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Books and Feelings: The Power of the Picture Book and the Inner Life of the Child — A Joint Conference by the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and PEN New England’s Children’s Book Caucus

presented at The Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute
Boston, MA
October 19, 2002

Comments by Judith A. Yanof, M.D., Training and Supervising Adult and Child Analyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and Instructor in Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

I remember when I first introduced “Babar” to my daughter. She was about two years old when I began to read her this beloved book from my childhood. When we got to the third page, however, I was absolutely stunned. I had forgotten. There on the ground lay Babar’s mother, dead, shot by a hunter, and the baby Babar was lying in a heap on top of her, tears pouring out of his eyes in little fountains. Overcome with feeling, I was speechless. To talk about a dead mother seemed too terrible a concept to introduce to my innocent young child. So I changed the words under the illustration. In my version, the mother got very, very, very sick, but did not die. We went on to read the rest of the book — a celebration of Babar’s becoming a grown up, his resilience and triumph over trauma. Some months later, after many readings and misreadings of that third page, my daughter turned to me one day and said, “Ma. Babar’s mother died.” She felt she finally had to break the news to me. I responded, “O.K., right.”

Ellen Handler Spitz in her wonderful critique “Inside Picture Books” says that many mothers forget about this beginning of Babar and are similarly upset when they encounter it again. I tell this story to illustrate several points.

Quality picture books are always about feelings whether they are ostensibly about feelings or not. Like any work of art, they introduce what is emotionally relevant in ways that capture a child’s interest and imagination, directly or indirectly. They work at both conscious and unconscious levels. [Children find metaphors in picture books that express private meaning.] Children will gravitate to what uniquely matters to them and will tend to ignore what is not relevant or what feels like “too much” to bear.

Parents — even professional psychiatrists — do not always know what will be meaningful for their children or what will be overwhelming to them. Sometimes parents mix up what is difficult for them with what is difficult for their children. My daughter was fine with Babar’s mother’s death because, in a very concrete way, her own mother was alive and well and reading the book to her. Moreover, developmentally she had a very different concept of death than an older child might have. Death was not yet scary to her. However, I did not know that until my daughter taught it to me. That brings me to my next point.

Picture books are always read within the context of a relationship between a caregiver and a child. When a child and parent take pleasure together in reading a book, it can move them into a resonant state that would be harder to achieve without the book. The book becomes the vehicle for eliciting explicit and implicit emotional themes. The mother (when I say that I mean mother, father, grandparent, caregiver) participates in the experience not only by reading the words that are on a given page (and that includes changing them). She participates by the tone of her voice, her feelings, the way she holds her child, and the degree of her pleasure and excitement in what she is reading. She participates by what she points out to her child beyond the text, and, most importantly, by her ability to be moved by what the child is interested in. The child uses the adult’s capacity to name, regulate and contain feelings, and to organize the experience. The child brings her own unique interests to the table as well as her own cognitive limitations. The mother must be attuned to and accommodate the child’s self-state. What will be important at one developmental stage to a child may change as a favorite book is reread over time (Spitz). Books are bought and read by parents, but children choose the ones that will be read the most.

One way that picture books work is that like imaginative play, the picture book narrative is demarcated from real life precisely because it is recognized as pretend, as if, and not real. This allows the child to delight in fantasies unacceptable in real life, to play with ideas that seem over the top in the real world, and to try on feelings that might otherwise seem too threatening. Reading helps children stretch their imaginations while tolerating increased levels of affect. At the same time it helps them to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Children do best when their feeling states are recognized and reflected on by the mind of another (Fonagy & Target). This recognition helps children to trust the reality of their own experience, to be able to reflect upon their mental life, and eventually to be able to recognize and understand the minds of others (Fonagy & Target). Strong feelings are not easily expressed in words. They are most often transmitted in body language like posture, tone, and facial expression. [In fact, most emotional cues are registered and acted upon without ever reaching consciousness.] If you ask a young child what he is feeling, he will often say “I feel good” or “I feel bad,” genuinely unable to be more specific. Even learning how to label categorical emotions like anger, sadness, or joy may not tell another much about one’s inner landscape, although it is certainly a developmental achievement (Siegel). If we really want to know what is on a young child’s mind we have to ask, “What happened?” or “What will happen?” We ask for a narrative. When a person tells a narrative, it not only includes a logical sequence of events that is conscious and can be conveyed linguistically, but also includes implicit emotional information that might not otherwise be registered consciously (Siegel). In hearing a story, we can recognize the emotional nuances of the human interactions without their being explicitly stated. In the same way therapists use imaginative play, which is the child’s own use of narrative (narrative in action), to understand the child’s state of mind. The narratives in picture books speak to us in a similar way.

Goodbye, Mousie is a book that talks about loss. Goodbye, Mousie speaks directly in elegant prose. However, loss is always a difficult topic to talk about to children, because it cannot be digested and integrated in one piece. Integration is an achievement that happens over time. Certain feelings can only be integrated when new conceptual understanding kicks in, secondary to a child’s increased cognitive development. [Certain feelings can only be integrated when the child can face dysphoric affect without becoming overwhelmed. Certain information can only be integrated when the parents have mastered their own intense feelings and are available to scaffold their child's reactions.] There are many life events in childhood that involve loss and the need to rework and revisit these feelings of loss in an ongoing way applies to all of them.

Robie Harris tackles one of the most difficult topics for children straightforwardly and directly, as she has done for many other “forbidden” topics. I am thinking now particularly of Its So Amazing and Its Perfectly Normal, two extremely informative and humorous books she has written about sex, one written for children, one for preteens and teens.

“Goodbye, Mousie” begins with the death of a child’s pet. The boy discovers that his mouse has died during the night. The narrative then addresses the boy’s feelings — first denial, then anger, then grief, and at the end an open space before resolution. Throughout the narrative, the boy can count on his parents’ emotional attunement and support. They are the containers for his affect, as they answer his questions, cradle him in their arms, and help him carry out his ideas for dealing with the loss of his mouse.

There are no surprises in this book, and that is the way it is meant to be. The book moves along slowly and steadily precisely so that it can be managed without being overwhelming. This sense of being emotionally held is communicated to both child and adult on multiple levels throughout the book. There is nothing fantastical. The language is clear and easily digested. The illustrations are straightforward. The body language between the family members is extremely expressive. Picture tones are muted, earth tones. Illustrations complement the narrative, but do not go off on their own. Time marches on in an orderly way: one wakes up, eats, gets dressed — a pet gets old, dies, and is buried. It is the very comfortable familiarity of ordinary everyday life that anchors the book and stands out in counterpoint to the potentially overstimulating nature of the subject matter, the loss. All these elements protect a mother from becoming speechless as I did when reading Babar.

There is only one illustration that is not affectively contained and it works by contrast. It is the close-up of the child crying his angry/sad tears. The artist’s focus on the large head, the face distorted with anguish, adequately expresses the rawness of emotion that cannot quite be put into words. It is not an easy picture to look at.

However, there is also humor in the narrative to balance it. The sign “MOUSIE IS RIGHT HERE!” for a grave marker conveys the ambiguity in the child’s acceptance of death’s finality and brings a chuckle to our adult lips. Throughout the book the child walks around in his oversized mouse slippers — a strange and somewhat funny way to memorialize Mousie. On the last page, as the child contemplates the fact that his pet is really gone, a small toy mouse is spread eagled next to the child. The boy in the story doesn’t notice it, but the adult reader has to smile. In this story, there are communications addressed to adult and child separately and multiple levels of meaning. Since the picture book is meant to be read again and again, it is important that new things can be discovered upon new readings.

Because this book is about a pet, not about a parent or grandparent, it is the easiest place to begin when talking to a child about loss. Introducing the subject about a death that is manageable, more imaginable, helps a child to develop ways of coping that can be drawn upon when future loss occurs. Goodbye, Mousie conveys to both parent and child very accurate and useful insights about a child’s reaction to death. For instance, the boy insists that the mouse is not dead. He loses his appetite, a typical reaction to loss. He worries about how the mouse died. Did someone hurt it? Worse yet, did he hurt it? He is not old enough to fully understand that biological processes as well as feelings terminate with death. Like the ancient Egyptians he wants to outfit Mousie with everything he might need for an afterlife of the flesh.

His parents appreciate their son’s developmental level and support his efforts to be an active agent in coping with the loss in his way. Ritual is an important part of coping with loss. His activity helps him to regain his appetite. These parents do not intrude their own alternative explanations of death or give the child a lot of excess information. They follow his lead and answer his questions. They serve as good models of emotionally available parents. The book supports the parent to help the child to deal with death.

Children find in picture books the public expression of something that has private meaning. Like any good work of art, a quality picture book communicates something emotionally resonant to a particular child, and conveys it metaphorically, indirectly, and symbolically. What gets touched will be fundamental, but will be different for every child. This is why certain picture books are etched in one’s memory over decades or elicit a feeling of deep connection when they are re-encountered in adulthood. This is why certain picture books written in another age and for children of another time, remain emotionally relevant to children of our age. It is Babar’s ability to survive one tragedy after another but not lose his humanity that makes us love him. Children do best when they are active participants, when they have impact on their surroundings. Unlike the television screen, children can control the action with picture books — decide what to linger over, what page to skip, and when to interrupt with a question or theory. Most importantly they have a grown-up with them who wants to share the love of literature and is interested in how the book speaks to them.