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New York Times

'Whatever' and 'Terrific': Folks of Few Words

(excerpt) November 13, 2005

THERE is a psychosis peculiar to the criticism of children's literature: a delusion that adults can read the minds of children. The notion that a diversity of opinion begins at voting age is offensive enough, but evaluating literature according to predictions of marketability is a betrayal of criticism's very core, and people who make such statements ought to be given the same raised eyebrow we might give to those who announce that the success of Alice Munro is muted by the indifference to her work exhibited by black men.

This is a particularly vexing problem in the criticism of picture books, which is almost entirely rooted in the wrongheaded idea that adults can't read them. Thus the critic goes the mind-reader route, or the pedagogical route ("Perfect for teaching Chinese history!") or, most noxiously, the limited-market-research route, in which the toddler nearest the critic is questioned as an expert.

To add insult to injury, picture books are ignored by the champions of their nearest cousin, the graphic novel. The comics of Chris Ware, for example, are naturally linked to the surreal fictions of George Saunders, but never to J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh's books about Mr. Lunch, despite immediately obvious similarities.

Happily, these two books serve not only as antidotes for this disheartening state of affairs, but also as primers for adults on how to read picture books properly: as works of visual and textual art. William Bee's "Whatever" and Jon Agee's "Terrific" are both keen reminders that picture books are things one should read, and not necessarily with a child on one's lap.