Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The pictures take me take me

While I was helping with her pajamas, my daughter read me a clever picture book called The Pencil, in which a pencil draws a whole village but has to contend with an overzealous eraser he draws to rub out some mistakes.

The story reminded me of my longtime fascination with stories in which a world is drawn. There's Harold and the Purple Crayon, of course. And there's "Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings," which aired on Captain Kangaroo in the seventies. At a farther remove, there's the very strange Mike Myers parody of "Simon" that appeared on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties; although the theme song claimed "I like to do draw-rings!", all Simon ever did was sit in the bathtub.

By far my strongest association with this world-creating impulse is the book Trash Can Toys and Games by Leonard Todd. I had this book as an adolescent, and I'll never forget its corrugated cardboard cover. It was good for hours of dreaming about making Aztec idols out of paperboard and caterpillars out of egg cartons.

There was one huge layout made out of Clorox bottles and milk jugs -- a space station complete with spool-and-marble astronauts and dishwashing liquid container rockets. I stared at it for ages, thinking about how to gather enough trash to recreate it, and despairing of ever making anything as perfect as portrayed in the book.

It's the scale and success of these sketched or constructed worlds that paralyzed me as a child. I frequently sat down with my Lego sets with the intention of building an entire city. But it never emerged the way I saw it in my head, and rather than just going with the flow and accident of the moment, I usually gave up amid a vague feeling of inferiority and dissatisfaction.

And I must admit that when I suggest large creative projects to my children -- to build a city with their blocks, or write and draw a story in their notebooks -- I worry that I'm setting them up for the same sense of inadequacy. Cady Gray seems unbothered by the pictures of Tinkertoy machines or Lego dwellings on the outside of her toy containers, and Archer appears quite up to the task of writing and illustrating complex creations (at least when the subject matter meshes with his obsessions). If I bought them a book like I had when I was a kid, intended to spark their imaginations, would it stifle and disappoint them instead?


the secret knitter said...

What a trip. I'd forgotten all about Simon and his chalk, but almost as soon as the clip started playing, it came back to me.

Adam Villani said...

I learned to have fun inside my brain, even if I never made anything quite as big as they were in my head.