A good book appeals to all kinds of readers. It’s layered, multifaceted, capable of being looked at from countless angles, many that an author never could’ve imagined herself. But in children’s books, a skillful author can achieve a particularly difficult kind of layering, one that ensures readers of any and every age will find interest and delight in their pages.
I often think of this as the “Pixar effect,” because that studio’s writers are so smart and good about making sure that the parents who are no doubt going to be accompanying their kids to the theaters will find their films enjoyable, too. Certain jokes and asides fly right over the younger viewers’ heads, but the adults find them delightful, and thus feel cared for – and because of this will probably be more inclined to bring their kids to the next movie that comes out.
The “Pixar effect” has been at work in books since long before the animation studio was founded, but lately it’s been cropping up more and more. Every month, it seems, another picture book with postmodern tendencies is topping the bestseller lists. And despite the op-eds bemoaning the dumbing down of America’s readers, there are countless “kids’ books,” both classic and contemporary, that offer adults plenty more than an escape from reality or a quick dose of nostalgia.
As I’ve said a dozen other times on this blog, a good book is a good book is a good book, no matter what shelf it lives on at the library or bookstore. And the best books are the ones that offer you something new every time you go back to them. A writer’s only job is to tell their story as best as they possibly can, but if they do it well, layers of possible meaning will accumulate, no matter how complicated the subject matter is or the structure of their sentences are. This is why The Cat in the Hat is still being read by kids today, and why the parents of those kids are willing, if not eager, to introduce them to it.
Judith Viorst, probably best known for her Alexander books (including the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), has been producing fantastic books for decades, and nearly all of them provide examples of the “Pixar effect” at work. She even has a pair of poetry collections that say it right in their titles: Poems for Children and Their Parents.
Viorst’s newer Lulu series adds to this stellar track record. In these books, from beginning to end, she’s able to enthrall and entertain both kids and adults. There are layers to the story that younger readers will miss, but ten, twenty, or thirty years on, if those former kids are wise enough to go back to the books they loved as children, they’ll find those layers and tucked-away meanings, and will appreciate Viorst, and what she did for them, all the more.
So go and get your hands on Lulu’s adventures before you grow up too much. And see below for a little taste of what Viorst can do.
From Lulu Walks the Dogs, by Judith Viorst (p. 5-7)
Lulu thought about throwing one of her famous screeching, heel-kicking, arm-waving tantrums, except that – since her last birthday – she wasn’t doing that baby stuff anymore. So, instead, she tried some other ways – politer, quieter, sneakier, grown-upper ways – of changing their minds.
First try: “Why are you being so cruel to me, to your only child, to your dearest, darlingest Lulu?”
“We’re not being cruel,” her mom explained in an I’m-so-sorry voice. “You’re still our dearest and darlingest. But we don’t have the money to spend on things like that.”
Second try: “I’ll eat only one meal a day and also never go to the dentist, and then you can use all that money you saved to buy it for me.”
“Dentists and food are much more important,” Lulu’s dad explained, “than this thing that you want. Which means” – and here he sighed heavily – “that if you really still want it, you’re going to have to pay for it yourself.”
Really still want it? Of course she really still wanted it! She was ALWAYS and FOREVER going to want it. But paying for it herself – that might be utterly and totally, plus absolutely and no-way-Jose, impossible. So she kept on trying to change their minds, making her saddest and maddest and baddest faces and giving her mom and her dad some unbeatable arguments. Like, “I’ll move down into the basement, and you’ll get the money by renting out my bedroom.” Or, “You could get money by selling our car and taking the bus instead, which would also be much better for the environment.” But, great as her arguments were, her mom and her dad kept saying no and sighing and sorrying. And after her sixteenth or seventeenth try, Lulu was starting to feel a little discouraged.