David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U

  • Children’s literature continues to evolve as society evolves and our idea of the child.
  • The teenager is an idea from the 1950s. Before that you were a child, and then you were an adult. The transition was of course recognised but before the 1950s teenagers were not treated differently again from either children or adults. The 1950s were significant in this regard because of TV. Screen format took over, breaking the shackle that ‘the picturebook is for little children’.
  • Deficit model: Teenagers are largely defined by what they’re not, rather than what they are. Yet they are required to behave differently to children. They have neither the rights and luxuries of childhood but they are not allowed all the responsibilities and rights of adulthood. (There are good reasons for this.)
  • The sophistication that comes with experience and having the vocabulary (not just the words) and the capacity to make decisions comes after the teen years.
  • Nowadays even the ‘tweens’ get their own label. It’s an exploitation of a particular social market and is a social construct entirely.
  • The recent digital explosion and the immediacy of visual communication that goes along with it have made a more visually oriented population. There is a commercial push for this rather than a social need.
  • Each form has its own visual vocabulary. There is a very specific vocabulary in Japanese manga, for example.
  • The medium is the massage (not message) — the medium ‘massages’ us towards new messages.
  • In the world of literature, the Children’s Book Council Of Australia and the awards they give out are a good way of seeing how things have changed. 1946 was the first one. (Previous winners.)
  • The distinction between novels and picture books is made in this award, as in others overseas, with the assumption that picturebooks are for young readers and novels for older ones.
  • Later, kids in grade 3 and 4 began to be catered for — this age group is not quite ready for the full teenage novel, so there is now a category of novel for young readers (chapter books)
  • Since 1993 there has been an award for non-fiction. A lot of these look like picturebooks, especially those which teach history etc.
  • Then ten years or so they decided to go even further with the ‘early childhood’ book. Some of the picturebooks forced them to reconsider the assumption that picturebooks were for early readers. You can have a picturebook for each age category. So there are now three age categories then you’ve also got genres: Early Childhood Picturebook, and so on. But a picturebook could hypothetically win all of these awards.
  • Separately, each Australian state has a children’s choice award, in which children select and vote for the books.
  • Anstey and Bull say that reading is an intellectual activity. Reading requires you to interpret codes that an author/illustrator have used to construct their communication. The reader interprets. It may be as simple as recognising the pattern of letters that make a word, scaled up to interpreting a sentence, then the pictures (bright/dark etc.) or is there a meaning behind the sequence of pictures across an entire book? (e.g. the size across Where The Wild Things Are)
  • Teenagers will expect more visual communication because that’s what they’re getting. Therefore their books must begin to use these codes, visual vocabulary. Because 15 year olds don’t want to read Rosie’s Walk. They want something more complicated but they don’t want it in the form of a picturebook.
  • Textual features for older readers: There are different story structures.
  • Stories for older readers are often left open. Or the story might branch off and go in different directions. Or there might be several different main characters, switching point of view. Can be non-linear. May set up a situation and leave the reader to imagine. The content and themes changed. Furry animals/bedtime/bathtime/play turns into homelessness/death/issues outside the home. These stories address questions teens ask, and things they want to know about. We get negative, nasty bad characters in order to ask these questions about the themes. Therefore the purpose of the text is different. This makes the reader question ourselves, and what we think matters.
  • Older readers have more experience both of life and of reading — they know there are bad people and good people. They know there is politics. They know they would like to do some things and they’re not allowed to.
  • How do authors deal with this sort of thing? They construct. They think carefully about the message they want to send to their readers. Will they use the language of the teenager or of the adult? What questions are asked? What expectations of the audience are made? What POV is presented?
  • The illustrator also makes these choices.
  • Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is the classic crossover text.
  • Unlike some of Tan’s other work, which can be photorealistic, this illustrative style is caricatured. The boy’s head is not a normal human shape. This may say something about him in relation to other people.
  • One of the key things: Older readers do not passively receive a message. Older readers must become more active in the interpretation.
  • Ted Egan (an Australian bush legend) wrote a story about drovers in the early days.
  • The theme is about death. Someone is killed on the first page, a heavy theme. They move on — they have to get a mob of cattle somewhere. But the protagonist cries, and men aren’t supposed to do this. It has a song rhythm — not sung with a melody, more chanted. Ted Egan doesn’t play instruments (only a cardboard box) and he drums a rhythm on it as he chants. The pictures are drawn, but look like old photographs which have been put into an old album by someone. There is even a picture of a lock of hair which has been taped into the album, but the symbolism is a cross. This is a brilliant example of artwork. Robert Ingpen has a bigger reputation overseas than here in Australia. This story is historical, reflective.
  • (discussion of another book not named about a homeless boy in which ripped pages are a feature, and the cars look like monsters.)
  • The Rabbits, written by John Marsden is very much a story about the colonisation of a country. You can read it as Australian. There is nothing that specifies Australia, though there are some strong correlations in the uniforms and flags that they use. There is one phrase which will be picked up as familiar in Australia. ‘…stole our children’. There are a lot of straight lines and stiff collars compared to the fluffy creatures in other books, and in real life.
  • Margaret Wild has in more recent years been making stories for older readers. Wolves in the Sitee is illustrated by Anne Spudvilas. The spelling of the title invites you to make judgements about the boy. Clearly he’s frightened. There’s something about to happen. Wolves are coming. What are these wolves? Layout is very interesting, very dark in browns and blacks. But it’s not hard lines the way The Rabbits were. It’s charcoal and slightly smudged. You can’t quite make out what’s written in the pictures. These are the choices that authors and illustrators make.
  • Roberto Innocenti is not an Australian author. He took a famous photo and people knew this photo long before Innocenti used it as a picture in one of his picturebooks. There are other pictures throughout which have more meaning if you have a historical understanding. Rose Blanche — if you know German history you’ll get the reference of Rose Blanche. This is a good example of ‘quoting in an illustration’. This is a technique used by illustrators, but requires an older reader in order for them to interpret.
  • Books are not always explicitly pedagogical. (Pedagogical means there is a direct, specific, teaching intention.) Who Sank The Boat? makes you think a bit about addition. Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? has the direct intention of getting the child ready for bed and understanding about the dark.
  • These texts for older readers may well have a pedagogical meaning but what is supposed to be learned is not always as obvious as in other books. There may be layers of meaning or multiple possibilities. If the purpose is not to teach something specific, there may even be contradictions. The purpose may be purely aesthetic – designed to be enjoyed as a piece of art. There is value in making a judgement. Making such judgements may force an older reader to reconsider what they thought before.
  • The characters in picturebooks for older readers may be adults, not necessarily children.  The characters don’t necessarily match the age of the intended reader.
  • The settings may be a different time or a different place, and tend to be much more grounded in reality, though not the familiar reality of the reader.
  • Storylines may not finish.
  • The readership still requires scaffolding (background information). It’s not assumed the reader knows everything about the topic. These stories present information, giving new, shocking, surprising, different ways of looking at it. Equity issues are common. The greyness of right and wrong.
  • How do the author and illustrator choices lead you as a reader to somewhere? To the end of it, to the question, to the experience.

 

 

REFERENCES MENTIONED: Anstey, M and Bull, G. (2000) Reading the Visual: Written and illustrated children’s literature. Sydney, Harcourt