Those Unlucky Tots

Leanne Shapton’s Trojan Horse of a book, and the wistfulness of the best children’s literature

Confronted with writer and illustrator Leanne Shapton’s latest book, Toys Talking, bookstore clerks must face a quandary: Where to place it? An intriguing and beautiful little picture book, it looks and claims to be aimed at children—so much so that it will undoubtedly trick many aunts and honorary uncles, and quite possibly some parents, into picking it up for the children in their lives. Say a prayer for those unlucky tots.

“You are wrong to be angry with me,” says one teddy bear with a bow tie. “Never mind that, come as you are,” insists another. “I have often had sleepless nights,” confesses bunny. “You are joking,” says monkey.

The text-to-illustration ratio reads as board-book-for-toddlers, as do the exquisite, delightfully expressive ink illustrations, the curved corners of the crayon-coloured pages, and the volume’s square shape. (Like most books published by Drawn & Quarterly, Toys Talking is a pleasure to look at and hold.) But the snatches of dialogue appear lifted from an adult comedy of manners—a Julian Barnes piece starring a cast purchased at a toy store. And upon closer inspection there is something foreboding about how Shapton draws her toys: they are like the inanimate objects that press themselves against the eyes of the protagonist in a Sartre novel. If Toys Talking is a board book for very little kids, then these little kids are going to grow up to be very demented adults. (Not to say children will necessarily dislike this book, which is dedicated to Shapton’s young daughter, Tomasina.)

This isn’t Shapton’s first literary prank, nor is it her first picture book for grown-ups. Toys Talking purports to be for kids in the same way her second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, from 2009, purports to be—and looks exactly like—an auction catalogue, but is really a lavishly arted novel about a love affair and breakup (with photographs starring the Toronto writer Sheila Heti, an occasional Shapton collaborator).

Shapton’s books are frequently designed to look like one thing when they are really something quite different. Hence the bookshop clerk’s dilemma: Are they graphic novels? Art books? Novels or memoirs? Bricolage never fits, and the strange insistence that a book with the line “You are rather too particular” (spoken by a melancholy-looking pig) belongs in the “juvenile fiction” section, as the back cover of Toys Talking tells us, may be Shapton’s way of tweaking a publishing industry—and readers—still suspicious of authors who combine words with pictures. Her work tends to be sent to the children’s corner or comics ghetto or the bookstore’s novelty table anyway, this insistence seems to suggest—so why not write a Trojan Horse of a kids’ book? 

That mixture of text and image is Shapton’s natural habitat. Born in Mississauga, Ontario, she has been art director of Saturday Night magazine, of the National Post’s double-truck Avenue pages, and of the New York Times op-ed pages, and she is co-founder of J&L Books, a not-for-profit publisher of art and photo books based in Atlanta and New York City, where Shapton now lives.

And yet, beyond the combination of words and pictures, there’s something else—and something more essential—that connects Toys Talking, and much of Shapton’s other work, too, with children’s books in general: their preoccupation with time, nostalgia, and with loss. For Shapton, those concerns may be rooted in her youth as a competitive swimmer (with thwarted Olympic ambitions), a formative moment when time and shaving milliseconds of it from a performance was crucial to success. “Time passes with precision in a workout,” she writes in Swimming Studies, her critically acclaimed (and less elaborately illustrated) memoir of her longtime relationship with water, “every minute—every second—is felt and accounted for. In other words, time passes slowly.”

If Shapton’s fixation with time and its passing is idiosyncratic, for children’s books it is foundational, linked to the inescapable reality of their being written and often read out loud by adults who were once themselves children. It is not merely due to the exactitudes of bedtime that a toddler’s first book is (so often) Goodnight Moon—rather than Hello! Or simply due to narrative expediency that the final Winnie book, The House at Pooh Corner, ends with Christopher Robin, not so young anymore, saying farewell and forsaking the Hundred Acre Wood for good. The wistfulness that collects around the death of a spider named Charlotte, or the felling of The Giving Tree, connects with that haunting sense of inevitability we must all admit to feeling when an aging stepmother seeks to wipe out the competition she sees ripening in Snow White by giving her a bad apple. No matter the variations on the theme, the success of kids’ books depends on their remembering the thrills and anxieties of time past—childhood is a temporary condition—and without sentimentality.

But it is stunning how Shapton has done this, over and over, for adults. Although called a graphic novel, her Was She Pretty?, first published in 2006—a treatise on jealousy, past lives and romantic loss—looks like nothing so much as a picture book, with illustrations facing pages of text that often do not go on for more than a sentence. “Kelly and her boyfriend Len kept running into women he ‘used to know,’ ” reads one sentence, here surrounded by a trio of awkwardly smiling faces. “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi,” reads another. Was She Pretty? almost entirely dispenses with narrative, and the spell it casts upon the reader relies solely on Shapton’s marriage of drawings and offhand yet beautiful sentences.

Her Sunday Night Movies, published in 2013—a series of grisaille-rendered watercolour stills culled from classic films—is about the fleetingness of cinematic time, half-remembered black-and-white images, and perhaps the vanishing from mainstream culture of the idea of old movies altogether—the chance viewing of a late-night TV movie now a fetish of times gone by. Likewise, one of the saddest artifacts on auction in Important Artifacts, the ersatz catalogue, is a collection of Éric Rohmer DVDs, with Claire’s Knee, the creepy story of a middle-aged man’s narrowly focused romantic conquest, missing. DVDs, like the letters and postcards also celebrated in the book, and now superseded by social media, aren’t a thing anymore. Published three years after Facebook opened to public membership, Artifacts now reads as a wistful farewell to the corporeality of the pre-social media era. The Native Trees of Canada, a book of arboreal portraits based on an old federal government reference book, and published in 2010, appears specifically designed to take you out of the immediacy of the Internet: it is less a book for reading than it is an object of contemplation, its purpose to remove us from time.

It is a body of work with quiet yet arch power. What to make of it? We could ask of her output what Bruce Handy, in his recent Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, asks of the format in general, although he is asking the question on behalf of children’s books actually meant for children: “Why haven’t picture books earned the same pop culture cachet that comics and graphic novels have? Picture books are like poetry to comics’ prose, a form every bit as sophisticated if not more so, and no less worthy of adults’ attention and enjoyment.” Later, Handy quotes the British children’s book critic Brian Alderson on Ezra Jack Keats, whose The Snowy Day, from 1962, is a picture book classic: “The revelation with Snowy Day was that there was something central to himself that he could articulate with a picture book.” Handy himself writes of Margaret Wise Brown, author of 1947’s endlessly abiding Goodnight Moon, as well as 1942’s The Runaway Bunny: “What really distinguishes her books is her sense of poetry and language, and her wit, her ability to seed simple declarative sentences with peculiarity”—traits that Handy notes Brown borrowed from one of her favourite writers, Gertrude Stein.

You could say versions of all these things about Shapton and, in the same breath, class her picture books as literature—which is how Handy’s penetrating and immensely readable Wild Things treats Brown, Keats, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, the Brothers Grimm, Beverly Cleary, C.S. Lewis, and E.B. White. That is, to narrow it down to what Handy writes about White’s 1952 masterpiece Charlotte’s Web, as “fearless, organic, and beautifully crafted—which is to say it is a work of truly first-rank literature.” Not for the kiddie table at the banquet, therefore. More than once, Handy compares a children’s book author to Henry James. He uncovers Graham Greene’s fascinating, if five-and-dime, psychoanalysis of Peter Rabbit progenitor Beatrix Potter. John Hersey, the New Yorker journalist who wrote the sublime Hiroshima, was an early champion of The Cat in the Hat (1957), which Seuss cobbled together from a list of 200-odd words pre-approved by his publisher for book-cracking beginners, and which Hersey called a “gift to the art of reading.” Handy even quotes Gore Vidal on the topic of the Land of Oz. (Dorothy, Vidal assures us with characteristic authority, “is a perfectly acceptable character for a boy to read about.”)

A Vanity Fair contributor, who at one time wrote for Saturday Night Live, Handy is a children’s-books enthusiast whose love for the classics of the category reemerged while reading to his own children. Like any enthusiast he is at his best when extolling the virtues of the books he loves. The sections of Wild Things covering Lewis’s Narnia books, Cleary’s Ramona series, and Charlotte’s Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels, and even those on the schlocky if inventive L. Frank Baum (Oz, Handy writes, “reflects…our national susceptibility to—and gift for—con artistry”) are rollicking fun, full of deep reading, surprising connections, gossipy detail. Of the geniuses of kids’ lit Handy asks: “What to make of the fact that so many were, for whatever reason, childless? And that so many didn’t even seem to care much for children?”

In that same vein, is it too reductive to wonder whether their genius for speaking to children didn’t spring from that subterranean darkness so many of them seemed to share—encompassing everything from Brown and Potter’s compulsive industriousness to the famous curmudgeonhood of Roald Dahl, the man behind the small yet Byronic Willy Wonka? For decades, C.S. Lewis shared a home and may have been romantic with the much, much older mother of a dead friend. Seuss, born Theodor Seuss Geisel, was the scion of a Massachusetts brewing family, and probably would have turned brewer himself had Prohibition not intervened (he first signed his work Seuss in Dartmouth College’s humour magazine after getting suspended for serving bootleg gin at a party); he was childless also (“You have them, I’ll amuse them”) and his first wife died by suicide. Sendak, who could nurse a grudge, once joked that he’d “called up the Ayatollah” on Salman Rushdie after Rushdie wrote a review of one of his books that Sendak did not care for.

Wild Things is less good during those very occasional moments when Handy’s enthusiasm falters. If you don’t like Little Women, why risk being dull to write about it? That’s especially so when titans of the canon—Dahl, Kenneth Grahame, S.E. Hinton, among others—are present here largely, and inexplicably, via their absence. Handy calls Canada’s own Anne Shirley, of Anne of Green Gables, a “sunny, cheerful, detestable orphan” before jettisoning her for good—in a footnote. (Even when Handy is bad, then, he can be quite good.) Would it have killed him to point out the edition of Grimms’ tales he quotes from, deliciously, in Wild Things (“The little arm kept reaching out of the grave…”), given the enormous variety available, some better than others? And while Handy is often very good about the way he handles the less-than-woke antique thinking in many favourites (a highlight is his inclusion of a passage written by Osage Nation writer John Joseph Matthews as counterpoint to the glimpses of racism found in the Little House books, parts of which are set on Osage territory in Oklahoma), once or twice it appears a strain. But these are quibbles, and Wild Things more than does its job: It leaves you itching to reread books worthy of attention into adulthood; not just for nostalgia’s sake, but as a reader of good literature.

There’s that word again—is it a bad word? Nostalgia. Those who indulge in it flirt with preciousness and, as with all things cloying, it’s a mode of recollection that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Any discussion of picture books for adults, or books celebrating the reading of children’s literature by the over-18 set, must grapple with this question, especially today. That is: In an era in which lots of grown-ups are turning to YA titles, or graphic novels, and when our cinemas almost exclusively screen superhero epics, do we really need more help appreciating the childish and the less-than-mature?

Handy, for one, makes a good case for how crucial a writer’s respect for her audience—a readership of children—is to the best kids’ books. “This might seem like a simpleminded epiphany,” he writes, “but it is so easy and tempting to condescend to children.” The greats of children’s literature all direct a cold but tender eye at the realities of living.

Sometimes it feels, when reading Shapton, that the cloying, cringe-worthy side of memory and loss is her great subject—the past as a vast and haunting receptacle of what-ifs and could-have-beens, a form of nostalgia as fantasy that Shapton is busy gently skewering. Incidentally, the prototypes for Toys Talking, maybe even the live subjects for that book’s drawings themselves, show up in the final pages of Important Artifacts, the post-breakup auction catalogue, as Lot 1327: “Four stuffed animals,” with an estimated price of between $150 and $195. Looking at the reader reproachfully, they are the sad remnants of romance gone rotten. The stuffed animals in Toys Talking, meanwhile, are something more mysterious and menacing, and while they speak in the jargon of the adult cocktail party, what they really seem to be saying is quite a bit clearer: Don’t come back.