Thursday, September 6, 2012

But Didn’t Gutenberg Have a Beard?

Sound business advice seems to be: give’em what they want and you’ll make money. This is sound advice in publishing as well. Print books people want to read and they’ll buy them. But along these same lines runs a pernicious argument—if arguments can be pernicious: write what people expect to read and you’ll sell books. 

If a book contains information that runs counter to what people think they know, the book runs the risk of being rejected, if not scorned. This doesn’t happen so much with books for adults. The author uses his skill to craft arguments to overcome the reading public’s resistance. But in children’s books, especially picture books, there isn’t room, time, or the logical tools at hand to change people’s minds. 

Besides children’s books aren’t at the forefront of human knowledge. They are not supposed to present new ideas or theories. They’re supposed to be pre-chewed adult ideas that a child can easily digest. They’re supposed to be a simple version of what an adult already knows so that the adult will have little trouble fending off the “why’s” of little readers. 

If a children’s book runs against the common flow of knowledge, the book becomes suspect and the author’s integrity is questioned. Sure, there are things in children’s books that need to be questioned. There are even mistakes, as there are in all books. Sometimes these mistakes are accidental; sometimes they are due to laziness on the part of editors. All are regrettable. But I am not talking about questioning as a part of healthy reading. No, I am talking about not questioning, of dismissing the book because it seems to run counter to what the adult reader thinks he or she knows.

I remember with my book about Champollion’s decipherment of Ancient Egyptian, Seeker of Knowledge, a museum shop refused to carry the book because the hieroglyph for elephant looked too much like an Indian elephant than it did an African one. Turns out that North Africa had its own species of elephant at the time and what is more, it is reported that one of the pharaohs had purchased elephants from India!  Seeker of Knowledge also raised eyebrows because it did not present the story in the usual fashion. Common knowledge is that Champollion used the Rosetta stone to decipher Egyptian. While this is true, it is only partially true. It always bothered me, when I was a kid that the books I read stopped after they explained how Champollion decoded some of the letters of the Egyptian alphabet. What I wanted to know was: how did he decode all of the pictures? My book was a start, an attempt at answering that question for the little Jimmy Rumford’s of this world.

Besides, who wants to rehash old information and pre-chew it for kids? Why not present new ideas, new angles, perhaps new research?  Why not make Beowulf [Beowulf, a Hero’s Tale Retold] look like the enfeebled, battle-scarred, unhero-like septuagenarian that he was ? 

Why not tie in the myth of Cadmus [There’s a Monster in the Alphabet] with the way our letters are ordered in our alphabet ? Why not say in my Island-below-the-Star and Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves, that Polynesians loved, above all else, to explore their ocean world instead of reinforcing the James Michener myth of fleeing Tahiti like pilgrims fleeing England for America ? Why not make Gutenberg clean-shaven, even though all the books I have ever seen show him with a full Mosaic beard?

This last might need some explanation, and so, in my book (soon to be out: September 18) From the Good Mountain, perhaps to ward off the wearied reviewer, I told how, according to all of the fifteenth-century miniatures and portraits I have seen, men of Gutenberg’s class did not wear beards and that the commonly reproduced portrait of him was done about a hundred years after he had died—at a time when beards were fashionable.  I even revisited the question of whether nor not Gutenberg had a beard in my companion guide to the children’s book. Here are two pages from that guide[From the Good Mountain: a companion guide for adults and children], which I made available on just yesterday.


As an author, I find it always a little chancy to go against what I think people want to hear, especially if I want people to buy the books I write. So, I am back where I started, ignoring sound business advice. To me, it is always better to give people what they need to hear.

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