Grown-Ups Analyze Kid’s Books

Why does Frances, the female badger whose bedtime has come and gone (Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances), keep trying to get her parents’ attention, while the male hero of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen embarks on a fantasy escape when he is banished to bed? These and other questions are explored in the endearing Inside Picture Books, by Ellen Handler Spitz (Yale University Press, $25). Spitz, a psychoanalyst—who incidentally writes with a Jewish sensibility—interprets the art, the words and the meanings of the culture adults transmit to children in the act of reading them picture books.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus (HarperCollins, $22.95), contains the blunt, funny, insightful and nurturing letters of the editor who over several decades midwifed a new kind of literature for children, good-humoredly referred to as “good books for bad children.” Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, Mary Rodger’s Freaky Friday and John Steptoe’s Stevie are among the books she edited. In one letter to Sendak, Nordstrom conveys, ever so delicately and respectfully, Fran Manushkin’s question of whether, when Max returns to his own bedroom from where the wild things are, his dinner might be still “warm” instead of still “hot.” In another letter to Sendak she apologizes for not getting to the graveside at his father’s funeral, explaining, and proud to be able to do so, that her taxi driver was a kohen, prohibited from proximity to dead bodies. Through this collection the reader gets an inkling of the breadth of culture, curiosity about the world, appreciation of human differences, and the empathy that enabled Nordstrom to deliver to us these much loved books.