Notes from the La Trobe University podcast by David Beagley, available on iTunes U

  • Children’s literature is a major and powerful social force. It’s more than just an entertaining little diversion for a brief period in people’s lives.
  • Children’s literature is a construction, and it’s constructed largely by adults, not by the children. So the adults who write, illustrate, edit and publish, buy and sell them, judge them and recommend them are doing the judging, and as part of that judgement they are judging what makes a child, and what children should be reading.
  • As attitudes about children have changed over time, so have adult judgments about children’s literature.
  • The following idea says more about the speaker’s ideas about children than about picturebooks: Pictures in children’s books should be simple and clear and colorful. They should not be abstract. They should not blend into the background.
  • Such people think that children can make no sense of an idea such as ‘a woman sat at a window’ until a picture shows them what a woman is and what a window is.
  • But of course children are not simple-minded and they are not always cheerful (so do not always need bright colours). Words are no harder to understand than pictures even though knowing how to read words is hard, young readers understand spoken words before they understand pictures.
  • Why do children get different literature? Because adults think children are different. Childhood is ‘colonized’ by adults. (See article by Perry Nodelman: “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature.”.) This happens for two reasons: For education and for entertainment, to experience something vicariously. But we have this idea that kidlit must teach kids how to read and how to behave. Books can be too preachy or have lots of fun and these two things can have a tension in them. (Both of these two things do include a definition of a child.)
  • Who controls literature? Who is defining the child? The Andy Griffiths/Paul Jennings style of books with lots of poo jokes and bum jokes (e.g. The Day My Bum Went Psycho) push censorship boundaries.
  • Kidlit should be judged by its inherent literary value. Don’t use it as a ‘tool’.
  • When politicians and popstars write simplistic books for children is insulting to children.
  • Children are very capable of experiencing the joy of language, of poetry and good rhyme and metaphor.
  • Rosie’s Walk demonstrates critical artistic creation yet is as simple a text as you will come across. ‘Rosie the hen went for a walk across the yard, across the….and got back in time for dinner’. That’s as complex as the language gets. It is purely descriptive. It tells us of a superficial episode in the day in the life of a hen, hardly an intellectual challenge. However, this pictures require of the reader much more. (Peritext: The story actually starts before we get to the page where the words occur: the covers, the end-papers, the blurb, the title page.) All of that information is contributing to the story itself. Virtually all of the story is on the title page of Rosie’s Walk, with one little exception. The fox exists only the pictures, never in the text, so immediately there is a tension between the text and the illustrations. Already the reader doesn’t know which one to interpret, so the reader’s expectations have been disturbed. This provides simple, slapstick humour, and is now two different stories. The fox doesn’t ‘contradict’ what’s happening in the words, but creates an extra dimension. This enables the reader to feel as if they are being let in on a secret. The reader is being asked to contribute to the experience of the story — the reading process is no longer entirely passive. Even if the child has not yet developed the capacity to read, they’ll be reading with someone else saying the words. They could read it by themselves as pictures and they’d still get a story, but if someone is reading it, that’s a slightly different story. The textual narrator is as blind as Rosie. Rosie is oblivious to the fox. So it’s a kind of pantomime: ‘Look out! He’s behind you!’ for the young reader. Either the reader sees something that the writer doesn’t, or they’re being deliberately left out to tease us with a joke, and we’re being invited into a private joke the author is sharing with us. Normally, if you’ve got a fox and a hen the hen doesn’t stand much chance, but this expectation is subverted. [Inverted?]
  • Publishers put a lot of work into the cover because that’s one of the main reasons adults will buy a book. (Shaun Tan, by the way, began by doing covers. Shaun Tan is one of the top illustrators around at the moment.)
  • The difference between a picturebook and an illustrated book: In a picturebook, the pictures and words are separate but related. They’re integrated, meshed together. An illustrated book doesn’t necessarily do that: The words mention a politician, we see a picture of a politician.
  • Metatext: meta meaning all, refers to the coming together of text and image. They must be seen in relationship to each other. One may be dominant on first appearance. In Shaun Tan’s major texts you don’t know where to start looking because there’s so much incredible detail to take in. Roland Harvey  is similar in this regard. Pamela Allen’s pictures include a lot of white space but a lot of telling detail.