[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”–show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Smiling Girls

As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!

CinderellaThe Up And Down BookBaby's ChristmasWildLittle LuluGood Bye TonsilsThe Little Match GirlRed Riding Hood LadybirdLittle Red Riding HoodAlice In WonderlandThe Christmas ABCFun To Cook BookPepper Plays NurseLucy and Tom's ChristmasPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles

Some Smiling Boys

The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.

The Up And Down BookBaby's HouseThe New Baby

Smiling Group Portraits

It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:

The JetsonsLittle VersesHansel and Gretel

 

Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.

If I Ran The ZooGreen Eggs And HamCat In The HatFox In Socks

 

Other Smiling Creatures

If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.

Frosty The SnowmanThe Monster At The End Of This BookPuss In BootsSomething ElseWordsChatterly Squirrel

Hell, I’m Not Smiling

Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.

My KittenMy PuppyMy Teddy BearThe TwinsWe Like Kindergarten

smile

The Absence Of Smiling On The Cover Of Russian Picture books

Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the US as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.

So writes Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, in response to a new paper on intercultural smiling, further explaining that:

Russians’ fondness for the gentle scowl seems even more unusual to expats than its actual, climatic cold. And the cultural difference cuts both ways: Newcomers to America often remark on the novelty of being smiled at by strangers.

In Russian cultures, smiling is not a sign of friendliness; it is a sign of a ‘tricky fool’.

I can see a feminist benefit to that — according to Khazan, at least women in Russian cultures aren’t instructed to smile by random men on the street! American women, on the other hand, were required to look calm and reassuring even in time of war.

Russian propaganda poster

Russian propaganda poster

Another female frown line from the Motherland

Another female frown line from the Motherland

And another frownline for The Victory, 1942

And another frownline for The Victory, 1942

American propaganda poster

American propaganda poster

This got me wondering about how this might have impacted children’s book covers. There are plenty of smiling children on the front of Western picture books — but what about Russian picture books?

Well, not all Russian children’s books follow the rule, but I am slightly concerned about why this boy is smiling…

published 1935

published 1935

The thing about cats is, they always look like they're frowning from the front.

The thing about cats is, they always look like they’re frowning from the front.

another frowny Russian cat

another frowny Russian cat

For sure, Russia had Grumpy Cat before Grumpy Cat turned up.

For sure, Russia had Grumpy Cat before Grumpy Cat turned up.

and it's not like we don't have Grumpy Cats in the West

and it’s not like we don’t have Grumpy Cats in the West

But it's also very common to see cats grinning from the front.

But it’s also very common to see cats grinning from the front.

This is from the Ukraine and the children look happy to be at the beach.

This is from the Ukraine and the children look happy to be at the beach.

In this book from 1984, not so much.

In this book from 1984, not so much.

This is from a book called For Our Children, dating from the 1960s

This is from a book called For Our Children, dating from the 1960s

I'm honestly not sure what's going on here but it doesn't look like fun.

I’m honestly not sure what’s going on here but it doesn’t look like fun.

If Matroyshka dolls were an American invention, would they be smiling?

If Matroyshka dolls were an American invention, would they be smiling?

That said, you can find smiling ones. Perhaps for the tourist market?

That said, you can find smiling ones. Perhaps for the tourist market?

This picture by children's illustrator Mikhail Belomlinsky depicts smiling characters, though only the woman is showing any teeth.

This picture by children’s illustrator Mikhail Belomlinsky depicts smiling characters, though only the woman is showing any teeth.

Perhaps this girl, by illustrator by Sergey Mikhalkov, is smiling beneath her hand?

Perhaps this girl, by illustrator by Sergey Mikhalkov, is smiling beneath her hand?

Apparently this is a book for children.

Apparently this is a book for children.

Here's another frowny pipe lovin Russian

Here’s another frowny pipe lovin Russian

The mouths often look like dots on the covers of Russian kidlit.

The mouths, as well as the eyes, often look like dots on the covers of Russian kidlit.

another example of dot mouths

another example of dot mouths

So I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding the history of smiling in the former Soviet Union’s children’s literature.

And here is a collection of Russian themed children’s books for English speaking readers.

See also: Nudity In Picturebooks

Update: The real censorship in children’s books: smiling slaves is just the start of it.