SOMETIMES children don't have the words to express their complex emotions and thoughts. Yet a drawing can reveal their innermost feelings wordlessly.
Robert Coles, a well-known child psychiatrist and Harvard University professor, has spent much of his life studying the artistic expression of children.
Through the use of crayon, paint, and pencil, young people around the United States and from various corners of the globe have taught Dr. Coles lessons about their lives. Coles has written more than 50 books, and some of those books have included drawings by young people. But "Their Eyes Meeting the World" (Houghton Mifflin, 133 pp., $30) is Coles's first volume devoted entirely to the drawings of children.
The coffee-table-size book is a collection of 50 full-color drawings by preteen children from around the world. It brings together the insights Coles gained working with children in the South during the 1960s, in New Mexico during the '70s, and throughout the US and other countries more recently.
The drawings come from the hands of black and white children experiencing early integration efforts in the South, suburban children of privilege, children living in ghettos, and children with what are considered terminal illnesses. They are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. They are Eskimo, Pueblo, and Hopi.
"I have been constantly impressed by the expressiveness in children's drawings, but also by their pointed connection to the circumstances of the young artist," Coles writes in "Their Eyes Meeting the World." "What is significant in the life of the child comes across again and again in the drawings and paintings that child makes...."
Take, for example, 11-year-old Larry, the son of a wealthy landowner who employed hundreds of migrant farm workers in the South. Larry repeatedly draws pictures of dark migrant workers laboring in the fields under a huge, hot sun. He tells Coles: "I'm sure if the sun was a person, he'd be sad and he'd feel pretty sorry for what he does to those folks who have to pick our crops!"
"Larry worried about the marginal, vulnerable people whose daily labor, he realized, got translated, ultimately, into his family's wealth," Coles writes. "For him, to draw was not only to be imaginative, to render beauty, but to evoke and portray lives, to make a moral statement."
Each child uses the artistic outlet to express his or her individual perspective. From Tunisia, 12-year-old Habib draws a world where "everyone will be kind to everyone else, and everything will work, and no one is in trouble." Twelve-year-old Leola, who is a paraplegic living in rural Georgia, draws a picture of herself kneeling in prayer beside the bed.
"I can think and I can dream and I can pray and I can let my mind go anyplace it wants, so I've been all over," she tells Coles.
At first glance, this appears to be a picture book worth glancing through swiftly. But the drawings prove spellbinding, and Coles is a master storyteller. His poetic insights coupled with the "inarticulate eloquence" of these drawings create a poignant statement about the lives of these children.