Listen to the Recess! Clip
Along with Brains, Beauty is the other half of the theme of this year’s Chicago Children’s Festival. How these two qualities, smarts and good looks, ever got separated in our cultural life is a real puzzle, but we all know that it is possible to be one without other, and to do very well, thank you. Children see a similar equation working in their lives: the beautiful children get called on for all the good parts. The brainy ones get called nerds and are forgotten in the back of the room.
But in children’s books, especially in fairy and folk tales, in fables, and in fantasy literature, it’s possible to cross these boundaries and to plant some new ideas before the stereotypes of popular culture take over and offer little room for alternative thinking to grow. In Charles Perrault’s seventeenth century version of “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, Beauty’s integrity is put to the test, and it is her ability to abide by her principles and hold on to her values that ultimately makes her beautiful. Beauty is as beauty does. In Sleeping Ugly, one of the many works by Jane Yolen, who is a featured speaker at this year’s festival, the “plain” heroine of the story wins the hand of the prince because of her inner beauty — despite the presence of her physically attractive, but thoroughly ugly competitor, Princess Miserella. There’s comfort in that, and in so many other fairy tales in which the undeservedly privileged get their comeuppance while the ugly ducklings get to become swans in the end. After all, the original meanings of the word, “beauty,” return us to ideas of balance, harmony, and proportion; to ideas of truthfulness and originality — as well as to the concept of being able to do something well.
For an experience of this order of beauty, be sure to look at the picture books of Vera B. Williams, who also will be appearing at the festival. They are about simple things — like playing with a baby or planting cherry pits or finding the right chair for a mom who’s a waitress and is on her feet all day. And they are about people whose everyday stories don’t usually make it into the pages of picture books. But their everyday dramas, and what Vera Williams does with them in her luminous watercolors and elegantly simple language, are at the very heart and soul of beauty. For there is such a thing as a beautiful life, a life engaged in trying to create those places of loving cooperation, understanding, and tranquility. It’s all there in her books, all that beauty. It’s as if we are each sitting with our own mothers in that comfortable chair, “and she can reach right up and turn out the light if I fall asleep in her lap.”