The Rhode Island School of Design Illustration Department co-hosted a screening of "Library of the Early Mind," a new documentary about the world of children's literature, Wednesday night. The screening was the sixth in a series of 50 screenings across the country before the film is made more widely available next fall, according to the film's director, Edward Delaney.
The film offers an inside look at the many different aspects of children's books, featuring a stream of interviews with authors, illustrators and publishers. The first of its many poignant moments depicts Natalie Babbitt, author of "Tuck Everlasting," smiling at the camera. "I write books for children because my childhood was the most important part of my life to date," she says. "And I'm 72."
The film recounts some shocking statistics — for example, that people do 90 percent of their reading for pleasure before the age of eight. Author Grace Lin pointed out that children's books have to appeal to both kids and the parents and teachers who serve as filters for the literature that actually reaches children.
Delaney addresses other obstacles that children's book authors face, including the vocabulary, complexity of ideas and level of humor deemed appropriate for children. "It seems that publishers' idea is ‘we don't want the child to confront anything he doesn't already know,' " said Chris Van Allsburg, author of "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji," in the film.
Delaney also takes on controversial issues in the history of children's literature, including the portrayal of African Americans and homosexuals over time. Nancy Garden — the author of "Annie on My Mind," which tells the story of a romantic relationship between two 17-year-old girls — recounts how she received a call one day telling her the book was being burned in Kansas City, Kan.
The book's burning and removal from the library prompted a lawsuit that Garden's supporters ultimately won. But in her interview, Garden points to the fact that, other than a select few books, most homosexual characters in children's books in the 50 years prior had either "committed suicide, been killed in a car crash, turned straight or been sent to a mental institution."
In a panel following the screening of the film, authors Babbitt and Van Allsburg and illustrator Mary Jane Begin, sat down with Delaney and his co-producer, Steven Withrow, to conduct a question-and-answer session with the packed auditorium.
One audience member asked the panelists what they believed might account for a decrease in the quality of children's books today. Van Allsburg cited the "peculiar economic model" of publishing houses as a reason. "If they would shorten up lists and accept that they could publish more (of each book) but fewer titles, that might improve quality," he said. "But this (current) situation is the reality of supply and demand."
Begin, who illustrated a 2002 edition of "The Wind in the Willows," also lamented the influence of marketing on publishers. "It happened maybe 10 years ago that they realized books could actually make a lot of money," she said. "Then marketing started determining what was on the covers of books," provoking a more aesthetic-based culture of book sales, she explained.
Babbitt told the audience she found Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" appealing as a child because "there is only one sensible character in the book" — Alice. "The adults are idiots," she said. "I liked that idea — and I grew up to find out that that's true."
Babbitt also recounted her experience with Disney during the production of the 2002 film version of "Tuck Everlasting," a process in which she was not involved. When she lamented the changes the studio had made to a creative executive at Disney, the executive told her the story had to be simplified. "Otherwise, children wouldn't understand," she recalled the executive telling her.
"It's a good thing I live on the East Coast, or I would have done something evil, " Babbitt said, smiling mischievously at the audience.
"The biggest danger we have is that we don't respect the intelligence of children," Babbitt added. "I don't know why we have all forgotten what it's like to be one."
"It was just everything I came (to RISD) for," said Sarah Lammer, a RISD sophomore majoring in printmaking, of the film and the panel. "I remember these people from reading ‘The Polar Express' and ‘Tuck Everlasting' — and they're here. It's just wonderful."
Karen Sung, a RISD sophomore majoring in illustration, said she had never thought of going into the field of children's book illustration until she saw the film. As a children's illustrator, "you are grabbing them at the very beginning stages of their lives," she said. "You become burned into their brains."
Withrow said that the film was intended for an "audience of people who have given up on children's books. They might see this as a reminder of something they've been missing for many years, or may not even be aware they're missing."