Matilda by Roald Dahl Novel Study

Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.

Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.

Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison

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How will a Trump presidency affect children’s literature?

the-fourth-golden-age-of-childens-books

America is hugely influential in the children’s book world. America exports a lot of children’s books and imports very few.

That, of course, has contributed to this mess.

See my notes of Dan Hade’s talk on this topic: Branding And The Impact Of The American Export

What Will The Next 5-10 Years Bring?

We’re just coming out of a period of dystopia. Publishers are saying they never want to read another grim world because they’ve read too much of it. Now, that’ll partly be because they’re living in one. So I predict a return to hygge. To the comforting and cosy — genuine utopias rather than apparent utopias.

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Publishers of YA probably won’t have as much patience with the anti-hero either, unless that anti-hero is a girl. (We’ve not seen many of those, and she wouldn’t remind everyone of Trump.)

Remember Enid Blyton? The healthy kids (who don’t need Obamacare), the safe adventures, the celebration of imagination. We’ll see a return to The Second Golden Age Of Children’s Literature but without the racism and sexism.

That’s because around the world, writers, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, are left-leaning people. So a Trump Presidency won’t change the overwhelmingly left-leaning ideology which shines through in children’s books these days.

However, another way of depicting hygge is to create nuclear families in which the apron-wearing mother stays home and the father goes out to work — men saving the world, in other words. We’ll see those, too. Mad Men for toddlers.

#WeNeedDiverse Books

Trump’s racism and sexism may actually lead to better representation in children’s books,  because Trump’s leadership will lead to the widespread use of language we all understand to talk about these things. Trump will make sure we all know the true meaning of misogyny, backlash, sexual assault, false equivalence, and what racism really looks like.

In short, no thinking person looking at America can plausibly deny that racism and sexism isn’t a thing, and those who wonder how we got to here might start taking a closer look at the influence of children’s media.

Fantasy vs Realism

Traditionally Britain has been the home of the most excellent children’s fantasy, but we’re about to see that matched well-and-truly by America, who has always been better at realism. We may see a lot of science fiction too, because it’s somewhat comforting to be transported off the Earth even if it is only by book.

We’ll also see surrealism, with quiet digs at the state of the world which only the adults in a dual audience readership will fully appreciate. Bully cats with hair like Donald Trump, that kind of thing. Trump will create a brand new literary trope. He may even cause a comeback of aptronyms (symbolic names).

There are common wish fulfilment fantasies in children’s literature, and one is ‘to be bigger than one’s enemies’. We’ll see quite a bit of that from both right and left leaning authors.

 

The Girl Title Trend In Children’s Books

The girl title trend in publishing is interesting because it is popular despite some pushback against using the word ‘girl’ to refer to grown-ass women.

Author Emily St John Mandel wrote this week about why so much of the bestselling fiction this year has ‘girl’ in the title.

  • It’s an evolution on all those titles from a few years ago which emphasise a woman’s relationship to a man. The [X’s] Daughter/Wife and so on.
  • Book titles are like book covers — not decided by authors but by marketing departments.
  • This ‘girl’ trend probably started with the phenomenal success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and marketing departments are hoping to replicate that success.
  • There may be something about ‘girl’ that promises a character arc (with the ‘girl’ becoming a ‘woman’, regardless of the fact she’s already a woman in years at the beginning of the story.)
  • I am slightly disturbed by the stat that when men write books with girl in the title the girl is significantly more likely to be dead by the end of the story than when the book is written by a woman. This leads to the question: Are male authors more likely to kill characters of any gender than female authors, or do best-selling male authors take a particular pleasure in killing off girls?

Those are my takeaway points but the entire article is well worth a read.

Basically, books with girl in the title tell the reader that this is a ‘psychological thriller about middle class white women with jobs’.

girl title tweets

The Girl Title In Kids’ Books

This book impresses me about as much as the UN’s decision to appoint Wonder Woman as its gender equality ambassador, even as the UN itself haemorrhages women in leadership roles.

the-big-book-of-girlpower

Contrast with the ‘boy version’ of the book, reinforcing for everyone that when girls have power it’s ‘girl power’, but boy power is the unmarked version.

the-big-book-of-superpowers

It may be 2016, but be very suspicious about books for young readers which emphasise gender on the cover.

YA titles are a slightly different matter.

Girl Titles In YA

The basic criticism of all those adult novels with girl in the title is about the infantalisation of women. This isn’t an argument when it comes to YA characters who are, indeed, minors.

While Mandel’s article looks only at books marketed at an adult audience, I wondered if those bestselling adult thrillers were influencing marketing decisions in the YA department.

On the Barnes and Noble list of bestselling YA 2016 (so far) we have a standout collection of titles about kings and queens, with a not-insignificant number of covers which are quite obviously hoping to attract Stieg Larsson crossover audiences. When a YA book has ‘girl’ in the title in 2016, it’ll probably be a gritty crime thriller.

dragon-tattoo-cover_472x700 the-girl-from-everywhere_462x700

The word ‘gone’ in the Heidi Heilig cover will also appeal to the Gone Girl audience. (About fifty percent of YA readers are adult women.)

moth-girls-cover

This book doesn’t have ‘girl’ in the title but the cover design is very reminiscent of ‘Gone Girl’. Same font, perhaps?

Moth Girls is a YA thriller. The book tells the story of Mandy, and her friends Petra and Tina. Petra and Tina had gone into an old local house years before and never been seen again. Mandy is only around because she refused to go in with them.

american_girls

In case the American Girl series with the expensive dolls springs immediately to mind, this new publication is a YA crime thriller focusing on a 15-year-old who runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. The sisters are based on the Manson sisters, who the author researched heavily.

This book is marketed across the pond as My Favourite Manson Girl. So, same book, different English speaking cultures, both with girl in the title.

my-favourite-manson-girl

If I Was Your Girl breaks the mould. This isn’t a crime/thriller but a realistic coming-of-age novel about a transgender girl by a transgender woman.

if-i-was-your-girl-cover

This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:

if-i-were-your-girl

What will 2017 look like for YA?

I predict more books about transgender because there is a need there, and those books are highly likely to indicate gender in the title or title graphic somehow.

Mandel is hoping adult titles will evolve to include woman in place of girl, and offers an example of that starting to happen. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Bookcovers, marketing and the extra work female writers need to do

In a discussion of a novelist who has used his storytelling techniques to craft a novel, screenwriting guru John Truby describes the following:

[T]he ending was when Lehr chose to give her hero moral, as well as psychological, flaws. Not only does this make for a better story, it also prevents critics from labeling and dismissing the book as “chick lit.” This isn’t just about a woman’s emotional attachment to her child, which however valid is still totally within a woman’s world. The story is also about the central moral issue of being a parent.

What A Mother Knows

I’m not going to disagree with anything he’s saying here, but I find the reality of this publishing world depressing. What he seems to be saying here is that women can’t find widespread success if we are to write about purely female concerns. Being female isn’t quite enough, however ‘valid’ the subject matter. We are to appeal more broadly or risk labelling.

I would like to point out that appealing broadly does not in fact prevent female writers from being marketed as chick-lit, even when said author changes her name from Margaret to Lionel. The deeply satirical and perverse and interesting questions found in the work of Lionel Shriven often come packaged in chick-lit pastels.

 

post-birthday-world-lionel-shriver

When I picked up this novel, I had no idea of its author. I thought Lionel Shriver was a man.  I remember thinking, ‘Hmm. Cupcake, wedding ring, pastel colour scheme. This is an unusual cover for a book written by a man’. Proof positive: I have been conditioned to expect feminine covers on novels written by female authors.

This isn’t right.

Then I happened to see Lionel Shriver on TV. She spoke to The First Tuesday Book Club. I was impressed with her feistiness, expected a feisty book and brought The Post-Birthday World to the top of my reading pile.

Part way through reading, I was surprised at the content, not because of the author – who, in person, is a great advertisement for her writing – but because of the cover. The Post-Birthday World is a brutally honest and unflinching journey into a woman’s dissatisfaction, neediness and sexuality. I remember flipping back to the cover thinking, ‘This cover is just not right for the book.’ I did like the cover. It’s why I bought the book. Ihappened to love the novel, but not because I got what I thought I was getting. That was dumb luck. I read the book because of that TV panel discussion in which I got the sense of an unflinching author who doesn’t take crap.

When I’d finished Shriver’s novel I read some reviews on LibraryThing. Turns out I wasn’t the only reader who picked up The Post-Birthday World expecting something else. Many women hated it. They expected to identify with the protagonist. Instead, they hated her, and hated the book. I don’t remember seeing any reviews written by a man.

But Lionel Shriver does not write women’s fiction. She does not write chick-lit. Shriver writes political commentaries with misanthropic, confronting and divisive themes. I see no reason why many men would not get something out of Shriver’s work but I can see no reason why your average bloke would even consider picking up one of her girly-looking books.

But even her women readers were misled. The cover suggests women’s fiction. But in women’s fiction – more so in chick-lit – the protagonist must be likeable – at least likeable enough to engender reader identification. That seems to be a rule of the genre. The readers who left scathing reviews on LibraryThing wanted something else and it’s not fair that they got something different altogether. They wasted their time and money. Meanwhile, Lionel Shriver probably hoped a different sort of reader would pick up her book. But did they?

Lionel Shriver was a midlist seller for many years before hitting the big time with We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have heard her ask audiences to give her earlier books a little love, since they tend to languish unread.

Do male writers need to worry about their work being dismissed as ‘dick-lit’, even though women in their fifties are keeping the fiction publishing afloat?

Does this attitude trickle down into kidlit world?

Why You Can’t Get Your Hands On That Old Book You Remember From Childhood

In the early 1980s, to encourage aggressive sales, the U.S. government raised the taxes charge on goods left in warehouses at the end of each year. As applied to books, this meant that publishers could no longer afford to keep large numbers of titles on their backlists (the still-available books published in previous years). Books that had been in print for decades suddenly became unavailable. Now, only those titles that still sell well remain in print for very long.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

(Add it to the list of other reasons you already are sure to know about.)

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Goodnight Moon Cover

Goodnight Moon is an American picturebook classic, and is of particular interest because who would’ve thunk it? Margaret Wise Brown had a talent for creating odd-duck prose which went down a treat (and still does) with the preschool set. But is this book only of value for toddlers? Never.

See: What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon

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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.

Should America Import More Children’s Books?

Should America import more children’s literature from other countries?

Everything we do to, with, and for our children is influenced by capitalist market conditions and the hegemonic interests of ruling corporate elites. In simple terms, we calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments and turning them into commodities.

– Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

Podcast freely available on iTunes U (episode 44)

Children’s literature (kidlit) is almost the only class of literature that is not produced by the group that reads it. It’s something that another group does for children, that group being adults. We’re former children, but we’re not children and so children’s literature is a kind of evidence of what we as adults think is appropriate for children.

Stories are ways we have of making sense of ourselves/our world/all of this information that comes in through our senses. Humans think in stories. So as children, learning about the world, stories are a vital way of not only learning about the world but shaping what they know into some kind of sense.

The Joseph Jacobs version of The Three Little Pigs is the version in which the wolf goes to the three houses and eats the first two pigs. Most students know a gentler version in which the pigs run to the next house. But in the Jacobs version the pig boils up the wolf who falls into a cauldron after coming down the chimney. Hades recalls a little girl’s response: ‘You know, I’ve never had wolf.’ The smell of wolf cooking obviously felt very real to her, [and she can’t have been particularly disturbed by it]. Another story is of a little boy who responds to the end of The Three Little Pigs with an outburst of cuss words, demonstrating that for him the story should have ended differently. He was totally caught up in the story, and felt that it didn’t end as it should have.

Is children’s literature art?

On one hand, a work of kidlit is a work of art: literary art, graphic art. On the other hand it’s a commodity. It’s something that is produced to be sold. And if it doesn’t sell, things like that won’t be produced in the future because children’s books exist in part for someone to make a profit.

Children’s Literature Is Middle Class

Children’s literature didn’t exist until children existed. Intellectually we had an idea that there was such a thing as children. We usually point to the 18th C as the time when that shift began: the beginnings of public education and things like that which we usually associate with childhood. Hade likes to qualify that, saying that it assumes a certain kind of child. For kidlit to exist, there has to be somebody who has the money to purchase it, there has to be somebody who can read it, and there has to be somebody who has the time to read. So we’re looking for a kid who can read, has money and has leisure time. This suggests that kidlit is a middle class phenomenon. As middle classes emerge we see children’s books emerge.

The gentrification of comic books

We never used to talk about certain kinds of books in academia because they were not considered proper kinds of literature. Comic books are a good example. They weren’t allowed in the classroom, considered vulgar, things that an educator wouldn’t want to encourage. We’ve seen some shift in how the profession understands children’s literature. We’ve moved somewhat away from the idea that we are purveyors of the very best the culture has to offer to looking at what kids actually spend their time reading, and they do spend a lot of time reading comic books. The comic book has become high art.

300 is a filmed version of a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the story of the 300 Spartans in a battle. Hade recommends it for being quite different. Lots of blood, but computer generated blood. These things existed for quite a while but became increasingly popular in part because they’ve been taken on by Japanese culture. There are 100s and 100s of manga, and large bookstores have sections devoted to the form.

American Born Chinese won a major award from the American Library Association.

We’re now seeing graphic novels trickling down to younger audiences. Babysitters Club and Goosebumps were big in the 80s. School librarians had to wonder about whether to spend money on books of inferior literary quality but which would be read. What was the purpose of a school librarian? Today there is a reissue of the Babysitters Club and Goosebumps as graphic novels.

The Medium Is The Message

It does matter what the medium is. Getting a story through TV is different from getting it through a book. You process the story differently. You understand it differently, and this is going to have an effect. This is a trend that’s not going away and it will be interesting to see how that develops.

The Impact of the Internet On Children’s Reading

The young consumer is still reading, but the type of reading is changing. The web accelerates everything. It’s not only that you get it now, but that you want it now, and expect it now. So many other forms of storytelling are so compressed: Commercials are stories. A 15 story commercial can now tell a story in 15 seconds, and kids see 1000s of these. Is a kid going to slog through page after page of a novel to get something you could get in 15 seconds? (Yes, Harry Potter breaks the rules.)

Young people are still learning plenty of skills. It still takes skill to read a comic book. They have their own conventions. A successful comic book is a technical masterpiece. But these are not the skills we’re testing in schools. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence from teachers that children find it more difficult to visualise. It makes a lot of sense that this would be the case because almost all of our stories are accompanied by pictures these days. Picturebooks are the most common form, and there’s frequent illustration in chapter books, more than a generation ago. What does that mean if a kind of thinking is no longer being exercised by our brain? We’re talking about the ability to imagine, here, being able to visualise something that is presented to you in print.

The Impact of Big Publishing Corporations

Scholastic calls itself the largest publisher in the world. On the Scholastic page [perhaps not anymore?] the consumer can search for ‘Popular Brands’. What we once knew as ‘books’ are now ‘brands’. (See more about Scholastic Brands.) A brand is some bit of standalone meaning that when you hear it, it evokes something in you that the company hopes you will identify with. Nike is a brand, and they work very hard to get people to associate the name Nike with certain kinds of feelings, ‘Just Do It’. We don’t sell cars anymore based on them being better cars than somebody else’s cars, but according to the lifestyle they promise, and the virtues the brand carries. It’s startling to hear children’s book companies refer to books as brands, creating a commercial relationship. The beauty for the company is that it doesn’t matter what the container for the brand is. It can be a children’s book but it can also be a toy. It can be clothing, games, personal items such as toothbrushes, food… Clifford The Big Red dog throws up hundreds and hundreds of products apart from books associated with it. Again, the medium matters. This changes the way we relate to the story. The story, in effect, or the t-shirt or the toy, become in the companies’ words ‘cross-promotional’. Everything becomes an advertisement for everything else. The goal is to trigger desire in a Clifford loving fan to accumulate as much Clifford stuff as they can.

In the age of marketing, toys serve a new function: they are the templates through which children are being introduced into the attitudes and social relations of consumerism. […] We have granted to marketers enormous powers to meddle in the key realms of children’s culture — the peer group, fantasy, stories and play.

– Stephen Kline, 1993

30 years ago we had scores of publishers publishing books for children, indie publishers. They produced quite a variety of stuff. Today the scene is dramatically different. The vast majority of books are produced by a small handful of corporations who have business interests in other areas besides publishing — Viacom, Disney etc.

Disney constructs childhood so as to make it entirely compatible with consumerism.

Smoodin, 1994

Giroux on Disney

What once was a very diverse business has now collapsed into something that doesn’t show quite the diversity. Where once you maybe had 12 publishing houses each with a different editorial staff, those publishers have amalgamated to make one editorial staff with one kind of decision being made. 80% of the books that SLJ reviews come from 8 companies. They get most of the books that the profession says are the best.

What does that mean for us? These companies operate internationally, and something that we are painfully unaware of is we [Americans] don’t import books into this country, unless they’re from Britain or fantasy or a picture book. Anything else doesn’t get in. We are, however, a huge exporter of books. A lot of this trade takes place at the Bologna Book Fair. Almost all the children’s book publishers gather in the world gather in Bologna. There are also toy companies and movie companies — Sesame Street, Hasbro, all looking for something they can buy, something that will become the next big commercial thing.

While this isn’t something that affects us [Americans] directly, there are some implications of us being large exporters of books while not importing much.

America Exports A Lot But Doesn’t Import Much

A lot of our children’s books are about going to bed. (eg Goodnight Moon) This book works in a culture where the child has its own room and is expected to leave the company of adults in order to go to bed. Much of the rest of the world works differently. Children go to bed with their mothers, brothers and sisters. There’s no problem with abandonment, because it’s not an issue.

So into Taiwan, they get Goodnight Moon. This book is designed for Western audiences. This puts a pressure on a long accepted practice that maybe had some things going for it that Americans have missed, like maybe abandoning a three year old isn’t the right thing to do. Maybe it’s more nurturing to lie down with the three year old until the three year old goes to sleep.

Who buys children’s books and where they buy them matters.

Up through the middle 1980s most books were bought by librarians for libraries. It wasn’t until the mid 80s that this shifted from libraries to bookstores.

  1. Libraries didn’t have much money anymore.
  2. Money shifted to the general population. Parents buy differently from a librarian. This isn’t a put-down; it’s just a fact. There were a lot of different places in America to buy books, and each of those places had a different person stocking the shelves.

Today if you want to buy a children’s book, they are occupying less and less floor space in some stores. There are only a few big chains left from which to buy these books. So what? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. But what you don’t have anymore is someone in the store who knows books. Very few people go to work at Barnes and Noble and see that as a long term career move. They’re there and then they’re moving on, especially the people assigned to the children’s department. So you no longer have that kind of expertise. The expertise exists with the customer. So Barnes and Noble needs books that sell themselves, because there’s no longer a human being to sell them. What kind of books sell themselves?

  • Brands.
  • Celebrity authors.
  • Series books.

Those kinds of books sell themselves. But if you’re that author who’s written that quirky little novel it just may not be discovered.

One last twist on that: Because almost all the books sold in bookstores are sold in Barnes and Noble or [formerly] Borders you now have a handful of people who have a lot of say in what kinds of children’s books are put in front of the public.

Not Censorship, Exactly: Business Decisions

17 Things I’m Not Allowed To Do Anymore is a book about the new super safe environment children live in. This book is not available in the major book stores. They decided it would encourage children to misbehave and will in the long run hurt business, so it’s not there. Simon and Schuster is probably making arrangements with the remainder house to dump the copies they’ve already printed. There’s no chance that this will be a commercial success. They will be sold only as ‘remainders’ at a very low price. You can buy it at the Barnes and Noble online site; you just won’t find it in the store.

American Girls is the closest thing we have to the ‘lifestyle brand’ for kids. It tries to work its way into every aspect of your life, which is why you can buy music at Starbucks.

Related: “Second Only To Barbie: Identity, fiction and non-fiction in the American Girl Collection”.