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In her novel We Were The Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates describes High Point Farm:

The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous–the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house–what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique slight in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind–a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.

A storybook house you’re thinking, yes? Must be, storybook people live there.

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From Songs We Sing (A Big Golden Book), illustrated by William Dugan, 1957

If you’re an artist and you ever sit down to illustrate a picture book, even if you’ve not considered this question before it may come up as you illustrate:How much of your illustration is going to be ‘storybook’? Which parts of the illustration will draw attention to themselves by not being classically ‘storybook’?

For there are certain ‘storybook’ ways of depicting certain objects. The interior of a child’s bedroom will have a single bed, elevated on four legs (or perhaps bunks); curtains on the window, a few toys scattered artfully around (likely some books). A futon on the floor or a foldout sofa will draw attention to itself. A child’s house will basically be clean, with no peeling wallpaper, or crayon marks where a parent tried to scrub off two-year-0ld artwork and didn’t quite manage it that time. Storybook homes are not mobile ones. They are most typically found in leafy suburbs.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children's illustrator, book author and doll designer.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children’s illustrator, book author and doll designer.

Parents will drive sensible family cars like station wagons (not convertibles fitted out with child booster seats). Towns will comprise everyone’s idea of perfect capitalism: a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a bakery, rather than the more likely alternative of Walmarts in America and The Warehouse in New Zealand…

Fathers go out to work in the morning rather than at night. They wear button down shirts and carry briefcases. Families eat breakfast together.

These are not rules, of course. These are simply the storybook conventions which don’t draw attention to themselves. Except when they do. Like when more and more readers become dissatisfied with the fact that this storybook world we imagine is in fact a white, middle-class world, which seems to have the 1950s era as an ideal, even when modernity is also apparent.

There is a place for storybook fantasies. It’s also true that we need more diversity in picturebooks. We need:

  • working mothers and shift-working fathers
  • microwave dinners and lunches out of paper bags
  • families without cars of their own
  • untidy houses with piles of un-ironed washing and dirty dishes stacked on the bench
  • mobile homes, and multiple families living together, shared bedrooms, queues outside the bathroom, fold-out sofas
  • urban environments with concrete landscaping
  • lice combing after dinner

 

Children need to see these things, as part of everyday stories rather than ‘stories about poverty’. A good writer/illustrator team can make any setting a reassuring one. Young readers need these settings even though it will mean replacing cosy with the real. There will remain a need for cosy, existing alongside the real. But unless the real is included, what we have is symbolic annihilation and invisibility of the poor.

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Lane Smith apparently lives in a house with ‘storybook charm’. Pictures here.