Cover image for Inside picture books
Inside picture books
Spitz, Ellen Handler, 1939-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xxii, 230 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BF456.R2 S685 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



An exploration of the profound impact of the experience of reading on children. It discusses well-known picture books, including Goodnight Moon, Babar and Little Black Sambo, and reveals how they transmit psychological wisdom, moral lessons, tastes, and subtle prejudices.

Author Notes

Ellen Handler Spitz teaches in the department of art and art history at Stanford University

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Why do Madeline (1939), Goodnight Moon (1947), Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Corduroy (1968), and other picture-book classics continue to enthrall young children? And what about the new versions of the Little Black Sambo story? What do these books say to kids about race, ethnicity, and gender? Should preschoolers hear stories about sadness and loss? Without jargon or pretension, Spitz celebrates the story and art in these books while discussing their effects in terms of psychology, aesthetics, morality, and culture. In the style of Robert Coles, her interest is in the imaginative life of children, rather than in explicit self-help messages, and even readers who have known the books forever will find surprising things to think about. Parents and other adults who read aloud to kids, as well as children's literature professionals, will enjoy what Spitz shows about the power of these deceptively simple images and the pleasure of sharing them across generations. --Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Readers may never look at picture books in the same way after making their way through this thought-provoking examination. Focusing on her subject through the lens of psychology, Spitz (Art and the Psyche) argues that because picture books "provide children with some of their earliest takes on morality, taste, and basic cultural knowledge, including messages about gender, race, and class," it behooves adults to consider more carefully the images transmitted to their kids. Organized thematically, the chapters offer a wide-ranging discussion of art and artistry, visual and verbal cues and the transmission of culture through picture books that resonate with children, often for multiple generations. Whether examining motifs of darkness and abandonment in Margaret Wise Brown's classic bedtime tale Goodnight Moon, a child's yearning for power and independence in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or gender stereotyping in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (comparing the bold and naughty Peter to his obedient sisters, she notes "the gendering is explicit: good is to girls as bad is to boys"), Spitz provides an illuminating analysis of what is often taken for granted. Sure to spark lively debate, her book is a must-read for any serious student of children's literature as well as that core group of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and others who are actively engaged in raising children. Provocative, well written, scholarly without being dry or pedantic, Spitz's text makes a compelling case for the power of art and literature, and the responsibility that accompanies such power, particularly when it relates to children. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

A fascinating, highly personal treatment of a popular genre. Spitz's psychoanalytical background, her passion for the role of art as a transmitter of culture, her observations of children's experiences with books, her knowledge of Jewish ritual and writings, and her own vivid childhood memories all inform and influence this work. In the process of explaining why certain titles have endured and in describing the importance of the adult/child interaction in revealing meaning, she provides in-depth analyses of familiar titles. Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, Russell Hoban's Bedtime for Frances, Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, and Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen are among those mentioned. Chapters on bedtime and separation, death and loss, disobedience and punishment, and the formation of identity provide a framework. Black-and-white reproductions of selected book covers and a list of picture books cited are included. The bibliography of secondary sources reflects the author's interdisciplinary approach.-Wendy Lukehart, Dauphin County Library, Harrisburg, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Responding to characters and contexts in text and illustrations, Spitz has found a treasure trove of psychological implications in picture books. Her exposition is based, primarily, on the child/adult relationship as adults read to children, frequently at bedtime. Because there are a "variety of pictorial traditions" inherent in picture books, children need help in deciphering these codes as they "encounter them in the presence of adults." Most of the book presents her opinions of dozens of such books as Where the Wild Things Are and Madeline, seeking to illuminate their implications. In the latter work, she finds Miss Clavel at times suggesting a Madonna, in another scene, "an unmistakably phallic shape." Again, when Madeline is lying in bed in the hospital surrounded by many gifts, the author recalls Manet's Olympia! Often only offering personal insights, Spitz is sometimes dogmatic, e.g., her conviction that Anthony Browne creates scenes of overt racial bias in his story about a young chimpanzee, Willy the Wimp. Concerned parents, and surely devoted grandparents, will find fresh challenges here to help them think more about picture books' inscribed cultural values and, too often, stereotypes. Teachers and librarians will want to analyze Spitz's assumptions and examples. General readers; undergraduate and graduate students; professionals. K. Marantz Ohio State University

Table of Contents

Robert Coles
Forewordp. ix
Preface: A Greeting to My Readerp. xiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xix
1. Pictures, Words, and Voicesp. 1
2. It's Time for Bedp. 23
3. Please Don't Cryp. 76
4. Behave Yourselfp. 122
5. I Like You Just the Way You Arep. 163
A Glance Forward and Backp. 207
Picture Books Citedp. 217
Secondary Sourcesp. 221
Indexp. 227