Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: literacy (page 1 of 2)

Texts often describe how places, people, or objects look or sound or smell. Readers can enrich their experience and increase their understanding by forming mental pictures: by imagining what is being described as exactly as the words of the text allow them to. This process is what theorists of reader-response call “concretization”. […] Concretization is a skill often possessed by children. In fact, imagining as literally and completely as possible the world and the people a text describes is the only way that many children know of building consistency from the texts they read. This seems to be the reason that so many children and other inexperienced readers worry about the logic and coherence of the worlds that texts enable them to concretize–why they so often get angry when there are inconsistent details in descriptions of places and people or confusions in the sequence of events.

On the other hand, concretization is a skill that many adults have forgetten. Many readers have been taught to focus so much on using texts’ potential for engendering sights and smells and sounds. That’s a pity. Not only does it deprive such readers of a source of pleasure, but it also prevents them from understanding the subtle richness of the texts they read.

– The Pleasure of Children’s Literature by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

Holding On To Enid Blyton

childhood books you can't give away

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, but this was before parallel importing of books in New Zealand, when books were still super-duper expensive. Few kids owned many and school libraries were quite small. I was lucky to grow up in a household full of books, though these comprised almost entirely of:

1. Little Golden Books

2. Read-It-Yourself books from Ladybird

3. My mother’s childhood books, and for some reason, a number which had belonged to her cousin. These were mostly Famous Five novels, along with a few from Blyton’s Malory Towers series and a few similarly bound ‘girls’ novels’ by Elsie J. Oxenham.

Here is a picture of Elsie J. Oxenham. It was taken in 1910.

Elsie J Oxenham portrait

The photo says it all.

 

 

I never was impressed by Oxenham’s books, which have dated in the most conspicuously terrible way you can imagine. I’ve since passed them on, and perhaps a collector found them at the second hand store. Enid Blyton’s books, however, are harder to get rid of, not because they haven’t dated. Enid Blyton’s books are terrible in ways that are well-known and well-documented by many other modern readers:

Enid Blyton’s Books Were A Product Of Their Time

 

When it comes to Blyton’s notorious characterisations of travellers and gypsies [Cullingford says they are] ‘so absurdly innocent that they are beside the point’, a worrying observations both in light of the fact that, around the same time as Blyton was writing, over 200,000 gypsies were either being killed or had recently been killed in the Nazi death camps, and in light of the fact that Blyton is still promoted in school and very widely read by children.

– Understanding Children’s Literature, edited by Peter Hunt

The reason I’m having trouble giving my Enid Blyton collection away is because the stories are still compelling, and because I have such fond memories of Enid Blyton stories as a child. Again, I’m not alone in this:

500 Million Readers Can’t Be Wrong from Children’s Books Articles

The Enduring Appeal Of Enid Blyton from The Guardian

Some of my Enid Blytons

Some of my Enid Blytons

If there’s any dilemma at all in the first world problem of owning too many books, it is this:

  1. Do I want my daughter to read Enid Blyton, over and over again, like I did?
  2. Did I love the stories of Enid Blyton mainly because I wasn’t exposed to much else?
  3. Is there enough time during childhood for the average reader to get through all of the old classics as well as all the best new ones?
  4. What does it mean to be a well-read child these days, when there is so much out there?
  5. Wouldn’t I prefer my daughter read modern classics over and over, for example the Harry Potter series, which is neither racist nor sexist (at least, if it is, we can’t see it yet)?
  6. Do I donate these Enid Blytons to the second-hand store, or do I keep them here, taking up space on a shelf?
  7. If I give them away, will I feel the hole they have left? After all, those are my childhood memories right there!
  8. If I keep them on the shelf and my daughter finds them, will I be slightly irritated that she’s not reading better stuff, which I have bought for her with good money?
  9. If my daughter reads them, is this an unexpectedly wonderful lesson in 20th Century inequalities, as it was for me?
  10. Is there a danger in sheltering young people from the sexism of earlier eras that they forget things can swing just as quickly back the other way?

What have you done with your childhood books? Do you encourage your children to read those over newer ones? Do you think children should read older books alongside modern publications for a rounded view of recent history?

The Size and Format of Picturebooks

How does the binding of a book affect reader expectations?

What about the size?

 

The actual individual appearance of of individual books is just as obvious an example of how prior expectations control our responses to stories; it influences our attitude to the stories the books contain before we even begin to read them. We expect more distinctive literature from hardcover books with textured, one-color cover and more conventionally popular material from books with luridly colored plastic coatings. we tend to thin differently about paper-covered books and ones with hard covers, and as a result we respond differently to the same story in different formats; what might seem forbidding and respectable in hardcover often seems disposable and unthreatening in soft. 

The size of a book also influences our response to it. We tend to expect rambunctious, energetic stories like the ones by Dr. Seuss from large books and more fragile, delicate stories like those by Beatrix Potter from smaller ones. In fact, larger books do allow larger effects, while smaller ones demand restraint from an illustrator, lest they appear overly fussy; but these differences are as much a matter of convention as of technical limitations. We tend to read smaller books expecting charm and delicacy — and to find it even if it is not there — and to read large books expecting energetic rambunctiousness– and to find it even if it is not there. 

– Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman

We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of binding and size. One disadvantage of book apps and ebooks is that the reader is not provided with any textural information, and the size is fixed according to the dimensions of the device.

That said, a universal book app created for iOS (for instance) may well be interpreted very differently depending on whether it is read on an iPhone, an iPad mini, an iPad, a Mac screen or projected onto a smart board.

In Which Jerry Griswold Makes Some Great Points

Speaking of The War Between Print And Digital, which you’ll definitely have noticed if you’re in book app world, Griswold points out that the competition between the two types of media is a false dichotomy.

The book, too, is a handheld story gadget. It’s not a choice between but of.

Children’s Books In The Era Of The iPad

 

And he is right. There are many instances of ‘interactive print books’. Please, do read the entire article, if only to learn the very useful concept of ‘hypnagogic objects’.

 

Nick Hornby On Why All Fiction Should Be Young Adult Fiction

From the podcast available on iTunes U, from a talk delivered by Hornby at Newcastle University.

Nick Hornby refers to a list put out by an author who was asked which books all English children should have read before leaving high school. Hornby admits that he hasn’t read some of the books on this list, and wonders if he is missing anything. There isn’t time for everything. Hornby is a voracious reader, and hopes he has instilled a love of reading in his own children but wonders if ‘forced reading’ would only lead to a hatred of the classics.

Does literature teach us to be better people, and great literature to be the best? If this is the case the best read among us should be the most humane, but in fact some of the best read people of his acquaintance are as susceptible to petty jealousies, greed and other human vices as the next (less well-read) person.

Wendy Cope was one of two writers who refused to take part in the survey (it was asked of many well-known writers) and she said she’d draw no distinction between people who read and people who don’t read. (Hornby later admits that he was the other writer who refused to provide a list.) This is a very interesting position for a writer to take. Hornby likens knowing about literature to knowing about wine — useful, but hardly essential. Like wine, some books are better than others, though Hornby does not consider himself a relativist. That said, if you spent your time digesting cheap table wine it would do you just as much harm.

Reading for pleasure is the most important indicator of the future success of a child. Nearly half of prisoners in America’s prisons are illiterate. We need to get our children and a worringly large chunk of the rest of the population reading.

The best description of reading is in The Child That Books Built. Hornby quotes from that.

He then quotes from The Intellectuals and the Masses.

There is no reason why children should not read classic books that typically turn up on reading lists, but because they’re difficult they’re put into a box and labeled so.

Hornby spent two years teaching English at a very good comprehensive high school in a university town. He has only recently begun to realise how influential that two years has been on his writing career. What he wanted for his students was a novel that was complex but simple to read. He found himself drawn to Of Mice and Men. Later he had the ambition to write books like that, along with Roddy Doyle — simple, funny, unquestionably literary in that the intent isn’t simply to amuse and entertain. Doyle spent years as an English teacher, and his first profession must have profoundly affected his second.

Hornby has written several books for young adults, such as Slam. About A Boy was intended for older readers but the success of the film and the age of the protagonist has meant that it has become popular among a younger age group.

At a YA conference Hornby met David Almond, who Hornby had not heard of until that point. He then read Skellig when he got home, and realised it is quite brilliant. He has since read a lot of YA fiction, which has been like being a YA all over again. He was reading Vonnegut as a YA himself, but now in his middle age he was reading YA. These books made him think hard about what we want and need from literature.

In Skellig, a boy takes a book to a friend and the friend says, ‘Yeah, looks good. But what’s the red sticker for?’ The red sticker was for ‘competent readers’. Meena complained that what if other readers wanted to read it. In this passage Skellig touches on the idea of designating certain books for certain readers. By making a reference to Blake he is also asking us to look at his book in a way we may not have thought of doing. Skellig is about life, death, the value of education, and a lot of other things besides. He includes some of the more mundane truths (Chinese takeaways, for example) without losing the intensity of his vision.

Another work like Skellig is Feed, a sci fi novel clearly inspired by anxieties about the Internet. The only thing that distinguishes this work of art from other work of art is the age of its teenage protagonists. In Feed the characters have some kind of device implanted in their brains. They pick up anything thrown at them. As a consequence, everybody has a problem with language. They’re losing whatever eloquence they once had.

More recently Anderson has written two more remarkable novels in a series called Octavian Nothing, popular among US high school students. Set in Boston in the American Revolution, long and ambitious, this novel may well be the Joyce or the Henry James for the book’s young fans.

Francesca Lia Block’s Wheetzie Bat  is a bleak and funny and experimental YA book, almost the opposite of Skellig, as if Bob Dylan had turned his hand to chick-lit. Bleak, funny, experiemental. Everyday contemporary problems are turned into something surreal.

We have to accept that the world has changed in the last generation. There used to be nothing much to do — Hornby wanted to watch TV but there was nothing much on. Now there are plenty of over diversions competing for attention, and reading time is less. Traditionally, reading has been done in places where there’s no alternative BUT to read: sun-loungers, dentist’s waiting rooms, airports, but those days are now gone. From now on, there will always be an alternative. While we may lament this, there’s nothing we can do about it. We may have to accept that we are dealing with a new kind of human — someone who is unwilling to deal with complexity.

Children do still read: Harry Potter, Twilight (just as adults are reading Dan Brown in their millions). One thing all of these books have in common is that they are routinely rubbished by columnists in newspapers. There’s an idea that bad prose is automatically rewarded by huge sales. But Hornby is certain that these people are not interested in ‘bad writing’ per se and we should assume that these authors are doing something right rather than something wrong. These novels still have the potential to speak to us.

There’s a key to the success of the YA writers mentioned this evening: The authors know that they have to fight for teenagers’ attention. There’s a fine balance between writing what you want to write and writing what the readers really want to read, and all writers can learn from YA writers.

A couple of years ago Hornby had two separate conversations with friends who happened to be reading the same book, a big historical book. Both friends were busy people who confessed they were only reading a paragraph or two per night. Hornby pointed out that it would take two years to finish it at that rate. Many literate, university educated people seem to feel a grim sense of duty towards reading, feeling that it’s something we ought to do rather than what we want to do. Until we genuinely have fun reading it will be hard to persuade our children to read. Hornby urges the audience to put a book down that they are not enjoying, which is why he is reluctant to join a book club. He doesn’t want to feel that reading is a duty. As a writer, people are often apologising to him, ‘Sorry, but I haven’t read your book yet. Sorry, but I haven’t got time to read.’ Hornby feels that as long as you can read, there’s no need to be sorry.

Hornby explains The Alex Award:

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year’s publishing. The Alex Awards were first given annually beginning in 1998 and became an official ALA award in 2002.

YALSA

A list of the winners on Goodreads. This is an invaluable resource for teachers, but it’s actually an invaluable resource for all of us. The Alex Award pretty much guarantees that a book won’t be boring. Dickens would have won an Alex Award if it had existed during his lifetime. Hornby doesn’t want writers to speak only to each other, or only to the few people who read the review pages. An American reviewer had recently described one of Hornby’s books as being ‘shamefully readable’, though you don’t hear restaurant reviewers describing food as ‘shamefully edible’. The idea that books should be work to read is entrenched in review culture.

Hornby reads because he loves to hang out with people who read, and he wouldn’t have anything to say without reading. He has a profound fear of boredom. Reading helps with his writing. Novels get closer to the way people think and feel than films and TV ever can. He wishes he’d said that he wants every school child to find ten books that they love before they leave school. Only then would they be set up as lifelong readers.

 

Related:

Is it possible to elicit a love of reading in children?

Required reading is hurting America

A LibraryThing list of books for adults in which the protagonist happens to be a teenager

 

 

 

 

 

Text Highlighting In Storybook Apps

…the vast majority of picturebooks are created for children. If we wish to be clearer about the nature of the picturebook should we attend to what children make of them or will our own close reading of individual texts be sufficient? And how relevant is it to our attempts to understand picturebooks that they are often used for teaching children to read?

– from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text by David Lewis

As children we relate to our picture books in a holistic fashion, merging sensations of the eye and the ear (for first we are read to), which marries the image and the sound of the words, and later, as we learn to read, the look of the words.

How Picturebooks Work, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott

It’s not surprising that research on a new medium happens only after the new medium comes into existence and gains a foothold in culture. Since interactive storybook apps are so new, there is still relatively little research that has been done, and when making development decisions, developers are instead reliant upon our own commonsense, and inevitably, our own experience of literature and reading.

One of the assumptions to have arisen about the nature of ‘good’ storybook apps is that they include word or phrase highlighting synchronous with narration. The assumption: that word highlighting is beneficial for emergent readers.

At this point, the beneficial nature of text highlighting is an assumption. It may be of benefit. It may not be. And it is also possible that word highlighting actually does more harm than good to an emergent reader.

Why this assumption in the first place? I think word highlighting is often considered the digital equivalent to pointing at words with a finger, and many are under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that when a caring adult co-reader points to words as they read, that the child will pick up reading — as part of a much wider program to teach reading skills, of course.

So before focusing on the topic of word highlighting, I would first like to look a little harder at the finger-pointing assumption.

From an article in the Telegraph titled ‘Pointing to words helps children read in later years‘:

Researchers claim this is the first time a study has shown a link between referencing during reading and literary achievement in later life.

So, if there have been many good studies on the effect of pointing to words on emergent readers, they haven’t been widely published.

Let’s go with that and trust our parental instincts: that occasionally pointing to words in books, and drawing children’s attention to various technical aspects of reading does improve literacy. I’m not going to argue with that because I intuit this is the case.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, because there seem to be many app developers who intuit that pointing to words by a trained or careful adult can be emulated electronically in a storybook app.

This, I’m not so confident about. Pointing to words may be really quite different from animating individual words in digital stories:

  1. When pointing, the finger does not obscure the actual word. Instead, effective pointers would  surely place their fingers BELOW the word in question, not over it.
  2. Also when pointing, the fingers are not making those jerky movements reminiscent of colours flashing on a screen. The hand glides across the page unobtrusively. Emergent readers may well be less distracted by a hand than by digital animation of words.
  3. Fluent readers do not read by looking at one word at a time. We take in three words at once. While it’s clear that early readers need to learn words one by one, when it comes to training the eyes to move across the page, is it really that helpful to highlight words individually, especially when the narrator is reading fluently themselves? I wonder about what we are modelling when app developers choose to individually highlight words.
  4. It’s possible that some ways of highlighting words are better than others. We need more research into this. It’s not enough to simply assume that ‘apps with word highlighting are good’ while ‘apps without word highlighting are lacking’.
Here are some various ways of word highlighting that you’ll see in some popular storybook apps right now.

1. JUMPING WORDS

Sir Charly Stinkysocks and the really BIG Adventure

This is a storybook app produced by a large publishing house. The words ‘jump’ off the page as they are read. But when a word is jumping, it’s moving, and therefore not able to be read. All the emergent reader can see is where in the paragraph the narrator is up to; they can’t see the word itself. Not unless their own reading is actually out of sync with the highlighting.

Here is another app which makes use of the same technique:

Logan and the upside-down sea

*

2. FLOWING TEXT HIGHLIGHTING

Perhaps to avoid the choppiness which results from highlighting words individually, this app developer decided to make the word highlighting last slightly longer than the narration itself. The colour that appears around the words fades out slowly, so you end up with an ‘approximate’ highlighting of words. It certainly works to avoid that choppy feeling that happens when words jump.

But if the highlighting isn’t 100% accurate, leaving the reader perhaps one word behind the ballgame, might this be worse than no highlighting at all? We don’t know this yet.

3. HIGHLIGHTING OF PHRASES

Cozmo’s Day Off

I prefer this method of word highlighting, where phrases are highlighted rather than individual words. This emulates the way we read as fluent readers – not just by taking in a single word at a time, but by encouraging us to take in several. This may aid reading fluency, and fluency aids comprehension.

I suspect this book has it right. If words are to be highlighted, this is how I’d like to see it done. I like that the words themselves don’t move. Instead, a blue outline appears around the words. This doesn’t prevent the reader from actually reading them.

Temporary Conclusion:

  • I suspect that the highlighting of individual words is useful in word games in which emergent literacy skills are the target.
  • I suspect story app developers should stay away from individual word highlighting, and consumers should be wary of expecting it by default.
  • Just because something is possible with the digital format doesn’t mean it’s an improvement on non-digital versions of a story.
  • For now, app developers who use word highlighting as a selling point are making money based on something which doesn’t have good research behind it.
  • The option to turn off word highlighting should be an option, just as it’s an option to turn off narration.

I’m prepared to change my mind on this. The issue of word highlighting in storybook apps desperately needs research. But we can’t assume that highlighting equals finger pointing. It may not.

50 Best iPad Apps for Reading Disabilities from Teachers With Apps

The Features Of Chapter Books

Kate De Goldi talks to Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday Morning With Kim Hill.

Chapter books are better able to be defined than other types of books because they are for quite a narrow developmental process so you can say certain things about what most children will be capable of when introduced to chapter books.

The reading progression: Picturebooks, more complex picturebooks, chapter books, novels.

Chapter books are ideal for building confidence in reading alone.

Walker Books have been fantastic in how they publish and pitch chapter books at the right age.

Chapter books have certain features:

  1. They’re not readers that you’re learning to read on — they’re a different thing again, because they have a carefully calibrated vocabulary. This is not what’s happening in chapter books. Chapter books have a wider vocabulary. Different authors explore the width of that vocabulary in different ways.
  2. They have a sustained narrative. You can also get episodic stories, such as Milly Molly Mandy.
  3. They can be read to the child, or the child may read chapter books themselves. Both.
  4. There is a certain simplicity about them, and a certain ambit (scope) in the storytelling. The readers are now entering the wider world, so characters in chapter books include people you meet at school and out-and-about. But it’s also a period in a child’s life where friendships are developing and readers are learning to co-operate with other people. Children in chapter books tend to have more agency than they might have in a picturebook (bearing in mind there is a huge range of picturebooks out there now), but in a chapter book the main character does not have complete agency because they are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old. So the progress of a story can be aided by the child’s agency but also with assistance of someone else, even though this assisting character is often another child.
  5. They’re often school stories/family life/holidays, and there will be a problem to be explored, maybe something to do with dealing with things in the world, or stopping the child from having something the child really desires etc. There is often an animal that is important in the child’s life.

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Cheryl Zach about the difference between chapter books, middle grade novels and YA novels, from the Institute of Children’s Literature

How does a really good writer stitch together something with a very prescribed word length?

1600 word stories – heavily illustrated, though not as much as a picturebook. (e.g. Walker Shorts.)

Is there a risk of being too formulaic? Yes, but in the hands of a really good writer, a structure can be enormously liberating.

Anna Branford

Children’s author and maker of things (Melbourne based)

Published by Walker. Mostly English writers in the Walker series but also some Australian and NZ writers in this short series. 1500 words is almost too short. But Violet Mackerel is lovely, especially with the black and white drawings running all the way through. The pictures are an important part of the story, setting tone and mood. This book has a proper hard back and nice pages and feels like a proper, grown-up book. The story is perfectly paced, the relationship between Violet and her friend Rose is really nice.

De Goldi recommends Violet Mackerel for 6, 7, 8 year olds, girls probably. Of course there will be some boys that this appeals to but the stories are aimed at girls in every possible way. There’s a lot of gender division at this age.

Hilary McKay

British author

Almost 5000 words. Hilary McKay is a very good writer of middle grade and YA books. The best chapter books are always written by authors who use the formula abslutely at its top end.

Ursula Dubosarsky

Writer for children and young adults (Australian)

Boys would like this book. It’s got two guinea pigs. One of them is a policeman in Buenos Aires.

Sally Sutton

New Zealand children’s author

Ben_and_the_Icky..._cover.jpg

Annie Barrows

Writer for both children and adults (American)

Similar to Violet Mackerel, with black and white line drawings throughout but much more text.

Jan Mark

Was a British writer

Jan Mark was very good at writing stories of about 2500 words. This is a masterly book to unpack from a writerly point of view. Five chapters, a very simple story about Jane and her cat Furlong. It deals with bullying. This story is very suburban, with a strong sense of place. What’s remarkable about it is the psychology of the characters, the plot, the resolution, the setting, all that is caught in 2500 words. Mark knows what to leave out and what to embellish. There is a pleasant old-fashioned feel to this, even though this book was written in the 90s.

So why does a book published in the 90s feel slightly old-fashioned? It might partly be to do with the regional accent and therefore the word choice, but this book is also written in the past tense from third person point of view. These books are almost always written in the third person — and there is a good reason for this. Take a slightly different kind of book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is written in first person. Why aren’t books of this length written in first person? It must have something to do with the fact that the child hasn’t developed a strong sense of ego. Instead, they’re planted in a world where they’re part of a general sort of organism/community.

Perhaps this is happening less now, with first person fiction creeping down into this length chapter book now, and it seems we’ve entered a phase where the child must be the agent all the time. Individuals assert themselves even in quite early children’s fiction.

What makes a picturebook re-readable?

“We’re not trying to make stories that are going to be read, we’re trying to make stories that are going to be read a milliondy billiondy times.”

Mo Willems

Nick Cross has compiled a list of things which give a book re-readability. First on the list is brevity, and picturebooks certainly achieve that.

If I’m talking about picturebooks specifically, I’ll add a few to the list:

1. Great Use Of Language

Masterful rhythm, something that has good mouth-feel when you read it aloud.

2. Layers Of Meaning

Picturebooks which appeal to both adults and children will help persuade adults to re-read the books in the first place. One thing which gives a picturebook different layers of meaning is with words which tell a slightly (or completely) different story from the pictures. Rosie’s Walk is a classic example of a picturebook which does this. Martin Salisbury explains the ‘read-it-again factor, and compares picturebooks briefly to theatre, in an interview on NPR.

3. Personal Connection

If the story moves you emotionally or reminds you of a time in your own life you’re more likely to revisit.

 

Thoughts On The Problems With Boys And Picturebooks

no boys allowed

UPDATE: Here is the latest hand-wringing on boys and books, this time from Jonathan Emmett.

 

The New Statesman has published an article by Jonathan Emmett who points out that the picturebook world is dominated by women. I’m simplifying here, but basically he argues that this is one problem with picturebooks today, and the feminisation of picturebooks explains why boys aren’t reading as early as girls are.

I feel very uneasy about this article, but I’m just going to respond in bullet point form, because I haven’t worked up my thoughts into a paragraphably coherent state.

All thirteen judges on this year’s Greenaway and Carnegie Medal panel are women. Last year there was only one man. Although there are plenty of men writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female.

I agree that this is a problem. I agree with the author’s suggestion further down: fix it with quotas. I also like the idea of gender quotas for the big, important, financially significant book prizes for adults. Perhaps the picturebook world can lead the way. Part of me is glad that this imbalance is being noticed and talked about. Because that, folks, is what it feels like to be under-represented in the literary world.

There is a problem with boys and books — they don’t seem to want to read them as much as girls do. As a result, boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year’s schooling.

Is the problem instead that we’re expecting too much of our kids too soon? I hear that in America, what used to be taught in the first year of elementary school is now taught in pre-schooling.

“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years.

Scholastic, What Happened To Kindergarten?

Is it such a problem that boys are lagging behind? The reason this doesn’t concern me too much is because (speaking of large numbers, obviously) boys catch up in their own time. By the time students graduate from university (for instance) men will walk straight into higher paying jobs than their female classmates who did exactly the same degree. Did picturebooks really let those young men down?

One year after college graduation, men and women have much in common. In 2009, most women and men who had earned bachelor’s degrees the year before were young, single, childless, relatively inexperienced in the workplace, and working full time. We might expect to find little or no gender pay gap among this group of workers at the start of their careers. Yet just one year after college graduation, with their newly printed degrees in hand, men already earn more than women do.

Graduating To A Pay Gap, from AAUW

It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.

The picturebook world is indeed becoming a pink ghetto. That happens with any industry which women join in great numbers. It happened in the 1980s with teaching, when a great number of men turned away from teaching as a desirable profession after increased awareness and concerns about child protection. Since the picturebook world requires an understanding of children, and since it’s still women who are doing the majority of childcare work, it’s no surprise that picturebook gatekeeping has likewise been left to the women. Julia Donaldson has also pointed out recently that children’s books get very little media coverage in the UK, especially considering how many people are buying children’s books. This surely reflects a general disregard for this form of literature. If men aren’t waving their hands in the air wanting to be picked as gatekeepers of children’s literature, might lack of status have something to do with it? We should fix that.

Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for.

Note to society: stop spreading the message that childcare, including the organisation of birthday parties, preparation of school lunches and buying of presents are women’s work. Note to fathers, uncles and granddads: buy picturebooks. Where money appears, product will follow. (Only one in eight dads take the lead with reading to their children.)

Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed.

I’ve noticed the same thing and I agree that picturebooks are becoming too tame. Nothing annoys me more than a classic fairytale which has had its ending ameliorated. Those little pigs got et, dammit. But this isn’t actually a boy thing. I’m pretty sure that well-loved little girls are just as capable of processing frightening monsters and aliens as well-loved little boys. I suspect this trend is in response to an increasingly frightening and busy world, in which picturebooks are thought to be a refuge.

Elements with strong boy-appeal such as combat, peril, villainy and technology that are abundant in U certificate films like The Incredibles are rarely found or diluted in picture books.

I don’t want to see The Incredibles held up as a model for picturebook action. In case it’s been a while since you saw that film, here’s one scene, as explained by the F-Word:

Mr Incredible, who believes his wife and children are dead, is hanging sobbing in a torture device. Mirage, who has seen the light, sneaks into the room, turns off the machine and tries to tell him that they are in fact alive. Before she can get the words out, however, he picks her up by the neck, chokes her and starts shouting at her. At this point his miraculously still-alive Elastigirl enters the room and, noticing her, he is so delighted he forgets all about Mirage and drops her in a retching, gasping heap on the floor.

Why does violence have ‘strong boy appeal’? Well, that depends on which side of the nature/nurture debate you subscribe to. But here’s one thing that makes logical sense to me: If we expect that little boys like ‘combat’ (also known as violence and fighting), and put it into picturebooks at every opportunity, little boys are indeed more likely to like combat.

both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal

Yes, I agree, but while we’re on the topic of equal representation, I’d like to see as many female characters as male characters in modern picturebooks. I haven’t done a count, but Janet McCabe has, and if you guessed that the ratio is about 2:1 male to female, you’d be right. Here’s the full paper. I’m all for gender equality, but personally, I think that ratio is more in need of urgent correction. On the other hand, if picturebook creators (writers, illustrators and publishers) weren’t consistently being told that there’s a boy problem, we might not see such a gender imbalance. There’s an old chestnut doing the rounds that ‘While girls will read anything, boys won’t read about girls.’ This isn’t actually backed up by evidence. This very article provides the counter evidence: Apparently boys aren’t reading even though picturebooks are heavily populated with male characters. Meantime, girls get annihilated. Not the answer.

if we want books to appeal to boys as much as girls, shouldn’t the UK’s “most prestigious children’s book awards” reflect male tastes as much as female ones?

There’s a few unspecified assumptions here. First, we’re starting with a gender binary. That is never good. Gender is better thought of as existing on a continuum, with the acknowledgement that differences between individuals are far more significant than generalised differences between different genders. We’re assuming that little boys and little girls are different creatures entirely. Maybe. But how? How are they different, exactly? Tell me how they’re inherently different and then we might be able to make a start on fixing this boy problem. Perhaps my own stance on this is starting to become clear. Write good picturebooks and they will come. Boys AND girls. Be aware of your own gender biases, but write first and foremost for ‘children who live in the same diverse and complicated world’, not for ‘boys’ or for ‘girls’, in order to fix some perceived gender problem. We should no more write for boys/girls than for blacks/whites, aboriginals/immigrants, men/women. It seems ridiculous to say of an adult novel, ‘This is for women aged between 25 and 30’, yet this is what marketers seem to expect of picturebook creators.

men from related professions such as teaching could be included [in the judging panel]

I’m not on board with this at all. Being good at one doesn’t make you good at or knowledgeable about the other. If there are indeed plenty of men in picturebook world itself (as pointed out in the article), recruit them.

 

An Interesting Thought: I Can Completely Understand Why Parents Spend More Time Teaching Girls Than Boys, from Mommyish

See also: BEYOND BOY BOOKS AND GIRL BOOKS by Lea Kelley at The Nerdy Book Club

An interesting piece about why men say they prefer non-fiction from TOC Reilly

ALA 2013: Attracting Reluctant Male Readers from The Hub

National Literacy Trust Report on Boys’ Reading at GMP

Boys Now Reading As Well As Girls, Study Suggests, from BBC

 

…people now unblushingly use the term ‘visual literacy’ when a few decades ago the concept, never mind the term, was undreamed of. Such an enormous shift in our ways of understanding the world and ourselves will undoubtedly have had an impact upon a form of text like the picturebook that self-consciously exploits the pictorial as a way of making meaning.

Children born into the first years of the twenty-first century are likely to possess a richer and more deft understanding of visual imagery and its modes of deployment than any other generation in the history of humankind. Their world is saturated with images, moving and still, alone and in all manner of hybrid combinations with texts and sounds. This is the world in which they must function. Competence with images is now a prerequisite of competence in life. Increasingly such competence will be part of the context that young children bring to their readings of picturebooks.

— from David Lewis, Reading Contemporary Picturebooks

 

I don’t know how many authors and illustrators know this, but in my experience there are a lot of teachers out there who send their students into libraries to ask for wordless picture books. Often these are used for writing exercises where the kids write the plot of the books, but once in a while you’d get a creative soul who understands that visual storytelling is the great unifier.

SLJ, review of Journey

 

With a child audience you should never assume any level of literacy. But it is a great mistake to think that an unlettered audience is necessarily an unperceptive one, or that their visual reactions are crude or undeveloped. I suspect that children are at their most perceptive in this way before they start to read, and that after they have acquired this thrilling and prestitious skills their visual awareness tends to drop a little. … Our job as illustrators probably starts from that wonderful moment when a baby gets hold of a book and suddenly realises that the image on one page connects with the one overleaf … What we are after is to build on this excitement.

— Shirley Hughes in a Woodfield Lecture in 1983

 

Related

Questions To Promote Visual Literacy from The Book Chook

Storytelling through (almost) just photography

This wordless, richly animated short fantasy adventure film is nine minutes of pure, unadulterated joy from io9

My favourite short film is Madame Tutli Putli. It would make rich (if slightly disturbing) material for a study in visual literacy.

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