Room with a View:
Bedroom Scenes in Picture Books
The picture book that depends on “the drama of the turning of the page,” as Barbara Bader, echoing Remy Charlip, 1 heralds it, is a sort of chamber theater, whether it opens in New York or in Moscow. Like conventional theater, it tends to play to an indoor audience, one which favors darkening rooms where the crib itself has been the first stage, the bedroom the first theater, the bedroom window the first breakthrough into the world as spectacle. In this age of homelessness, if the picture book has a corner on any market, it is the market of those who inhabit their own bedrooms, who take “home” for granted and bring picture books home. Now, as earlier, these constitute a privileged class that can afford dolls, toys, and picture books as well as the time for playing. 2 Not all picture books are bedroom material, but if their ultimate destination is the child who reads, they will have crossed the threshold of such a bedroom more than once.
A bedroom scene is generative: from it springs a certain question-marked figure of the child, the designated offspring we are invited to read about, along with that child’s story or fabula and the picture book itself, which, like a notepad 3 (some people refer to their own living quarters as a pad), opening after opening, under the covers, reveals what we readers both fear and desire to see and to know. as proposed by the title of the book—for example, of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Jean-Marie Poupart and Suzanne Duranceau’s Nuits Magiques. Natalie Babbitt’s The Something. or Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. Any book, in the right circumstances, can lull the reader to sleep. Its most vital function may be to summon up in the reader what Gaston Bachelard has called “la beauté des images premières” while simultaneously testing and challenging their interpretation in the accompanying text.
Sensitive illustrations, especially those that stage the bedroom scene, go a long way toward questioning language. Jacqueline Rose [End Page 53] concludes The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction with a plea for such a questioning: “It is a questioning of language itself as the means through which subjective identity, at the level of psychic and sexual life, is constituted and then imposed and reimposed over time” (140). Questions of self-representation, of origin and destiny, toss and turn in the picture book’s bedroom scene, shaking off the word-covers, their protection against the unknown and unspeakable.
A “topo-poetics” of the picture book, then, will depend largely not on evocative text but on images, the description of which constitutes a branch of iconography. The following composite of conventional ingredients of the bedroom suite 4 as illustrated in the picture book is drawn from a reading of North American and northern European picture books. They typically include a bed (usually with headboard, sometimes with posts) and a coverlet (often a patch-work quilt), windows with flowing curtains and a view of moon and stars, a lamp, a mirror, a picture on the wall, a door, a cat or dog on or near or in the bed, a doll. The bedroom itself is usually found at the top of a flight of stairs, not in a basement or on the ground floor. The bed, positioned sometimes at a tilt on the page, is a parallelogram; still, with all its folds and wrinkles, topside, underside, head and foot, it is emphatically three-dimensional, an inanimate version of its owner or occupant, who has left an imprint or an impression on it (“someone has been sleeping in my bed”). The door and window (and the framed picture on the wall) conform, in miniature, to the rectilinear verticals and horizontals of the edge of the page. Curvilinear lines are reserved for curtains, bedclothes, and bodies. 5
There are variations on this iconic cluster. A cave, lair, or nest may replace the bedroom; although the rectilinearity of the page is not replicated by the shape of such domains, they nonetheless.
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