“Just Make A Mark”: Encouragement or the Celebration of Mediocrity?

One of the books I enjoy reading to my daughters is The Dot (not pictured above), authored and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, but not everyone loves it as much as we do.  The lone 1 star Amazon review it has received to date complains:

…The book celebrates mediocrity by framing in gold a half-hearted splotch of ink… once the teacher set such a low bar, the child thinks “I’ve got talent” and proceeds to create large quantities of mediocrity.  It’s all part of the dumbing down of quality and a feel-good educational system that rewards the smallest of effort.

The author of the negative review believes The Dot celebrates mediocrity: a young girl angrily jabs a piece of paper with a marker, making a dot, which her teacher frames.  I suspect the reviewer would not be a fan of Cy Twombly, whom even my own husband calls “the least impressive artist of the past century,” despite the fact that Twombly’s framed scribbles sell for millions of dollars.

I suppose another cynical interpretation of the book’s underlying message is that it encourages public shaming as a pedagogical method.  When Vashti sees her dot framed on the wall, possibly feeling embarrassed, she declares, “Hmmph!  I can make a better dot than THAT!”  Finally inspired, she creates many more dots, putting in the effort necessary to produce work that makes her proud.

In my opinion, however, The Dot teaches children to try, the all important lesson that starting somewhere is better than never starting at all.  Vashti does not believe in herself.  She suffers from a mental block that prevents her from expressing herself on paper, a familiar situation to many of us.  Her teacher framed her dot as a form of encouragement, similar to how showing bits of a work-in-progress to a writing group or submitting portions to competitions can help writers stay motivated.

Vashti sounds very much like one of my own daughters, who declares from time-to-time, “I just can’t do it!”  As her parent, my challenge is to encourage her to try new challenges without bruising her self-esteem.  Much like the way the teacher channels Vashi toward a confidence-building activity (signing her name), we steer our easily frustrated daughter to activities she feels she can do, and then encourage her to return to what she felt she could not do.  Our hope is that she will develop a new outlook on her abilities in the intervening time.

Finding confidence-building activities and celebrating baby steps are important lessons, particularly for the anxiety-prone among us.  As I discussed in a previous post, Perfectionism and Publishing, anxiety can be paralyzing.  Perfectionists don’t want to fail, and sometimes starting a new project can feel so daunting that it never happens.  In those paralyzing moments, when faced with a blank piece of paper (which the teacher jokes is “a polar bear in a snow storm”), Vashi’s teacher’s advice might help: “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.”  Every project, whether it’s a drawing or a novel, must start somewhere.

Image: “A Tribute to Cy Twombly,” titled and created by my husband on ArtRage for the iPad.  To be fair, there are many who appreciate Twombly’s use of texture, color, and intellectual references in his art.  Many remember him as “one of the greatest artists of our generation.”

20 thoughts on ““Just Make A Mark”: Encouragement or the Celebration of Mediocrity?

  1. I think this is a great book! we read it to our 5th-8th graders to start a discussion on entrepreneurship- the lesson that you can start with a small idea and then build on it! It was perfect, and the students really got the message.

    1. Hey zbot, I think the lessons of THE DOT apply to any age group, and it’s great that your students got the message. Good luck teaching “entrepreneurship,” whatever that is!

    1. I love inspirational children’s books because they teach lessons that never grow old. Even adults need to remember that, as you say, “sometimes you have to just get the words running and see where they take you.”

  2. What seems to be overlooked here is that the framing of the dot is but the first step to rehabilitation. Yes, she can express herself! The teacher will try to motivate her to go beyond that expression to something deeper or more meaningful. it’s never enough for the teacher recognize a potential breakout; the great teacher challenges us to be more than we are now. So, yes I think you are right about the criticism as long as there is a follow up step to the book…

    1. Exactly–the dot was the first step and framing it encouraged Vashti to take the next step. It’s really a wonderful lesson for children and even for adults (who may need to be reminded from time to time).

  3. It seems to me the reviewer missed the point of the book. He saw THE DOT through adult eyes instead of through the intended audience of a child’s eyes. Not only that, the review seems to take a shot as his local school system and “newly hired principal”, instead of objectively, and accurately reviewing this book. Where he sees mediocrity, children may relate to the story of Vashi and be inspired to express themselves artistically too. Whatever happened to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or looking at things from a different perspective? I guess mediocrity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    Sometimes a dot is all the creativity a person has. Let them discover who they are artisitcally, whatever way they can. Eventually they’ll grow through experience and may take that dot to unexpected places. At least they had the courage to make a mark in the first place.

    Lovely post.

    1. I agree that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder! You can’t please everyone, but it seems that Peter H. Reynolds has managed to please most. I think you’re right that the reviewer isn’t looking at the book from a child’s perspective. When I look at my kids, particularly when I consider the one who is so easily frustrated, I understand how framing her creative work, even if she gave up too soon, would encourage her to try harder next time. It’s all part of the learning process. The reviewer reminds me of Tiger Mom, who would probably never accept a mere dot from her daughters. In her world, if drawing/painting is even acceptable in the first place, it’s a masterpiece worthy of a museum or nothing.

    1. Thank you! It’s very important to help children overcome self-doubt. As I explained in the post, one of my daughters lacks confidence (while her identical twin does not!), and it’s always a challenge to encourage her to try new activities. Through trial and error, we’ve learned how to help her, and we’re hoping she’ll enter adolescence and eventually her adult years with higher self-esteem.

  4. Most of the reviewers agree with you AMB! So important, when teaching or coaching, to work on a child’s (or indeed person’s) strengths rather than continually pointing out and trying to correct weak points. Confidence in progressing will enable the weaknesses to be easily overcome in time.

    1. So true! It’s interesting that the book had only one negative review out of 55 reviews (the next lowest review being a four at this time). No book will please everyone, but this one came pretty close!

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