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Review of Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity

By Caroline Campbell

Op de Beeck, Natalie. Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

As the title of this book indicates, Natalie Op de Beeck’s considered and articulate critique of American children’s picture books hinges on the discourse of modernity as core to their genesis, construction and ongoing development. Her overview of the literature produced during the decades 1920 to 1940 subsequently traces the cultural history of that influence as contingent on the social and political consolidation of America as an advanced, independent, technological nation of assimilated indigenous, black, and immigrant peoples. Op de Beeck’s wide-ranging investigation encompasses works that are canonical to the study of modern children’s literature and juvenilia. Key to her consideration is the interface between image and text, the history of reproduction and publishing, author and illustrator biographies, stylistic modes of representation as well as readership, and dissemination. This focus is augmented by her critical examination of class, gender, and race. These issues are not only pivotal to American children’s literature. They are also crucial to the picture books, and illustrated novels published by UK-based publishers and the erstwhile dominions of Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand in the early decades of the twentieth century.

This broad scope requires an equally broad approach to evaluating the influence of these combined factors on production as well as graphic and textual modes of representation. Op de Beeck’s interdisciplinary approach, argued as countering the formal and semiotic focus of literary and visual criticisms, is suitably appropriate for the task. Moreover, it is entirely relevant for assessing the picture book artwork which, usually commissioned and for a young audience, has only recently been accorded the cultural merit that it deserves. The author’s adroit unpacking of key pictorial motifs (rural and urban landscapes, natural and mechanised figures, domesticity and industrialization) signals the impact of cultural attitudes and modernist worldviews. Her further reading of alienation and essentialism as accompanying these belief systems reinforces visual culture’s interest in visuality as allied to nationalism and its utopian projects of assimilation and acculturation, industry and progress. And although I prefer the notoriously difficult Jean-François Lyotard when contemplating the symbolic privileging of image and text, I do appreciate the author’s assessment of their performative role in describing and delineating the ‘machine age’.

Op de Beeck makes a strong case for children’s picture books as suspended animation. Her interrogation of the pictorial content, illustrator style and reproduction techniques of the selected works as signifying hegemonic as well as subversive racial and socio-political codes is compelling. The author brings a contemporary perspective to bear on her cultural reading of early-twentieth-century representations of indigenous, Afro-American, ethnic peoples, and marginalised groups. Op de Beeck’s iconographical analysis is undoubtedly reflective of a heightened political sensitivity regarding the former treatment and mediation of these peoples in print and film media. While I share her point of view, I find that her commentary reinforces cultural perceptions of early-twentieth-century authors and illustrators as complicit in upholding the stereotypic views of traditional ideologies. A more complete picture of author/illustrator perspectives could have been gleaned by including archival material such as personal communication, personal diaries and family anecdotes as well as commissioning letters.

My main criticism relates to the inclusion of Armstrong Sperry’s illustrations to the text. The illustrations throughout the book derive from the canon of American modernist author/illustrators and are pivotal to the author’s discussion. The majority selected to illustrate the argument for sequentiality are single or double-page spreads. Some, such as the innovative page layouts of Ellis Creadle, Wanda Gág, Dorothy Kunhardt, and Virgina Lee Burton, are instrumental in showing stylistic developments in the compositional integration and juxtaposition of image and text. Others, such as those created by Leonard Weisgard, successfully demonstrate how the designer/illustrators of the period negotiated the materiality and format of the book to enable a seamless reading reminiscent of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. In contradistinction, the double-page spreads of Armstrong Sperry conform to the popular cultural treatment of the exotic in the tourist ephemera and film posters of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Furthermore, his framed images of the exotic other bear a certain resonance to the special inserts created by notable graphic artists for the illustrated papers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Mass produced and affordable, as was the tourist ephemera of the period, these reproduced artworks possessed a certain cachet for those with middle-class aspirations. In my view, the children’s picture books of Creadle, Gág, Burton, Ward and Weisgart share the characteristics of “sequential motion” and “limited animation,” and can be argued to correlate with the time/space concerns of the comic and the graphic novel (53). However, it is more difficult for the reader to fully appreciate the singular and, in my opinion, hermetically sealed works of Sperry as demonstrating the mode of representation termed sequential art or graphical narrative.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and, in particular, the author’s informed and scholarly insights into the socio-cultural and political factors informing production, publishing and readership. Op de Beeck employs an entirely different focus to Roger Sabin’s chronological study of politically charged and subversive comics and graphic novels, often the creation of outsider artists. Her theoretical reading of the key texts, combined with her understanding of the great shifts occurring in America during the inter-war years, supplements the scholarly writing by Clare Bradford, Roderick McGillis, Kerry Mallan, and Perry Nodelman, amongst others. As the essayist, critical thinker, part-time Marxist, and Qabalist Walter Benjamin contends, children continually reinvent themselves through their activities, the most personal and introspective of which is reading. Much like the modern novel created for older audiences, children’s picture books provide the reader with an insight into the changing social values and cultural attitudes that are reflective of changing subjective positions. So, although this work doesn’t deal with animation and sequential art per se, I consider it an excellent resource for those interested in tracing the merging of image and text in popular culture and children’s literature.

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