Shunning the formula for good children's books


WHATEVER YOU think of "whole language," the philosophy that children learn to read by immersion in literature, there's one thing to be said for it:

It has filled the shelves of grade school classrooms and literate homes with a wealth of excellent books, many of them astonishingly illustrated. Gone are the stilted language and controlled vocabulary of the old "basal readers," replaced by stories that might have bigger words than beginning readers can read but that take adults and children alike on wild flights of the imagination.

Many, too, are a tad perverse and off-color, with dark plots that some parents find objectionable, particularly in October. Last week, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," third in the wildly popular series by British author J. K. Rowling, came under fire in a California district. The book is about a boy wizard learning magic at a school called Hogswarts.

In a course on childhood literacy at Towson University, I'm learning about picture books, one of the subspecies in the crowded field of children's literature. (Nearly 139,000 children's titles were in print last year, from 8,080 publishers.)

Picture books are the first books youngsters encounter, and usually they hear them before they read them.

The kindergarten or first-grade teacher holds the book up and points to the words as she reads them. The children learn that print runs left to right, top to bottom. They see that sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. They learn that words represent people and things in illustrations.

Traditionally, says David Wisniewski, an author and illustrator in Frederick, picture books were directed at the youngest children from kindergarten through grade two. But whole language, he says, has opened a much wider range.

Wisniewski's sixth of nine children's books, "Golem," won the prestigious Caldecott award in 1997. The retelling of a Jewish legend with illustrations that take the breath away, "Golem" is meant for upper elementary children, says the 46-year-old former puppeteer and circus clown.

Not for the life of him will Kevin O'Malley fashion his picture books for the educators or write to a reading formula. Yet many of his 28 books are in schools.

"I'm a whole-language man," says O'Malley, 38, who sold his first book in 1991 after 100 rejections. "My intention is never to write to a form or to limit my words to six letters or whatever. My intention is to tell a good tale."

O'Malley's first book, a version of the folk ballad "Froggy Went A'Courtin'," was relegated to the adult sections of Baltimore County school libraries three years ago after parents objected to the depiction of Froggy as a cigar-chomping bank robber.

Other O'Malley books portray educators in less-than-favorable light. "Testing Miss Malarkey," due in the fall, will be a takeoff on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. There is such anxiety in Miss Malarkey's school over the "IPTU" -- an acronym for who knows what? -- that the principal keeps running to the bathroom.

A gym teacher teaches yoga, and a cafeteria worker takes a line from the Three Stooges: "Fish is good brain food. You guys ought to eat a whale."

O'Malley, who works in a studio in his Rodgers Forge home, has disagreements with his editors. He usually loses, he says, "and I'm usually happy to have lost when all is said and done." Now he's defending this line in a work-in-progress: "Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine."

The editor doesn't object to the double meaning, the author says, but to the words "inevitable" and "vending machine." Too dense for young readers.

Do children "get" this? O'Malley thinks so. Besides, says the father of two and former restaurant dishwasher, he knows that picture books are often read to children. So he writes partly for adults. "I picture a father reading to his kid on the couch, seeing the line about the vending machine and laughing out loud."

"In a PC [politically correct] world, it's hard to make books that satisfy everyone," O'Malley says, and Wisniewski agrees. They're in good company. The greatest children's authors -- Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss and others -- pushed the envelope of the politically correct before we knew what it meant.

Sendak's 1963 "Where the Wild Things Are," one of the best sellers of all time, begins with an argument between Max and his mother. When she calls him a wild thing, he says, "I'll eat you up!"

Cannibalism in the schools? Case closed.

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