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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
According to a large portion of the world’s population, humankind is already living in a dystopia.
The fun part about living right now is we get to see how it ends.
Ever since God punished Adam, Eve and the serpent for eating from that tree we have been banished from Paradise. Compared to Paradise, this toiling, this painful childbirth, these thistles and weeds growing up through our crops are considered part of this Earthly dystopia — a temporary punishment before taking up residence in Paradise once more in the after life.
If not taken literally by so many today, Earth as a dystopian setting was certainly more literal for earlier peoples from the major religious traditions.
Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the children–as well as adults–in an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities–and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’
Characters in a dystopian plot start from a position of slavery.
If the land, people, and technology are out of balance, everyone is out for himself, each is reduced to an animal clawing for scarce resources or a cog working for the greater good of a machine. This is a world of slavery and, taken to its extreme, a dystopia, or hell on earth.
In dystopian novels, the protagonist usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules.
Dystopian novels become difficult to classify because they often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a novel focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian.
Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.
The first public usage of the word ‘dystopia’ goes all the way back to John Stuart Mill in 1868. In a speech to the House of Commons, Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians” (‘cacotopia’ was relegated to the Wastepaper Basket of History). But it wasn’t until about 50 years afterward, when authors made the word their own, that the idea of dystopia began to actually take root in the public consciousness.
According to a new report, Australian kids are feeling pessimistic about their own futures, and this goes against all evidence. Australian kids should be feeling pretty good about the future, according to one expert.
Key points from the radio interview:
Where else might youth pessimism be coming from? Is it limited to ‘pessimism about work’ or pessimism about the environment, politics and society in general? Could youth pessimism also be to do with the stories that are popular for young people? Today’s young people have grown up in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature, and this is an age rife with dystopias. There have been so many dystopias in fiction that if you listen to what agents and publishers are looking for in the kidlit-o-sphere you’ll hear a lot of publishing professionals say they are sick to death of them and are looking for something completely different.
Here in Australia, parallel importing and the Hollywood trend of adapting best-selling YA books to film has changed the Australian reading landscape over the past 15 years to point where the top-selling books are mainly from America.
Insofar as best-selling books corresponds to library lending rates (which are very easy to find), here are Australia’s library lending stats for YA last year:
The most borrowed young adult fiction titles were:
1. Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (American/science fiction adventure)
2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth (American/science fiction adventure)
3. The Fault in our Stars by John Green (American/romance)
4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Australian/Holocaust)
5. Looking for Alaska by John Green (American/romance)
6. Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (American/fantasy adventure)
7. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (American/science fiction)
8. Every Breath by Ellie Marney (Australian/thriller)
9. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (American/romance)
10. Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (American/fantasy adventure)
Ms McKerracher said: ‘Teen borrowers from Australian libraries were looking for a blend of escapism and realism. Gritty romances, fantasy and adventure were the main themes, with all but two of the list coming from American writers.’
An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.
After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.
It wasn’t until I’d got to the end of writing and illustrating Midnight Feast that this article appeared in The Guardian: Global Warming And The Rise Of Cli-Fi. I realised that what I’d written was a picturebook contribution to cli-fi.
See Also: So Hot Right Now: Has climate change created a new literary genre, from NPR
What do you think would happen in a globally warmed globe? Do you envision a Cormac McCarthy sort of apocalypse with bands of humans turning evil? In fiction, this is pretty much a given. Could there be a brighter view?
Some people think there is still not enough cli-fi.
Why do literary novelists love dystopia? from Salon
The Dystopian Timeline to The Hunger Games [INFOGRAPHIC] via Goodreads
A flowchart which will help you decode dystopia from eBook Friendly
For a different setting altogether, see my post on utopias.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.
The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaning…the hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.
– Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero