Stock Yuck In Picturebooks

Charles Spencelayh - Helping Mother 1899

Children don’t tend to like green vegetables. Picture book creators know this, and often, greens are used as proxy for any yucky thing: Stock yuck.

A fairy’s life is filled with danger. Broccoli is often poisoned by the wicked Duchess and should never be eaten.

ALICE THE FAIRY BY DAVID SHANNON

Stock-yuck is qualitatively different from the truly disgusting material found in gross-out stories. Stock-yuck is not inherently disgusting — it’s usually ‘good’ at its base, and rejected partly because of its goodness.

peas blending into sweets

POOKIE BY IVY WALLACE (1946)


Never underestimate what kids learn from picture books. Trouble is, it’s not always what you want them to learn. Would kids even know the concept of monsters if they weren’t exposed to monsters in picture books; in picture books which are designed, no less, to teach kids not to be afraid of monsters? I have no idea.

Food is especially well-suited to the disgust reaction.

Mud Pies and Other Recipes A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow
Mud Pies and Other Recipes A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow

Another thing I see cropping up time and time again in picture books are green vegetables as a stock example of ‘yucky stuff’. TV Tropes calls this ‘stock yuck’: Broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. It’s not limited to food, but when it’s already a challenge getting kids to eat their greens, I groan when I come across brassicas as stock yuck in books for kids.

As TV tropes points out, there’s an evolutionary reason for a childhood aversion to green vegetables:

They actually taste different to children, and generally, they taste worse. Children are more receptive to bitter compounds in foods than adults (likely an evolutionary measure to prevent us from dying of plant poisoning while young), and tend to be put off by the bitter taste.

And from Slate:

How did broccoli become the poster child of the good-for-you yet ostensibly bad-tasting vegetable? Why didn’t Jeffrey seize on spinach, or Brussels sprouts, or peas as an example of produce that liberty-loving Americans would hate to be forced to buy?

Thing is, I’m not convinced that picturebooks can fight this particular big struggle with overt healthy eating messages. (Picturebooks with overt anything messages aren’t generally very pleasant to read, IMO.) Here are my pretty simple criteria when choosing picturebooks for our own daughter:

  1. Avoids glorification of highly processed junk food
  2. Avoids demonising the vegetables I want her to be eating

Hell, feeding kids is hard enough these days. I guess Obama knows that. (I call that a little green lie.)

Bear in mind that stock yuck is culture and era dependent.

In Lebanon, picture book قصة الكوى (The History of Zucchini) by Samah Idriss and Yasmin Nachabeh Taanis is a story about a child who doesn’t like zucchini. His mother invents a trick to get him to eat more of it — classic stock yuck.

Kate Perugini - Portrait of Agnes Pheobe Burra (aka Feeding the Rabbit)
Kate Perugini – Portrait of Agnes Pheobe Burra (aka Feeding the Rabbit)

GETTING KIDS TO EAT VEGETABLES

When the three year old announced, ‘I don’t like green food’, it was as if she’d been reading some research about the taste preferences of toddlers. I tried to get more good food into her, struggled, struggled. Here are some interesting links I came across in my travels.

  1. A recipe which claims to include Vegetables Your Kids Will Eat from Extraordinary Mommy. I have yet to try it out.
  2. Kids Choose to Eat Vegetables If Their Plates Have Pictures of Vegetables Printed on Them, from Bon Appetit. The best place to find these, by the way, are in those cheap stores in malls which import a whole bunch of cheap crockery from Asia. I suspect Asian parents don’t have quite as much trouble getting their kids to eat their vegetables. I have a set of soup spoons with eggplants and celery people on them. They’re very cute. Everything I find in a typically Western store has cupcakes.
  3. Visual Cues Encourage Vegetable Consumption from Scientific American
  4. Esquire, though for men and not kids, has an article called A Foolproof Way to Make Any Vegetable Taste Good. It includes a bunch of fancy ingredients but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the butter.
  5. From Babble: Mom, May I Have More Spinach?
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
Brokoli Cookie by Robert Hellmundt
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar eats a lot of junk food, but suffers the consequences and goes back to eating green leaves.

FURTHER READING

Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Michael Pollan has a picky eater. Because sometimes there’s more to it than exposure.

Even in comics for adults, we all expect to see young characters actively avoiding the green stuff. This is the modern Nancy re-visioning.

PINKWASHING

Have you heard of pinkwashing?

Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is a theme in our house, so I hastily add a line in which McGonagall gives Harry a paper to write on the importance of following instructions. Then I underscore the responsibility of being on a team, so that getting to be seeker doesn’t seem entirely like a reward for bad behaviour.

I do this sort of on-the-fly editing all the time when reading to my 5-year-old. I call it “pinkwashing” after the scene in “Pinkalicious” in which the poor, discolored child must stomach horrible green vegetables as a cure for her unfortunate pinkness. She chokes down artichokes, gags on grapes and burps up brussels sprouts. The passage serves important narrative and stylistic functions, of course, but Emmett loves artichokes, grapes and brussels sprouts. He never complains about eating them, so rather than hint at a generation-long struggle against the tyranny of green veggies, I replace the negative verbs with positive ones. Pinkwashing.

Child Proofing Harry Potter

…the ad team visited an elementary school in Boulder, Colo., to get a better sense of what children thought about broccoli. This was a progressive school, certainly as far as food was concerned. The school district’s director of food services, Ann Cooper, was imported from Berkeley, Calif., where she once worked with Alice Waters; on the school’s grounds there was a garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown, to inspire the students to be connected to the source of their food. The team was encouraged when it heard that the students had generally positive feelings — until Cooper reminded them that children were only one part of the challenge and that the parents who actually bought the groceries were, by and large, part of a generation that viewed broccoli as “brown, squishy and smelly.”

Broccoli’s Extreme Makeover, NYT
The Spinach Is Crying
Japanese picture book called: The Spinach Is Crying. I have no idea what’s on the inside.

Header illustration: Charles Spencelayh – Helping Mother 1899

Nudity In Picturebooks

Sam The Eagle On Nudity

This morning Cosmopolitan reports that UK authors are pushing for children’s literature to include sex in fiction for kids. That’s quite a headline grabber. Of course, reading the actual article offers a less sensationalist request:

  • Malorie Blackman says that including sex in fiction for kids will expose them to it in a shame-free, healthy and positive “safe setting”
  • Philip Pullman agrees, and says that  kids can benefit from seeing sex in a “moral context” where “actions have consequences”.

They’re not asking too much, are they? Bear in mind that in the publishing world, ‘children’s literature’ includes the young adult category.

I wish them all the luck in the world and, given the current attitude towards nudity in picture books, I think they’ll need it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book In The Night Kitchen was released in 1970. In that book is a picture of a little boy with no clothes on. We can see his penis.

I haven’t seen anything quite like that in picture book since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more? After all, not everyone is on board with the censorship of innocent nudity in picture books, and I count myself among them. However, distribution of our work relies on bigger powers, and here are the developer guidelines from Apple:

apple-rating-chart
setting-a-rating-apple-guidelines

I recently saw a picture from a fellow developer who’d had his 4+  rated app rejected by Apple. The screenshot depicted a very innocent, almost inhuman looking, smooth-bodied creature. The advice from Apple was to ‘put some clothes on it’.

So, regardless of my personal attitude towards censorship, the real decision makers are standing at the gate of that walled garden.

MORE ON CENSORSHIP IN KIDLIT

Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books At Misrule

On censorship

Below are some notes from an interview between Australian author Sally Rippin and Kim Hill (Saturday Morning With Kim Hill, Radio New Zealand)

Examples of things which have been taken out of children’s books before publication:

  • children from walking alone (because guardians are legally obliged to accompany children)
  • sharp objects (because children shouldn’t be given sharp objects)
  • a boy climbing a ladder (so as not to encourage the climbing of ladders)
  • ‘Crossover’ fiction gets away with more compared to books marketed as ‘young adult’.
  • Gatekeepers are parents, teachers, librarians. There is a certain amount of self-censorship when writers write.
  • There is pressure on illustrators to create racially ambiguous characters rather than specific to one culture.

Sort of kind of related and also interesting: a post on female sexuality as depicted in young adult fiction, at YA Highway. And here is an article by author E.M. Kokie about how much more difficult it is to write about the sexual experiences of a female character than a male.

The most challenged books of 2012, and why from Book Riot

THE NAKED APPLE

Sales of digital comics have soared in the past three years. Readers love the look of comics on the iPad screen and they also love the convenience of in-app purchasing, which allows consumers to buy and store their comics within a single app. So it’s a big deal when Apple bans a comic—usually because of sexual or mature material or nudity—and it has happened to at least 59 comics this year.

Are Comics Too Hot For Apple?

You may think that creators of picture books for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bath time and related day-to-day activities is banned equally by Apple. I have seen children’s apps rejected which feature only the vaguest representations of human creatures. If nudity offends you, you’re safe with Apple. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more normalised nudity in children’s media, your bookshelf will need supplementation, because Apple does not distinguish between ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’.

Perry Nodelman explains why Apple employees, when working under deadline to accept or reject app submissions, might have trouble with such a distinction in his book Words About Pictures:

In Ways Of Seeing, John Berger suggests that the characteristic poses of nudes in paintings imply the superiority of the viewer, presumably male and dressed, and the subservience of the person they depict — inevitably female, totally exposed, and apparently delighted by her vulnerability in the face of superior power. While the naked human body is not as significant a subject of picture books as it is of conventional painting, its depiction in picture books deserves some discussion. Not only does it reveal much about the kinds of narrative information implied by the depiction of postures and gestures — above all, the communication of attitudes toward characters — but also it suggests how even cultural assumptions we believe we have outlived survive in surprising ways in literature and art.

As Berger defines it, nudity can be distinguished from mere nakedness by means of gestures. Naked people simply have their clothes off; nude people take on certain postures that suggest their availability, their passivity, their willingness to be vulnerable and to put themselves at the disposal of a superior viewer who has the right to survey them. They tend to be supine, relaxed, smiling sensuously with an implied consciousness of a viewer or with their eyes closed. If such poses and gestures represent nudity, then the unclothed children of picture books are, surprisingly often, nude — and not, surely, because artists with to suggest the sexual availability of young children but more likely because the gestures of nudity are so conventional and so interiorized that artists use them unconsciously when they depict naked bodies.

Code, Symbol, Gesture

Nodelman offers some examples of such nudity in picturebooks:

The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

And that, folks, is how we end up with a blanket ban on nudity in the App Store. Meantime, I did wonder if Midnight Feast would be accepted, due to the bath time pages. Fortunately the app has made it through twice so far. Fingers crossed it keeps making it, though I will wonder every time we submit an update if a naked female back may at some stage not pass muster. Nodelman does point out that although female nudity in picture books is rare due to its close connection to sexuality, ‘the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers’.

Isn’t it interesting, that even when clothed, female characters — in picture books, not just in comics — ‘almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity’.

While I understand the line must be drawn somewhere, I am reminded of a documentary I watched recently about young British naturists, who were joined for afternoon tea by a female friend who felt uncomfortable with complete nakedness, but equally uncomfortable fully clothed, so she thought she’d achieve a happy medium by eating afternoon tea in her underwear. As pointed out by one of the naked young men, her underwear had the uncanny ability to make the young woman appear more naked than if she were wearing nothing at all. Female underwear is highly sexualised; as for nakedness, not necessarily.

Censorship is a murky, muddy, ever-shifting beast, but I do wonder if the emphasis on nakedness in apps for children isn’t completely misplaced when the female characters who do appear in children’s media are so often striking the ‘nude pose’.

Nodelman writes, “In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something—moving, active, not posing.”

I would suggest from all this that it’s not the nakedness per se that offends certain censors*, because we get ‘clothed nude’ in spades; it is in fact naked female agency.

*Censorship technically only refers to government restriction. A company who decides not to allow something is technically making a business decision rather than imposing censorship in the truest sense.
Rudyard Kipling - The Jungle Book Illustrator Gennady Kuznetsov
Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book Illustrator Gennady Kuznetsov
‘Songs for little people’ by Norman Gale; illustrated by Helen Stratton
‘Songs for little people’ by Norman Gale; illustrated by Helen Stratton. The fairies in the bottom border are without clothes.

RELATED

In The Buff from The Smart Set

iBooks and their covers are also subject to Apple’s business decisions. Apple refuses to allow female nipples on the cover of La Femme.

Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of righteous people writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war.

A.C. Grayling, The Meaning Of Things

Dicks, Tits and Clits: What Would Equal-Opportunity On-Screen Nudity Look Like? from Jezebel

Why Are There So Few Dongs On TV? from Clementine Ford

The Social and Legal Arguments for Allowing Women to Go Topless in Public from The Atlantic

The Deep Reading Of Picturebooks

“Don’t assume that the literal meaning of a sentence is the least important one. It’s the only important one.”

–  Sage advice.

At The Art Of Manliness blog is an article called ‘How To Read A Book’. I’m in need of a few tips on manliness. I’m also wondering if there is, in fact, a right and a wrong way to read a book, so I read it. Turns out there are many different ways of talking about levels of close reading. This article divides them into these four:

1. Elementary

2. Inspectional

3. Analytical

4. Synoptical

Since a synoptical level of reading texts is generally achieved at the university level, a good analytic understanding of texts is something to aim for in high school graduates. Yet as pointed out in the article, many aren’t getting there.

Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels.

A guy called Mortimer Adler has a few theories on this: school never really teaches how to read a book. So that was back in 1940, and I’m confident schools all over the place are doing a better job of educating the masses than way back when, but one thing hasn’t changed: schools are still pressed for time.

So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.

There simply isn’t the time to guide students through a deep-read of all the worthy high school texts. Instead, teachers can guide them through a few and hope for the best.

*

This is where picturebooks can be useful. The most recent review of our first picturebook app, The Artifacts, tells us that, in Ireland at least, our first storybook app is being used in high schools. I find this really interesting, because that’s how I’d use such a thing, too. Picturebooks are the perfect tool for teaching analytical reading skills to high school aged students because you can do the entire thing in a 50 minute period if you have to. In a couple of weeks you can do 6 or 8 deep reads, from start to finish, and that includes multiple readings. Short stories are good too, and ideally the teacher would have time to collect a variety of short texts on a similar theme. To do the same deep read wit, say, Lord of the Flies it takes five or six weeks and then the teacher has to rely on students reading in their own time. Short texts are better for less advantaged students who don’t necessarily have the peace and quiet to complete long reads at home. Also, a wider range of short texts allows for the fact that different students will be engaged by different stories. So although few students are going to like all six short texts, all of them are going to like at least one.

Then there’s the fact that most of our students are going to be parents themselves, sooner or later. And even if they never finish another novel in their entire lifetimes, we can hope that they will read picturebooks to their own offspring.

Quentin Blake told an audience that children learn to read from an “emotional motivation”, as he urged educators not to “turn their backs” on the fun of illustrations. (The Telegraph)

“The relationship between text and illustration can on occasion be quite complex, but what illustration can first of all do is to welcome you to the book,” he said in the Hay Library Lecture.

That’s why I love picturebooks in the high school language arts classroom.

Related: Four Different Visual Guides to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Also, the Farnam Street blog is doing a series on the Art of Reading.

Here, Cathy Jo Nelson suggests using ‘easy’ books in the classroom because:

These books are a GREAT way to introduce a topic in any classroom or content area. They can be the perfect segue from topic to topic or activity to activity in any classroom. These books also tap into the inner creative side for some, and we all know there are plenty of students who do not respond to dry text, but will respond to stories or pictures that make connections, evoke feelings, and allow for the appreciation of literature, dramatic readings, and in its purest form, the appreciation of art.

 

Sharing Picturebooks In The Classroom

I did my fair share of teaching with pictures when I was a high school language teacher. I love this approach partly, I’m guessing, because I’m a visual learner myself. But there is one big problem with teaching like this to a group of 30 students: The ones at the back can’t see it properly.

When our school acquired its first data projector, that thing lived mainly in my classroom. I believe many schools have since achieved funding for a data projector in every classroom and this is great news for our daughter, who starts school next year.

So I’m perplexed when I read things like this from picturebook enthusiasts (with blogs that I love, by the way):

The close proximity, the intimacy of [teachers reading picturebooks to a classroom of students], explains why reading picture books online or on a tablet feels so much less satisfying.

As far as I’m concerned, a classroom equipped with a tablet and a data projector is the best possible set up for teaching with picturebooks. A picturebook projected at movie-screen size in a darkened classroom, especially when accompanied by excellent sound equipment, is a wonderfully immersive experience. I’d like to know if students, as well as their teachers, find reading picturebooks via tablets ‘so much less satisfying’. It’s not quite the same as sitting on Nana’s lap, granted, but the addition of tablet computers and other tech equipment feels to me like a huge step forward.

Related

Making Writing Real With the Use of Picture Books by Alyson Beecher at The Nerdy Book Club