Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: Australia

A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.

As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”

 

The Implications of Preferencing The Children’s Books Of Yesteryear

The Telegraph (UK) this week published a summary of a survey in which parents were asked for their opinion on which books every child should read by the age of 16.

Can you guess what the top books were?

I’ll give you a hint: The books most highly recommended by parents were all around when we parents ourselves were children. In short, most parents think that children should be reading what we were reading when we were their age.

A WITHERING LOCAL PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

I’m not sure about the publishing industry in the UK, but I have heard from a list_serv I’m on that Australian picture book sales have taken a nose dive over the past ten years, which directly influences how many new Australian books are produced. I had noticed myself how difficult it has become to purchase even very good Australian picture books if they’re even a little bit old (especially if they missed out on top awards), but I hadn’t realised it was such a recent and such a violent downward thing, and I hadn’t realised it started 10 years ago.

What happened there, then? I’m sure a publishing expert knows far more than I do about this, though the Internet and parallel importing from Amazon owned businesses surely had something to do with it. Despite trying my best to purchase an Australian picture book this week from Not Amazon, I failed. The bookstore I sent money to told me five days later that the book that had appeared to be in stock actually wasn’t, and now I have to wait an extra week or so for the refund. Say what you will about Book Depository, but they don’t do that.

It’s easy to believe from the sheer number of picture books published each year that the children’s book market is flourishing, and in some ways it most definitely is. The big corporations are making a lot of money out of children’s books. On the other hand, take a look at the picture books on the shelves of children you know and you’ll see the same books over and over again. A lot of Australian kids have books by Nick Bland, because for several years his work has been chosen for National Simultaneous Reading Time, and there was a super-cheap (I think $5) version produced so that every child could afford a copy. Then you’ll find books that are sold in boxed sets in places like Aldi (always the classics), or Costco (the best-selling modern series). There are highly gendered books you can get as birthday presents from places like Target and Big-W — pink and glittery for girls, blue and action-packed for boys. You can also find in chain stores those books which are ‘tentpole’ books such as those by Lemony Snicket, Jon Klassen and Julia Donaldson. A lot of those make their way onto children’s bookshelves.

What else do you find there? Battered and loved books from our own childhoods. In some cases (ours no exception) old books make up the bulk.

But I can tell you as a keen and discerning buyer of books which kind of books my own daughter prefers. She most definitely prefers the new books I buy for her. And you know what else? I do too! The more modern books I read, the more outdated the classic books feel. As a culture, we are far too used to a children’s literature landscape which is predominantly white and abled and male.

There are actually very few adults seeking out the high-quality, lesser-known picture books. It doesn’t help that these tend to cost twice as much, and are often available only in hardback. It’s difficult to find the wonderfully quirky books of Australian Chris Kimmie on any home bookshelves, and if you want to complete your series of Lily Quench by Natalie Jane Prior, good luck, because these wonderful books seem to have fallen out of print.

In sum: Childhood is surprisingly short. Children move through developmental phases very quickly, and there are only so many books that can be read during each window. If your child is busy reading The Secret Seven, she is not busy reading Lily Quench, with the wonderfully ‘strong’ female hero. This is actually a zero sum game, even for the most enthusiastic readers.

DIVERSITY

Quite rightly, a lot is being said about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and I feel like the discussion really took off — on Twitter, at least — with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

(I don’t think it’s just a ‘feeling’. See: The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity, an excellent article from SLJ.)

The main problem with expecting children to read what we read, and oftentimes what our grandparents read (see Enid Blyton for a glaring example of this), is that apart from preferencing the experiences of white boys, you’ll find if you re-read critically, a lot of problematic ideas which no longer deserve a revered place on our children’s bookshelves.

Despite having loved Enid Blyton myself, and despite owning a 2-metre-wide collection of Blyton stories, I have decided not to encourage my own daughter to read these. I haven’t got around to it yet, but I intend to free up some shelf space by giving them away. Truth be told, I don’t even want to do that. If I donate them to Vinnies, someone will buy them and some other kid will be the recipient of some very dodgy ideas.

My distaste for Enid Blyton is controversial. I’m aware of that. Not really because her sexism and racism aren’t well-known, but because of the parenting style which ‘Lets Kids Be Kids’. Kids, apparently, can read as critically as adults, and by exposing them to racist, sexist stuff, you’re somehow promoting critical thinking skills.

I’m not so sure about that. I did a school project on Blyton when I was about 12 — technically old enough to be engaging in critical thinking. I found articles about the problematic racism and sexism in those books. I had noticed the sexism all by myself, but I hadn’t noticed the racism. That’s because I myself was a white kid living in a predominantly white environment. No one at all pointed out to me the racism.

OUTDATED MORAL CODES

What I realised for the first time about reading Folk of the Faraway Tree as an adult,was the way in which the young reader is asked to identify with Dick, Bessie and Fanny, and jeer with them about the ridiculous Connie in her fussy, frilly dresses. There’s some very uncomfortable femme-phobic bullying in there of the sort that was tolerated when I was at school but which is not now. My point being: A lot of what’s wrong with older books goes completely under the radar for young readers.

If we are to accept that literature is life-changing for the better, we must accept that literature can be life-changing for the worse.

WHY DO WE PREFERENCE OLDER CHILDREN’S BOOKS?

Part of it is snobbery. See another article from The Telegraph, in which Jemima Lewis bemoans the changing landscape of children’s literature:

The study notes a “marked downturn” in children’s reading habits from the age of 11. Instead of aiming higher than their age range, they swivel back on themselves, returning to the likes of Walliams and Jeff Kinney (author of the smash-hit Diary of a Wimpy Kid series). Their most sophisticated literary excursions take them no further than the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson franchises.

Back when one was allowed to make artistic value judgments, these latter books would have been described as Good Trash. Well‑crafted, entertaining and fun – but not intellectually sustaining on their own.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t much Good Trash around. The “Young Adult” market had yet to be invented, so we skipped straight to “Adult” for our low-brow pleasures. I devoured Jilly Cooper’s early romances – Imogen, Harriet, Octavia and the rest – and even dipped into the unarguably Bad Trash of Jackie Collins.

I actually share a lot of Lewis’s concerns: The binarily-gendered book covers, the reluctance for publishers to acquire much of anything that isn’t part of a hit series. The Scholastic Book Club pamphlet my six-year-old presented me with yesterday is full of plush toys, craft-kits and branded  products: Super Heroes, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins and the odd tent-pole Australian series, to the exclusion of all others.

To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the so-called ‘dumbing-down’ of children’s literature, but I’m inclined to think that modern children’s literature offers modern young readers everything they’ll need to do very well in this world, thank you very much. The main reasons for reading in childhood are to:

  1. Enjoy childhood
  2. Develop decoding skills (the tech aspects of reading)
  3. Practise empathy for people who are not us and who are not like us
  4. Learn about the world

The only drawback I can see in your child reading contemporary literature to the exclusion of all else is a possible lack in number four. Reading contemporary books ‘about’ history isn’t exactly the same as reading books that were set in historical eras. But if your child is reading all the classics to the exclusion of much that is contemporary, they’re going to fall short at number three. And possibly at number one, if they’re having your old beloved classics forced upon them. Take your pick.

 

If anyone is reading all of this, I realise I’m preaching to the choir, but we really must make an effort to spend money buying the sorts of books we’d like to see more of in this world.

Screentime, or ‘Sedentary Time’?

Australian Screentime Guidelines

 

Here in Australia, when daily screentime for children becomes a topic of conversation, it usually crops up alongside The Childhood Obesity Epidemic. While no one is blaming screens solely for this epidemic, there are some problems with focusing on the screens themselves. Rather, this is a conversation about ‘sedentary activity’.

I detect a definite class issue surrounding the hierarchy of bum-sitting; for adults it has always been thus (until recently maybe, when it suddenly became okay to admit to ‘binge-watching’ certain high-quality TV series). For adults and children alike, books (preferably hardback serious tomes, preferably not genre fiction and definitely not YA) equal good sedentary activity while TV equals bad/lazy/beer-gut inducing/mind-numbing/brain-draining/crumbs down the side of the squabs squalor-y baddy bad bad sedentary activity.

(Is ‘sedentary activity’ an oxymoron? For my purposes, no.)

I worry when I hear the term ‘screentime’ that our thoughts on childhood sendentary behaviour are too narrow in focus.

  1. We should be talking more about how much sugar is getting into the food system. I’m pro-regulation of this. There is no call for putting sugar into canned vegetables. Baked beans covered in sugary sauce should not be allowed to carry the Heart Foundation tick.
  2. We should be talking more about how neighbourhoods are set up for children. We need green spaces and footpaths and sports facilities. These need to be safe.
  3. Workplaces need to offer more flexible working hours so that more parents can take their children to these spaces after school, or coach local sports teams, or simply supervise on the sidelines as kids work out their own games.
  4. Our children should be given an hour of physical activity during class time each morning before recess. That’s how school was run when I was a kid in New Zealand in the eighties, but my daughter has one afternoon of sport per week due to an overcrowded curriculum, and she’s only in kindergarten. She and half of her classmates take the bus to and from school, which adds up to several more hours of sitting per day. This is Australia, distances are vast, and we have no local school despite adequate numbers of children, who are all riding in vehicles to neighbouring towns.
  5. We should be talking about eyesight. Our daughter has codliver oil each morning, 1950s style. (I mask the flavour in a smoothie.) Her parents both wear glasses. She may yet need glasses herself because genes are against her, but as a culture we seem to have lost some of our ancient wisdom when it comes to nutrition. Is a backlit screen worse for eyes than words on a printed page, or is it the sustained near-sighted focus which is the problem for children spending less and less time outdoors?
  6. How are backlit screens impacting sleep patterns? The research I’ve seen suggests avoidance of screens an hour before bedtime. Does that mean that we should also be dimming the lights? What kinds of family activities might we instead be engaging in during that last hour before bedtime? Family readalouds, from my observation, are best practised by church-going families, perhaps instigated by their wish to read the Bible together, but is this a lost practice that families should strive to bring back? Crafts while listening to audiobooks? Dishes and next-day’s-lunch-preparation with the lights turned low?

We’re right to be thinking about screentime, of course, but if childhood has lost some of its magic, the problem is so much wider than time spent on screens.

this is why olds are hating on ipads

 

 

 

Asian-Australian children’s literature

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chanand Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’sDeltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

How Children’s Literature Shapes Attitudes To Asia, The Conversation

https://theconversation.com/how-childrens-literature-shapes-attitudes-to-asia-19752

Picturebook Study: The Rainbow by Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers

rainbow-crew

 

Published in 2001 by Lothian Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books specialising in Australian tales), this is an adventure story about three boys who find something gruesome in the wild. I was reminded a little of Stand By Me.

rainbow-crew-characters

 

This story is written from first person point of view, and the reader is therefore encouraged to identify with this voice. This is the voice of a younger brother, who tags along with his older brother and friend. Like the reader, the first-person narrator is an outsider. This makes it easy to identify with him. In the picture above, the narrator is shown trailing behind. The two older boys are together, both physically and emotionally. The younger boy is also a bookish boy, who writes of his love of storytelling. He loves that his teacher reads Robinson Crusoe aloud. This is the sort of character oft picked to be the narrator: Such lovers of everyday beauty are the best characters for picking out details.

As you can see, the landscape is distinctively Australian, with the ochre pastels depicting local fauna. Pastel is a good choice for depicting characters who stand in for the ‘everyreader’. Pastel does not allow the depiction of fine details, so like the most rudimentary smiley face icon, these featureless faces could be anyone. They could even be you. There is also something eerie about a featureless face, and this book offers eerie in broad, Australian daylight. The strength of pastel as a medium is in its ability to render texture. The texture of the footpath looks beautiful on the page. The picture of a boy’s shadow next to a police officer’s feet also gets around the problem that medium to close up shots would have — the boys’ faces are able to remain indistinct to the reader.

rainbow-crew-pastel

 

 

Death is uncomfortably close in this story — the circle of life is explored from the start, when the little brother expresses concern about feeding one little fish to a bigger one. The older boy tells him that this is the law of nature. ‘I don’t suppose you ever eat lamb roast on weekends?’ In this way, child readers are asked to think about their own role in the cycle of life and death.here is the story of a girl’s drowning years before. The illustration to accompany this text on the recto side of the page shows dark corners, shaded from the sun by trees, and dark water holes which remind me of traditional illustrations of Waltzing Matilda. (And we all know how that ended.) Even the father is gone, mentioned in past tense. The ephemeral nature of objects themselves is also part of the story. ‘My drawings for the Audrey were gone, although that was to be expected. Certain things aren’t made to last.’

There is big talk of the kind frequently seen in storybooks — the bigger boys tell the younger, more gullible boy made up tales about things they have seen floating down the river, including a hand waving from a caravan. The younger boy says it was probably The Queen, lending a little bit of humour, and this almost always has the effect of making a dark tale darker.

And then all three boys get spooked after happening upon bones. The carcass looks ominously human. After alerting an uninterested policeman, they learn that these are dog bones. Although there is no human death in the world of this story, it is just distant enough to be a menace. In many stories for children, dogs are as human as the characters, so although the death is brushed off by the adult, the death of a dog is significant for a child. It is a death all the same.

There is another small death, of sorts, at the end of the book when the younger boy sits by a window. Geoffrey and Bruce are no longer interested in playing with him much at the creek — they only go down to the creek if they can take girls. This is the death of childhood, seen first in the older boys, but which is inevitably coming for the younger one too.

What about the crystal, found when the narrator went back to the creek to look for his mother’s lost hammer? The crystal makes a rainbow across his page, like the one he saw right before they found the dog bones. Rainbows can symbolise many things of course, but in this story I think that the intermittent appearance of rainbows symbolise those flashes and memories of childhood we get, even after the mystery and childlike wonder of the world has dissipated. Like the character in Chris Allburgh’s The Polar Express, this child narrator grows up, but manages to cling onto some of the beauty of boyhood.

 

Literacy Levels and Rates Of Incarceration

A few years ago when I was at home full-time with a toddler, the toddler and I took a trip down to a local river. One of my daughter’s favourite pastimes was throwing pebbles into the water. So I sat with her, in a fairly remote part of town, when an old man approached.

Although he’s standing a good distance away, I can smell the fumes coming off him. He says hello and I say a tentative hello back, and it soon becomes apparent that this old alcoholic is starved of company. I don’t meet many people like him on a day to day basis. We started to chat about the weather, and eventually, over the course of about an hour, I learned a lot about this old man’s life.

  • I learned that the thing you get most sick of in an Australian prison is wholemeal bread.
  • I learned that prison is not necessarily the correctional facility we hope it to be. This old man continues to drive along the highway into town, and as of our riverside meeting, if he gets caught one more time he’ll be straight back to prison, because his body is permanently full of alcohol. (This is who we share our roads with.)
  • I learned at the time of our parting that if he didn’t get some more alcohol into himself soonish, his shaking was going to get worse.
  • I learned that he couldn’t read. He told me it was ‘a family thing’, because none of his offspring could read either. He was not on speaking terms with his son, also in prison.

Last month Neil Gaiman delivered a speech about the importance of libraries, which branched into the general importance of reading, in which he pointed out the direct link between prisoners and levels of literacy. My own layperson’s impression of prison is that prison is a place where we plonk our drug-dependent and mentally ill, for lack of a better-evolved system, but the literacy link is huge.

[Gaiman] mentions the alarming growth of the private prison industry in the United States, and the connection between illiteracy and prison populations. What was most startling about him relating this anecdote is that I learned there is now an algorithm used to determine future prison needs…using the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds that can’t read. Scary, but true. You can read more about it here.

Neil Gaiman Is Right.

As always, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense that an inability to read leads to a very real disenfranchisement for those who slip through the literacy cracks. Next year our little pebble-throwing girl starts school, so this week I have been listening to seminars on the latest literacy NSW program: L3. This is a new program, and literacy programs do come and go, but judging by the results of this one, L3 sounds absolutely fantastic. This was a program originally designed for ESOL students, which proved so successful that it is now being used in NSW kinder classes regardless of English speaking background. I have friends tell me they’ve been amazed at how well their children have learnt to read on this program.

Our data reflects children acquiring and applying skills 4-6 months quicker than we have seen utilising other classroom delivery methods relating to Literacy.

from another L3 school.

So don’t let anyone tell you that education is stuck in the dark ages. It’s sometimes easy to forget how it was for the huge number of functionally illiterate Australian adults who have slipped through the cracks, thinking there is something wrong with them and their families rather than something wrong with the imperfect system into which they were born.

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