Review of the Day: A Little Called Pauline by Gertrude Stein with Bianca Stone
I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. After all these years, I think I’ve figured out the most common sin amongst children’s books. Were I to come down a mountainside with two stone tablets filled with rules, the very first one would have to be “Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader”. Because at the heart of everything, innocuous children’s books are boring children’s books. Now due to the sheer number being produced in America every single year, boredom is pretty much the norm. The tropes are tired. The publishers (particularly the big five) are disinclined to take risks with their authors’ material. As a result you’ll see a lot same same samey books on your shelves. Just switch out the usual dragon/bear/chicken for a book about bedtime/the first day of school/mindfulness and you’re good to go. But sometimes a new book comes along and gives away the game. Do you remember that moment in Woolf’s Orlando when Alexander Pope walks into a room of witty people and sticks out like a sore thumb because he’s obviously the most brilliant person there? That’s sort of what happens when you pick up a copy of A Little Called Pauline from a stack of children’s poetry books. Highly amused with its own audacity, Bianca Stone attempts the impossible. Whether she succeeds in her endeavor is anyone’s guess, but by gum it’s not boring!
In 1914 the poet Gertrude Stein wrote a book called Tender Buttons. Inside were a variety of pieces, including the poem “A Little Called Pauline”. In Bianca Stone’s adaptation of this poem, form and meaning, and even a plot, comes thanks to a little girl called Pauline. We watch as she is born and grows up with her single mom. But life can be tough for a kid who just wants a crown and maybe a birthday party that doesn’t involve all her mom’s friends. Modernist poetry meets Stone’s unique brand of “Poetry Comics”, suggesting perhaps that young readers find their own way to join in the fun.
Gertrude Stein seems like someone kids should know. Indeed, you’ll see variations on her all over the world of children’s literature. I’ve seen books about her and books in a style similar to her own, but there’s no substitution for the original, eh? Reading a book that tips its hat to Stein is very different from reading pure uncut Stein. This poem is, quite frankly, a revelation to kids. And while Stone adds wordless flourishes to make sense of the senseless and stretch the endeavor to the required 64 page length, she never touches so much as a word. She doesn’t have to. It occurs to me after reading this book that the world needs more Stein in it, but done exactly right. Suddenly I’m imagining a whole line of poetry books, each a different Stein poem, each interpreted by a different artist. The world would never be the same again.
Here’s a very serious question I’ve been tossing and turning over in my mind recently: Is there any good to be had in frustrating child readers? Here’s a good example of what I mean; When I was in third grade my teacher read the class E.B. White’s Stuart Little. And at the moment when she reached the ending-that-is-not-an-ending (as I’ve always thought of it) I found myself filled with a combination of disbelief and impotent rage. THAT is how White chose to end his book? Not with a bang but a whimper? Of course, I was read many other books as a child, most of which I’ve forgotten. Yet somehow that anger with Stuart Little has stayed with me far into middle age. I mention all this because I truly do believe that A Little Called Pauline is going to drive some poor sap of a kid quite mad. They’re going to be coming off of their Silverstein and their Prelutsky and their Giovanni and they’re going to expect something linear. But maybe I’m not giving them enough credit. As I was explaining this book to my own kids ,my 8-year-old got quite intrigued. There’s something enticing about the idea of sentences written for their sound and not for the purpose of conveying meaning. I mean, who are we to control sentences so much that they have to even DO anything? It’s possible that kids like her will read this book and come to understand that you can enjoy what a book or poem sounds like long before you try to figure out if it means anything. I found that by reading the poem in its entirely first (it’s in the back of the book) and then going back and reading the book with her we could appreciate it in its form as Stein intended, and then look at how Stone chose to put it on the page.
Bianca Stone’s art and vision for this book is the glue that holds the whole kerschmozzle together. Her style is an interesting one as well. It calls to mind outsider art, even as she works in lovely watercolors and mixed-media. Strange is the default but not the requirement. It is not the style I personally gravitate towards, but there were moments here that struck me as almost too real. The image of the mom having to drag her daughter home, mid-tantrum, works not just because the girl’s righteous fury is real, but because of the expression on the mom’s face. I want to take that face and make a t-shirt out of it and then wear it on the days when my kids are making demands that cannot be met. We moms are all this mom.
I wondered how my kids would react to the art, and they weren’t put off in the least by fact that it doesn’t look like those slick CGI picture books you see on display in Barnes & Noble. However, as we went through the book my daughter did ask me to clarify why the artist had chosen one image or another for each phrase. I gave it my best shot, but I think she understood after a while that Stone doesn’t always try to match the words closely. You can justify the first line “A little called anything shows shudders” to mean that there’s a baby in a belly waiting to be born, but the next line “Come and say what prints all day” doesn’t have much to do with that same pregnant woman high-tailing it for a taxi to the hospital. In a way, this book is almost like a wordless picture book. You get a lot of the content from the imagery and then, after a fashion, you can choose whether or not you want to take the poem on the side into consideration. The choice is entirely up to you!
In her Illustrator’s Afterword, Stone begins with some good ideas for children and teachers. As she says, this is a poem but “This is also a story!” By adding a visual narrative she changed the words into something entirely new. Aiding teachers everywhere, she suggests taking lines from this poem to make “Poetry Comics”, as she calls them. That’s a great idea, but why not go further? Why not have kids do an entirely different interpretation of the whole poem? Or suggest other poems that they might turn into their own books? When I mentioned earlier the idea of taking Stein’s poems and having a different artist do each one (paging Calef Brown, Maira Kalman, Javaka Steptoe, etc.) that idea works just as well in an assignment with kids too. But don’t limit yourself! Find new ways to mix and meld poetry and art. You could turn this book into an entire poetry and art unit, given the right creative spark. Take classic paintings and assign them to lines of this poem! Take one line of it and make all the kids do a piece of art in any medium that brings it personally to life. So many possibilities.
Stone says, “Poetry is not a mysterious riddle you must figure out. It is a continuous adventure with your own mind, and there are no wrong answers in how you interact with it. All it asks is that you do.” Sometimes that’s something I forget too. Poetry is like math to me. I think I don’t understand it, can’t comprehend it, and it can’t be personal to me, until the right kind of creator opens my eyes and shows me how wrong I’ve been. Bianca Stone took a risk in bringing this book to life. I’ve no doubt that there will be plenty of folks out there that take one look at its simple cover, flip through, scoff, and set it down. More fool they. If you want a book that gives your children raw, unblemished poetry in a form they CAN’T understand and love NOT understanding, this is the book for them. This is a book for kids (and adults) unafraid to use their brains. This is a book with guts and glory packed in its pages. See if you’re brave enough to give it a shot.
On shelves April 14th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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