Motorboat Sounds

It’s typically tiresome when people insist children’s books teach tidy little lessons, but when the person insisting is Chris Van Allsburg, it’s borderline distressing. Van Allsburg starts his review of two picture books in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review with a primer: “There exists in children’s literature a tradition of children’s stories best described as ‘absurd’ or ‘nonsense.’” Absurdism and nonsense literature are distinct genres with separate aims, and collapsing them into one tradition augurs poorly for the framework Van Allsburg brings to his essay. And so it’s no surprise that by the second paragraph his review is fully off the rails: “[W]riters toiling in this genre must not themselves embrace anarchy. While their work need not make sense, it should still make a point.”

Van Allsburg doesn’t define the terms he’s working with, so to figure out what he means by “make a point,” we need to go to the gristle of his reviews. The first book is Jon Agee’s The Other Side of Town, in which a New York cabbie takes a strange passenger to a topsy-turvy neighborhood with a Schmeeker Street and a baseball team called the Spankees. When the cabbie ends his shift and makes it back to his apartment in New York, he comes home to a surprise. Here’s Van Allsburg’s take:

[U]pon returning home, he discovers his wife preparing ‘tweet loaf’ with ‘bravy’ while his daughter reads a magazine about the Spankees. The bewildered expression on the cabby’s face is the same one readers will wear in confronting this development. Is the cabby actually trapped on ‘the other side of town’ with some doppelgänger family? Has his family mysteriously embraced the culture of ‘the other side of town’ and become its partisans? Both possibilities would seem alarming, and yet the final page depicts the cabby sitting in front of his tweet loaf dinner with a contented smile on his face.

 Van Allsburg is bewildered and alarmed. Some readers might just be amused.

This Moose Is Mine
, by Oliver Jeffers, tells the story of a boy named Wilfred who finds a wild moose, claims ownership of the beast, and names him Marcel. But Marcel is not tame and doesn’t listen Wilfred’s rules, and one day Wilfred discovers a woman who  thinks the moose is hers, and, worse, has named him Rodrigo. Ultimately Wilfred comes across a third self-declared owner who calls the moose Dominic. This Moose Is Mine uses absurdist devises to arrive at a sophisticated insight about love and ownership, but all this is too much for Van Allsburg, or not enough, or something. Here’s how he sums things up: “[E]ven as both books pass the test of making fun while still making a point, it’s not clear what exactly those points are.” (This sentence doesn’t even pass its own nonsense test.)

So we finally know what Van Allsburg means when he keeps saying “point.” He’s run through a wacky maze and now demands his easily digestible pellet. He wants a lesson, a moral. But that’s not what nonsense, or absurdism, is about.

Van Allsburg is tethering two aggressively irrational traditions to the very assumptions about coherence and meaning they’re trying to explode. It’s an old problem. The children’s book still has trouble escaping its medieval origins as a way to teach boys piety and Latin grammar. Nonsense literature’s two daddies, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, packed their work with enough linguistic and narrative dynamite to achieve escape velocity from the didactic tradition. Indeed, the point of all Carroll’s nonsense is that this fixation on morals and lessons and Van Allsburgian points are, well, pointless.

When Van Allsburg insists that picture books have clear meanings, he’s limiting the possibilities of our literature. Nonsense, which assaults truth in language and story, or absurdism, which represents whole human condition as absurd*, have no place in Van Allsburg’s defintition of storytelling. And that’s wrong. Retrograde notions of the picture book’s obligation to edify hobble the form, particularly when they’re expressed in general-interest reviewing organs by one of children’s literature’s titans. And that’s the real shame of it: I’m not sure Van Allsburg really thought through the aesthetic position he takes in his review, and I’m even less sure he believes it. He shouldn’t. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Van Allsburg’s Borgesian masterpiece, is pioneering, surreal, and often absurd. But it doesn’t make a point. And that’s good.

* (a worldview appealing not just to human adults, but their children, too)