Last night, I went with Jeannine to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA to see a new documentary film about children’s books titled "Library of the Early Mind: A Grown-up Look at Art in Children’s Literature". The film’s producer, Steven Withrow, and director Edward Dalaney were on hand to introduce the film and take part in a panel discussion after the screening, along with several noted children’s book creators who were featured (or at least briefly shown) in the film.
Jeannine was very interested in seeing this documentary, and told me that it was necessary to reserve tickets (which she did), as it was apparently expected that there would be a lot of people showing up to see it. Not having heard much about it myself, and not knowing nearly as much about and/or being nearly as involved in the world of children’s books as Jeannine, my interest level was significantly lower, but I was looking forward to seeing it… partly because one of my new goals is to become more knowledgeable and more involved with this world of "kidlit".
We arrived at the Carle early, to make sure that we got good seats, and perhaps the first warning sign that this film was not exactly what Jeannine hoped it might be was that by the time the entire audience had filed in, the small theater space at the Carle was not even close to being filled — in fact, I am pretty sure about half the seats were vacant.
The director and co-producer gave a short, forgettable introduction, and the film began.
A little over an hour and a half later, Jeannine and I were walking back to my truck, looking at the beautiful near-sunset clouds, and I was wondering what the hell it was we just saw.
The documentary is basically a "talking heads" kind of thing, with many segments from interviews with various children’s book writers and illustrators like Jane Yolen, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Van Allsburg and Mo Willems, among others. (In doing a bit of online researching about the film to get some details correct, it is noted that there are supposedly "more than forty" authors and illustrators featured in the film, but — because of one major problem with the film, which I will get to in a moment — I came out of it thinking that it must have been half that number or less.) Bridging these "talking head" segments are what often seem like random images, many having to do with kids reading (or being read to from) children’s books (although some of these bits seemed suspiciously "stagey", as if someone was just off-camera saying "Okay, now point at that page!"), with others being almost bizarre in their randomness. One in particular was a scene in an airport, followed by a lingering pan across some green storage lockers (at least that’s what I thought they were).
But that’s a minor annoyance, and not the biggest problem with this documentary.
The biggest problem with this film is that it has no discernible theme. Every so often, you can sense a theme struggling to emerge (one that came to me as Jeannine and I talked about the film later was something having to do with the perennial nature of the creation cycle of children’s literature, wherein some children are profoundly affected by books they experience at that young age, and as they grow up and experience adult things, they then bring those aspects of life back to children’s books in some form as they create their own new works), but that quickly goes away, drowned out by the long — some (like myself) might say nearly interminable — interview segments with a few of the authors and illustrators.
There are several offenders, but the worst is the guy (I can’t recall his name) who talks at great length about how, when he was a younger man, he piloted a sailboat up to New York City, said sailboat being stuffed with hashish, all so he could make $10,000 (in cash!)… following which he was arrested, and spent time in prison.
Now, that is actually an interesting bit, and as an example of how a somewhat sleazy, disreputable adult experience could somehow be transmogrified and integrated into a children’s book, it could lead to some fascinating insights about the nature of the creation of children’s literature.
But it doesn’t.
Instead, the story about this stupid drug smuggling "adventure" goes on, and on, and on…
… and for me, it pointed out the greatest weakness of this film — it’s lack of proper editing. In my opinion, given the content displayed in this thing, the whole film SHOULD have been less than an hour long, maybe even forty-five minutes — certainly not an hour and a half. The story about the drug smuggling could have easily been presented in about half a minute — and while I did not have my stopwatch out to time how long it went on, I would guess it took up somewhere between three and five minutes.
There are several other points in the film where interviewees are allowed to ramble on about something that happened to them or that they did in their past, and while some — maybe even most — of these things are to varying degrees interesting, the time wasted on them is, frankly, appalling. I found myself getting very agitated and bored hearing the same ground being covered, over and over.
And it is a pity, because even though I am a newcomer to this world of children’s books, even I know that it is a huge world, filled with a panoply of interesting characters, with a long and rich history… it’s a world which could be mined for a wealth of material to make a fascinating documentary — maybe even a series of fascinating documentaries.
This, sadly, is not such a beast.
It’s not a total loss — occasionally someone say something interesting and/or moving, the images are pretty, for the most part, and technically it is more than adequate (sound, color, etc.) — but anyone expecting a profound examination of the world of children’s books and those who create them will need to wait for another, more thematically coherent documentary to be made. — PL
P.S. I just remembered this one, and I should write it down here as #1 in the "Why is this pointless scene in this documentary?" sweepstakes — there is a scene apparently shot in a rare books store, with an unctuous book dealer showing off several very expensive early editions of classic children’s books ("And this edition of "The Wizard of Oz" is priced at $117,000.00." I may have the figure wrong, but it’s in the ballpark.). Why? WHY is this scene in this documentary? It gave me an immediate bad vibe memory of news stories about comic books in which, to try to add some kind of legitimacy to the art form, a collector or dealer would talk about how this or that Golden Age first issue was sold for a million dollars. Gag.
P.P.S. At least I managed to get this nice photo of the clouds after we’d left the theatre.