels are interesting to think with. Take something like knitting, similar to writing in that it is a human accomplishment. OK, so the artistry of weaver birds is impressive, spiders make impressive webs, and so on - but they are just not the same thing. Knitting is learnt behaviour with a variety of forms and techniques - but it is just an abstract idea without the material dimension - the yarn in all its variety, colour, production and origins and the technology required to knit it together, whether simple (two or three sticks or needles) or complex (automated, machine-powered, programmed). Of course you could elaborate on the process, all the different steps required in making a garment, for instance, but that is the basic process. The garment is, of course, analogous to the text, that which is woven. A garment is a more or less durable product designed to fulfil a particular purpose, and from the point of completion has what amounts to a life of its own. It can be moved across space and time, given, sold, lent, re-purposed or destroyed. It can be cut, copied, shrunk or lost. It assembles, reassembles and disassembles. It is dependent on an entangled process and on complex mechanisms of transmission and exchange - and in this sense is just like text. Thinking like this suggests that the semiotic domain of the social should not be purified and distilled for the purpose of study. Texts are mutable objects in heterogeneous assemblages with human, nonhuman and non-semiotic objects, they emerge out of these entanglements affect them and are affected by them.