SU HUTCHENS and I were talking about how many elementary kids, especially in lower grades, want pictures to help them understand scenes and characters they aren’t familiar with when listening to someone reading to them. That’s a favorite subject of mine so here are a few thoughts.
I wonder if it could be, at least in part, because today’s children marinate in bright pictures and colors from the cradle on through games, TV, phones, computers, and just about everything else. In my opinion, kids who depend on other people’s concepts of what they should see when they listen to a story or a poem, may lag in their ability to conjure their own ideas, their own mental pictures.
Of course I love wonderful art of all kinds, including pictures books! I think it’s more a matter of balance. Before there was television, radio was our main source for information and entertainment. In my case, I would rush home from school, set my books down, grab a snack, and tune into my favorite shows: Sky King, Captain Marvel, Spider Man, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Superman… All the shows were short and they followed in close order. I sat and listened, and imagined. I knew (yes, from pictures) what the heroes looked like, but I had to make up the other characters. A villain looked like my current idea of a villain. A maiden in distress looked like, well, a maiden in distress. (Please don’t anyone lecture me about how stereotypical roles have changed since the 1940s. I know. I know.) I’m just making a point here.
Later in the evening my parents would join me to listen Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, The Thin Man, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, Amos and Andy. We sat in chairs pulled close to the radio and we listened. Nothing to look at but the radio, a wall, out the window. It was up to everyone who listened to imagine what was going on.
Then came the scariest show of all time: Inner Sanctum! It was absolutely terrifying, from the opening spooky invitation to come in to the final mocking dare to come back again, I could practically feel the hair on the back of my head stand up. I adored it all. I imagined it all.
Today when I write, I see in my mind pictures of what I describe. But they’re my pictures, not yours or anyone else’s. You have to see your own pictures. If I read a poem aloud to you and you don’t see anything, I haven’t done my job right. We can never go back in time nor should we. But neither does it mean that new is always better merely because it’s different. I worry that we might be nibbling away at one of the most valuable characteristics of the human spirit: the ability — and the patience — to imagine.