Reviews 2011

Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity

Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity. Nathalie op de Beeck. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 262 pages. $27.50 (paperback).

Every once in awhile an academic study comes along that is simply great. Nathalie op de Beeck’s Suspended Animation is one of these rare books. Op de Beeck is a fine writer, her style companionable and her scholarship rigorous. As an object, Suspended Animation is handsome: at just over two cm thick, it feels good to hold, each twenty-five by eighteen cm page is friendly and well-designed. Full of art and reproductions (most black and white, plus a twelve-page, full-colour insert at the midpoint), the study wends its way from “the end of the First World War through the 1940s” (xv), spinning a sometimes-digressive narrative about “the fairy-tale of modernity” and how that fairy-tale articulates itself through the complex and thoroughly modern publishing techniques of the children’s picture book. Op de Beeck’s digressiveness is the kind one enjoys ratherthan endures. Reading her work is not unlike indulging a loquacious old friend, not out of kindness, but because you know she tells a good story.

Op de Beeck grounds her story thoroughly in the discipline of children’s literature, although she displays a wide knowledge of comics and image studies, the history of book-making, and the discourses surrounding the historical avant-garde. Thus, her book is rich in a way many other children’s literature studies are not. There is nothing insular about this monograph. Early on, she explains the need for such a wide-ranging approach: as a “hybrid text shared with the developing modern subject,” the picture book, “despite its youthful, domestic audience and seeming lack of affiliation to any aesthetic or political movement—has roots in vernacular culture and the avant-garde alike” (ix). Therefore, she continues, “literary, cultural studies, and art historical approach[es]” are needed to “provide [necessary] critical perspective,” a perspective buttressed by critical commentary on a host of relevant literary examples and “historical accounts” (ix).

In four chapters, an introduction, and brief postscript, op de Beeck illustrates how the American picture book was made possible by the material realities and publishing possibilities of Modernism. Op de Beeck argues that although “[p]rinted words and pictures ostensibly carry the text’s message, [...] the text’s cloth, paper, thread, glue, and ink contribute to the narrative experience as well, given that the text is made to be handled” (x). The picture book, she stresses,

like a store-bought stuffed animal [...] is a mass produced item with any number of duplicates; its alienated origins are evident in its cardboard-and-paper package. But it is also a special belonging for one person in particular. The alienated labour and cultural ideology behind its manufacture become part of the memory and identity of its young reader. The correspondences produced by the picture book exceed those it is assigned to (or typically expected to) produce. (xi)

The arguments that follow are all informed by these insights, recalling Jean Baudrillard’s career-long complication of Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacular society. Subjects may exist as the products of the material realities of our culture, just as our culture’s ideology is reified in our rituals of behaviour; but the relationship between the two is analogous to the Möbius strip. What appears to be two-sided actually has only one. The spectacle is made by those who are made by it, and the picture book is part of that spectacle. Op de Beeck explains, the picture book “signals a change in reading subjects’ awareness of themselves as spectators and as parts of the grand modern spectacle” (162). Picture books produce the modern subjects who consume them, just as artists and writers (alongside editors and publishers) produce picture books. Each book is mechanically reproduced with the aim of becoming a cherished possession. Furthermore, the picture book is a part of a pop-cultural moment which would have been impossible without the insights of the historical avant-garde, a set of movements (Futurism, most prominently) influenced by developments in mass publishing and advertising. This Möbius-like relationship also applies to content. Op de Beeck explains that those authors whose work promotes a nostalgic image of pre-industrial, folksy life (as in the case of Wanda Gág) do so in books which would have been impossible to produce before Modernism. The homely, heimlich look of, say, Gág’s ABC Bunny (1933) or Millions of Cats (1928) was made possible by cutting-edge printing technology. It is not coincidental, then, “that the creative and technical heyday of the American picture book corresponds to the surrealist movement and the popularization of psychoanalysis, both concerned with mediation between Now and Then” (43).

This tension is a central concern of the first chapter, which investigates the seemingly opposed views that children deserve fairy tales rooted in the past or, rather, those preoccupied by “life in the industrialized world” (39-40). Op de Beeck notes that between 1910 and 1940, publishers began constructing children “as market groups distinct from adult readers, with books scientifically calibrated to their age-related needs,” a construction common today (13). American children “learned to value store-bought objects and to define [their] identit[ies] around personal belongings” (13). Thus, mechanical reproducibility alongside a particularly modern scientism linked what Lucy Sprague Mitchell would call “here and now fairy tales” (those self-consciously contemporary picture books focusing on the “visceral experience” of “metropolitan life”) to the “repackaged” and overtly rustic “old tales” of artists/writers like Wanda Gág (24, 41). Both ultimately became modern consumer items perfectly attuned to “an American need for speed and affordability” impossible for pre-twentieth century presses (51).

The remaining chapters develop organically from these concerns and her subtly deconstructive method of summoning a binary only to render it radically unstable. The second chapter “examines some of the cultural realities and anxieties that influenced the written and pictorial sequences shared with a young, diversifying, and educated U.S. readership” (53), all the while exploring the representation of white and non-white subjects in picture books through the close-reading of works by Berta and Elmer Hader, Elizabeth MacKinstry, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and others. These books were informed by urban diversity, “accented-English speakers,” and the “immigrant citizens and regional representatives” who were both the “audiences and creators of modern American media” (62). Thus, the books employed “significant typefaces, layouts, and varieties of paper and ink” to convey “cultural diversity” while, paradoxically, developing a clear sense of the “American” and “the Other” (72), Us and Them, the marked and unmarked subject.

Through an analysis of books by creators like George E. Bock, Henry B. Lent, and Leonard Weisgard, Chapter Three, “Sentient Machines,” explores the binary of the human and the machine, particularly the mechanization of men and humanization machines. Its subject resonates with op de Beeck’s previously published work, namely, her critical edition of Mary Liddell’s Little Machinery (Wayne State UP, 2009) and the award-winning, 2004 essay that inspired it, “‘The First Picture Book for Modern Children.’” Chapter Three articulates the “proletarian” spirit informing American picture books of the 20s and 30s, works that “fetish[ised] powerful machinery and human labour alike.” Arguing that “New modes of attention and perception were necessary” in the highly industrialised environment of urban and—increasingly—even rural America, op de Beeck illustrates the ways “in which [the] fairy tales of modernity expressed older generations’ ambivalence toward speed and progress” (119). Recalling Chapter One’s “here and now fairy tales,” “Sentient Machines” looks to texts like Elizabeth King’s Today’s ABC Book (1929), which summons the ostensibly agrarian image of the farm, only to do so in mechanized terms.For instance, F stands for FREIGHT, or, more exactly, the “freight cars” that “bring to the city” all the “good things that the farmer grows,” while T stands for TRACTOR, metal “caterpillars” that plough fields like the horses “[f]armers used to use” (122). The line between the animate and inanimate is called into question: “The fairy tale of modernity” brings “the object to life with the understanding that to break it is to kill it” (162).

Chapter Four, “Murals in Miniature,” investigates “the overlap of regionalism, nationalism, and urban-rural versions of domesticity” inpicture books of the 1930s and 1940s (xviii). Op de Beeck argues that many picture books of this period operate as a kind of mass-produced, New Deal “mural in miniature, calling attention to alienated labor and warning of a threat to American community values” (169). Major contributions to the field are found in her analyses of Virginia Lee Burton’s late 30s early 40s picture books, Choo Choo (1937), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1942), as well as in her look at Disney animator Hardie Gramatky’s Little Toot (1939). This critical ground is well-trod, yet op de Beeck’s penetrating and historically grounded artistic and textual criticism shines like new. The chapter closes with the observation that although picture books and the fairy tale of modernity they represent often “served to remind people of community over corporate interests,” addressing “public concerns about labor, technology, and consumer society,” they simultaneously operated “in the service to state power, aligning revolutionary rhetoric with the patriotic fervour of 1776 and, despite nods to immigration, naturaliz[ed] the pictured white subject as the dominant and rightful heir to the nation” (207).

With that sobering thought, we arrive at the postscript, which recapitulates the book’s themeswhile gesturing towards new avenues of study. Here op de Beeck describes an era of picture books “decisively detached from [...] the popular fairy tales of modernity” published between 1919 and 1941 (xix). Beginning “with the wartime climate [of 1942] and ending with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are [1963],” this period covers “watershed moments in civil rights, communist witch hunts, and multimedia art,” yet it “is a topic for another picture-book survey” (212). Let us hope that the scholar who takes up that topic is as talented as op de Beeck (or perhaps she might take the subject up herself?), for while Suspended Animation provides an excellent model for future studies of the U.S. picture book, it will be difficult to surpass. Greatness always is.

Joseph T. Thomas, Jr.
San Diego State University, USA