Monday, January 04, 2021

"This is a Little Princess"

She had chosen a Disney princess book for me to read to her, but we were mostly just talking our way through the pages. I was pretty certain she hadn't seen the movie, but she nevertheless seemed to know a lot about the characters and the story. I turned a page and she remarked, "That's a little Snow White."

"Yes, but she's bigger than the dwarfs."

"They're little too. On the other page they were big."

We flipped back to find the same characters, but framed to appear closer to the reader. I said, "Oh, that Snow White isn't little, she's just farther away."

She furrowed her brows at the picture for a moment, then said, "She is little."

"Yes, she looks smaller because she's farther away. This one looks bigger because she's so close."

The girl looked at me like I was crazy. "This," she said pointedly while pointing, "is a big princess. And this," jabbing her finger at the other page, "is a little princess." She bent and rumpled the pages so that we could see both at the same time. Of course, she was right. One of the drawings of Snow White was a smaller figure than the other. I knew that the artists had done this to represent perspective in a two-dimensional depiction, but when the ink hit the paper, as this girl was accurately pointing out, they were, objectively, different sizes: one large and one small.

I had simply bought into an artistic convention for creating the illusion of depth. I was the one seeing what was not there. She, in this case, was the hard-headed pragmatist. I said, "You're right. This princess drawing is small and the other one is big."

Satisfied with my capitulation to reality, she returned to the the project of talking our way through the book. "I like the big one better. She's nicer."

"I think she looks worried."

She studied the big face for a moment, then flipped to the page with the small princess. "She looks worried AND nice, but the little one has a mean face. See?" 

"I think her face is like that because she's disappointed with the dwarfs. They did something she didn't like."

"She's the mean one."

I should have seen this one coming, but I stepped right into it, "Well, she's the same princess. On this page she's feeling worried and nice, then on this page she's feeling frustrated."

"They are not the same. This one is nice and this one is mean."

And again, she was right. I wasn't seeing what was on the page like she was -- two similar, yet distinct princesses -- but rather an illusion created by the convention of representing characters on sequential pages to represent a person doing and feeling over time.

It reminded me of the line from The Little Prince, "The grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and, for children, it's tiresome giving them explanations." And indeed she had seemed somewhat exasperated with me. So much of what we perceive as the "real world" are illusions of this sort, fictions upon which we've built our collective perspective on how the world works. There was a time, most of human existence in fact, when artists didn't understand creating perspective on a 2-D surface and the rest of us would have been incapable of seeing it even if they did. The whole idea of a world being contained within the pages of a book would have been beyond comprehension. We like to think of ourselves as realists, but since, as this girl shows, reality is always a matter of perspective, we really live in a world of illusion. 

It's a shame that so much of what passes for teaching is simply "correcting" children when they are "wrong," compelling them to adopt our own staid, agreed upon illusions about a world that can change with the turn of a page. What if we honored children's illusions as much as we honored our own? Imagine what we might discover about ourselves and our world.


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