Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Uncommon sense

One of the advantages of having a daughter who is a children's book editor is that I get to see a lot of really terrific children's books, sometimes before they even hit the streets, at least those published by Houghton-Mifflin, which include some outstanding author/illustrators like David Wiesner and Barbara Lehman. Wiesner is a particular favorite of mine, and I always eagerly await his next book. I have just now "read" his new Flotsam, along with Lehman's The Red Book.

Both books are wordless. Both have much the same theme: imagination uniting children all over the world. In the one case, the instrument of unification is a magical box camera that sails the seas, in the other, a red book and a globe-spanning flight on a cluster of balloons. The illustrators could not be more different: Wiesner's style is exquisitely realistic; Lehman's seduces with childlike simplicity.

Einstein once famously wrote: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking." It is a paradox that a gift for fantasy can be the royal road to reality. Lmited imaginations doom us to live in conceptual worlds of a commonplace sort. Our gods will be little more than extensions of ourselves. Our heaven will look pretty much like the local neighborhood, except with streets of gold. Our hell will look like the other side of the tracks, with licking flames.

Meanwhile, reality, with its grand and unfamiliar infinities, goes by the board.

Poor Galileo. Imagine him trying to convince his contemporaries that they were whizzing along at 800 miles per hour on a spinning Earth. And at 66,000 miles per hour as the Earth orbits the Sun. "Ridiculous!" they said. "We have no sense of motion. The air is still. The birds perch unperturbed in still trees."

And common sense confirmed their view. They made the nearly blind old man kneel on the marble floor of a Vatican palace and deny what he knew to be true.

Galileo taught us that common sense is a limited guide to truth, and his great lesson is one we should teach our children. Where better to learn than with lovely books such as Wiesner's Flotsam and Lehman's The Red Book that do not preach or indoctrinate, but simply ask children to travel in their imaginations to places where no one else has gone before.