Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Scarry

Zootopia and the anthropomorphic principle

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Concept art for Zootopia

Note: Mild spoilers follow for Zootopia.

I enjoyed Zootopia one heck of a lot, but the most emphatic recommendation of all came from my daughter, who burst into tears as soon as the movie ended. And it wasn’t because something onscreen had upset her, or even because she was startled by the unstoppable Shakira track that blasts over the closing credits: she was sad because she loved it so much, and now it was over. In fact, she was inconsolable, to the point where I had to carry her into the lobby and reassure her that we would see it again soon. And I’m looking forward to it, as well as to the countless other viewings to follow, which will give us plenty to discuss when she gets older. I plan to talk to her at length about my favorite scene, the chase in Little Rodentia, and how its sudden shifts of scale remind me of animation’s visual possibilities—and how rarely they seem to be utilized. We’ll also dissect the cleverness of the screenplay, which offers up a neat false ending before burrowing deeper into the story’s implications. She can compare it to the Richard Scarry books she reads, and even to Robin Hood. And when she’s ready, I’ll gently point out that this is something like the fourth consecutive Disney movie in which a seemingly innocuous character turns out to be the real bad guy, which makes me think that this trope ought to be retired.

Above all else, we can talk about its message, which, as has been widely noted, is a timely one indeed. And it deserves a lot of credit for this. Most ordinary movies would have been content to settle for the moral that anyone can be anything, or that we should all be a little nicer to one another. A slightly more ambitious film might have reminded us that we shouldn’t judge based on appearances, and it might conceivably have even broached the subject of racial profiling. But Zootopia goes even further, into the implication that there are systems in this world that are set up to benefit—deliberately or otherwise—from institutionalized prejudice. It’s a heady lesson, even if it will mostly affect viewers who were already primed to receive it, like those who cringe a bit when Judy Hopps, a rabbit, praises Nick Wilde, a fox, for being so “articulate.” But you never know. And I think it’s true, as other commentators have pointed out, that the movie is able to go as far as it does because its parts are played by animals. The first trailer took pains to introduce audiences to the concept of anthropomorphism, but it’s an idea that we all intuitively understand, and it’s generally accepted that certain kinds of stories go down more easily when presented in animal form. It’s the reverse of the uncanny valley: we empathize with animals because our minds focus on the points we have in common, a tendency that has been utilized by moralists from Aesop to La Fontaine.

Concept art for Zootopia

But there’s an even more interesting point to be made here, which is that the anthropomorphism of Zootopia seems to have loosened up the filmmakers themselves. Since we find talking animals in everything from Kung Fu Panda to My Little Pony, it’s a little surprising to realize how rarely it’s been used in its purest form by Disney: Robin Hood is the only other movie from the classic canon—if we don’t count Chicken Little—to show animals interacting in a world without humans. And it’s worth asking why it resists exploiting such a powerful tool, especially because it appeals so much to children: it’s no accident that Robin Hood, which is far from the best movie the studio ever made, is the one that my daughter has watched the most. In part, it’s due to a residual anxiety over being seen as kid’s stuff, which still haunts the genre as a whole, but there’s also an element of caution at play. Walt Disney himself was oddly insistent on centering his movies on a boring human couple, with the animators reduced to creating a riot of energy in the supporting characters: it’s as if the Marx Brothers had built all their movies around Zeppo, or even Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. It was a conservative choice made by a studio that embraced conventional values, and animals have always enabled exactly that anarchic vein in animation that Disney did his best to repress. (Disney buffs have long wondered why the studio repeatedly tried and failed to develop Chanticleer, an animal fable featuring none other than Reynard the Fox, and I suspect that we have our answer here.)

Something similar appears to have happened with Zootopia, even if it’s obviously the product of another place and time. Try to imagine this story being made with human characters, and you can’t: its anthropomorphism was a shield that protected it throughout what must have been a lengthy development process. I’m tempted to propose an anthropomorphic principle of fiction, in parallel to the anthropic principle that I’ve discussed here before, which states that a story that grounds itself in a nonhuman world is more likely to take meaningful risks with our human preconceptions. To borrow a concept from the movie’s own lexicon, it allows animators to follow their instincts. (I also can’t resist pointing out that both “animal” and “animation” emerge from the same root, which refers to nothing less than the soul.) And I have a feeling that this is where the real influence of Zootopia will be felt. A movie can’t change the world, unfortunately, but it can certainly change a studio, and I’m hopeful that Disney will continue to pursue the line of thinking it represents. It gives us a world rich enough to sustain multiple sequels, so here’s my pitch for the next one: a movie that raises the question of why everyone we meet here is a mammal, as if we couldn’t be expected to relate to anything with feathers or scales. That’s a form of prejudice, too—and if Zootopia itself teaches us anything, it’s that our assumptions are sometimes so large that they can’t even be seen.

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March 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

Crayon physics

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Crayon drawings

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 26, 2014.

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”

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"This is the finest yacht I've ever seen..."

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 37. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.

Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

"She had studied the yacht's layout very carefully..."

A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:

The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.

Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”

Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…

The Ballad of John the Pig

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John the Pig

For the last month or so, one of the first things my daughter has said to me every morning, as well as one of the last things she says before she goes to bed at night, is: “Talk about John the Pig.” She’ll ask about John while eating breakfast, while we’re out in the stroller, when we’re together in the car, or when I’m giving her a bath, and I usually oblige, to the point where I’ve spent maybe a hundred hours over the past several weeks talking to her about John the Pig. Who is he? He’s the anonymous little pig who appears on the rightmost edge of page 13 of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, playing happily in his sandbox at the playground. I’m not sure exactly why I latched onto that particular image, but it was probably just the first one that happened to catch my eye. John’s name was similarly plucked out of thin air.  When I initially brought him up, I had the vague idea that I could make up a few stories about John to amuse my daughter, since we’d already gone through the book from cover to cover. Ever since, John’s story has expanded beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s acquired a family, a huge supporting cast—Molly the Rabbit, Mary the Mouse, Little Elephant, Sam and Sally the Sand Crabs—and a life that takes him through the city, the school, the park, and the beach, in a narrative that rivals any soap opera or oral epic in terms of length and density of incident. In short, he’s quite the little pig.

Many parents, I imagine, have undergone this kind of experience, and occasionally, the stories we make up take on a life of their own. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland famously began as a tale that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to amuse the Liddell sisters on a day in the country, while Ted Hughes’s stories about the Iron Man—later filmed as The Iron Giant—originated in his stories for his own children. Until now, I’ve never quite understood how a bedtime story can grow and develop into something that deserves to be put down on paper, but now I do. My daughter’s questions and requests about John the Pig are inexhaustible, and it’s often all I can do to keep up with her appetite for more. (Often, they’ll take the form of oddly specific pitches: “I want John the Pig to get lost.” “I want John the Pig to hurt his knee.” “I want John the Pig to knock over his sand castle.”) Originally, the stories took place within the pictures provided by Best Word Book Ever, with John accompanying his parents or his friends to the grocery store or airport or zoo, but by now, the book has long since been put away, and we’re only limited by whatever events or settings the two of us can imagine. Not everything I make up on the spot is worth remembering, and the stories have a way of petering out toward the end. But not always. And sometimes even I’m curious to know where John will end up next.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

And it’s starting to feel like an adventure for me, too. I’m the kind of writer who likes to plan everything in advance, but I don’t know how a John the Pig story will end, and it amuses me to come up with a conclusion that ties back into where the story began, or to figure out a reasonably clever way for John to get out of one of his predicaments. There’s an evolutionary process at work here, too. Most of my ideas are discarded as soon as the story is over, but occasionally, one of them sticks, and we’ve even had a few breakout characters. (Sam and Sally the Sand Crab were introduced to get me out of a particular narrative problem, but like Urkel or the Fonz, they’ve practically become the stars of their own spinoff.) It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to improvising for an audience, although it also helps that my daughter is a forgiving listener. She likes stories in which John goes on improbable adventures, but she’s equally interested in hearing about a day at school or a play date with Molly the Rabbit, and I’m often put in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful observation:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

It can be a little exhausting, of course, and there are times—particularly after I’ve been dragged out of bed at five in the morning—when my invention sputters and I’d rather do anything but spin another interminable story. (Whenever I can’t think of what comes next, I fall back on something tried and true, like a visit to Molly the Rabbit’s house, which has convinced me that the formulas we find in so much oral storytelling are just ways to buy the poet time as he thinks his way through to the next plot point.) But I’ve also learned a lot in the process. Beatrix craves conflict, and she’s much more interested in stories in which John the Pig is sad than when he’s happy. And she’s starting to take an active role in the act of composition herself. Whenever I find my energy flagging, I’ll ask her: “And then what happened?” She’ll usually have a few good ideas of her own, and I get a sense that she doesn’t distinguish between the details I provide and the ones that she comes up with independently. Ultimately, my dream is that she’ll take up the thread herself and start telling me her own stories without any need of prompting. Busytown has plenty of characters and locations, and exploring it with her through it has turned, rather unexpectedly, into one of the great joys of my life as a father. John the Pig loves his sandbox, but the real sandbox is the one in which my daughter and I play every day.

The Muppets according to Mathieu

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The Sesame Street Dictionary

Over the last few days, my daughter and I have been reading what I’m tempted to nominate as the children’s book of the century: The Sesame Street Dictionary. I picked up our current copy of the classic first edition at a thrift store for a dollar before she was even born, and it’s been waiting on our bookshelf ever since. It sat there unopened for a long time, mostly because Beatrix was more interested in eating paper books than in reading them, but I grabbed it over the weekend on an impulse, mostly out of the need to head off a looming temper tantrum—hers, not mine. Now it’s rarely out of her hands. More surprisingly, I’ve found myself browsing through it for hours on end, newly delighted by how good it is. And while it’s a book that inspires universal affection in all those who remember it, I think it’s time to properly acknowledge it as one of the masterpieces of the form, and particularly to single out the accomplishment of illustrator and designer Joe Mathieu, who singlehandedly drew and laid out every astonishing page.

What strikes me the most about the dictionary now is how endlessly right it is. For page after page, over 1,300 entries, the illustrations are accurate, charming, and unfailingly on model. This last point may seem trivial, but a moment’s reflection reveals how extraordinary it is. Try to draw Ernie or Big Bird even once, and you’re immediately hit by how subtle their proportions really are: get the eyes or the nose just a bit off, and you’re deep in the Muppet version of the uncanny valley. For one man to hit the mark so consistently across more than a thousand different situations requires not just exceptional draftsmanship, but a deep understanding of character, form, and expression. Not surprisingly, Matheiu’s work quickly became a standard reference: according to the Muppet Wiki, copies of the dictionary are handed out to all writers and editors at the Sesame Workshop as a kind of universal model sheet. It’s hard to imagine a better resource, not just for the characters themselves, but for everything in the entire world. The next time my daughter asks me to draw her anything, I’ll be turning to this book first.

The Sesame Street Dictionary

So who is Joe Mathieu, anyway? He was born in 1949, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked as a freelance artist before falling in with Random House and the Sesame Workshop. Aside from the dictionary itself, which took more than two and a half years to complete, he illustrated dozens of books and stories featuring the Muppet characters, as well his own works and those by other authors, and he’s still active today. (Interestingly, his other illustrations—including the ones for books I remember fondly from my own childhood, like Ernie’s Little Lie—tend to be looser and wilder than those in the dictionary, while still honoring each character’s underlying personality.) To some extent, he’s less visible to a wider audience because of his association with the Sesame Street brand. If The Sesame Street Dictionary, or something like it, had been released independently, without its imprimatur, we’d mention him in the same breath as Richard Scarry. As it stands, he’s a bit like Sesame Street itself: ubiquitous, beloved, and taken just a little for granted.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate Mathieu’s achievement from the larger enterprise that he served so admirably. In a nifty piece on the dictionary’s origins on the Sesame Workshop blog, Mathieu notes that he was given full access to the Muppet workshop by Jim Henson, and spent days sketching, photographing, and interacting with the physical puppets. The dictionary itself was drawn and written in alphabetical order, one page at a time, with the text, illustration, and layout all evolving in tandem, a process that took months of twelve-hour days. And much of its charm, humor, and attention to detail are rooted in the fact that it was drawn by hand, inch by inch, by one man. (Full credit must be given, of course, to writer Linda Hayward and editor Sharon Lerner, although it’s clear that many of the gags, vignettes, and ingenious connections between words on a single page are due to Mathieu himself.) It’s the kind of crazy, ambitious project that seems hard to imagine today, and it clearly couldn’t have existed without the institutional support it received. And the result is bliss between two covers—the one children’s book I’d want to own if I had to give up all the rest.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2014 at 10:26 am

What I learned on the Street

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Prairie Dawn

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?”

When you’re a parent, one of the first things you discover is how difficult—or impossible—it can be to keep a small child on point. Saying that children are easily distracted is just another way of stating that they find everything equally interesting, or of equal importance, and that they haven’t yet developed the filters that allow adults to prioritize a particular issue at the expense of everything else. (Much of being an artist consists of restoring that kind of sensory omnivorousness, in which nothing, as Sherlock Holmes says, is so important as trifles.) Whenever my daughter opens a book, I never know where her eye will go first, and a big part of the pleasure of reading to her lies in trying to follow her train of thought. In Goodnight Moon, for instance, when we get to the picture of the doll’s house, she’ll point to it and say “Okay now.” I don’t know what she means by this, but it’s clear that I’m only getting a glimpse of a secondary narrative that she’s happily working through as we read the story itself, which consists both of the words on the page and her own tiny, private associations.

This is why I’ve started choosing picture books less for whatever they claim to be about than for the topics of conversation that they evoke. Richard Scarry, for instance, presents a miniature world on each double spread, which seems designed to simultaneously teach new words and suggest networks between ideas. (I’ll never forget how my niece pointed to a picture of a pig next to a bin of corncobs and said: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.”) Scarry, like many of the greatest children’s artists, has a style that takes as much delight in incidentals as in the main line of the story, or whatever educational purpose the book allegedly has, and the more tactile the illustrations, the better. Beatrix is already curious about drawing, and the fact that she can make the connection between the pictures in the books she has and her crayons can only pay off later on. There’s been a lot of debate about whether reading a book on a tablet has the same benefits as traditional storytime, but I’m a little wary of it, if only because interposing a screen between you and the story makes its human origins less obvious.

Bert and Ernie

And when it comes time for Beatrix to watch Sesame Street, I’ll probably get her one of the Old School compilations on DVD, which collect classic scenes and sketches from the show’s early seasons. Old School comes with a disclaimer that states: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grownups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Well, maybe: I don’t want to discount the ongoing, and highly valuable, research on how children learn, and I can’t entirely separate my feelings from nostalgia for what I watched growing up. Yet I still believe that the show’s overt educational value—the letters, the numbers, the shapes—was only part of the story, and not even the most important part. When we think of Sesame Street, we think first of the Muppets, whose physicality is a huge part of their appeal, but everything in the show’s initial period had an appealingly funky quality about it. The animations were made on a shoestring; the shorts might have been shot in somebody’s backyard; and even the set was designed to evoke the kind of grungy, everyday neighborhood that many children in the audience knew best, elevated by the magic of imagination and performance.

In short, the classic seasons of Sesame Street are as much about the process of their own making as whatever else they were designed to teach, and the lesson I took away from it most vividly was less about counting to twelve than what it might take to make a show like this myself. In its current incarnation, it probably does a better job of teaching kids the fundamentals, but watching Big Bird explore a digital background detaches us from the weird, incredibly appealing process that brings such stories to life. As David Thomson notes on Jim Henson: “He worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer…Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on the show.” Sesame Street is still wonderful, but it seems less likely to turn kids into puppeteers, which is as good a word as any for what I want Beatrix to be—if we take “puppeteer” simply as a curious character who sees a potential friend in a length of felt, or how a woman’s green coat might one day be a frog.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

Crayon physics

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Crayon drawings

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2014 at 9:57 am

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