[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”—show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!
Some Smiling Boys
The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.
Smiling Group Portraits
It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:
Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss
Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.
Other Smiling Creatures
If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.
Hell, I’m Not Smiling
Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.
The Absence Of Smiling On The Cover Of Russian Picture books
Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the US as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.
So writes Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, in response to a new paper on intercultural smiling, further explaining that:
Russians’ fondness for the gentle scowl seems even more unusual to expats than its actual, climatic cold. And the cultural difference cuts both ways: Newcomers to America often remark on the novelty of being smiled at by strangers.
In Russian cultures, smiling is not a sign of friendliness; it is a sign of a ‘tricky fool’.
I can see a feminist benefit to that — according to Khazan, at least women in Russian cultures aren’t instructed to smile by random men on the street! American women, on the other hand, were required to look calm and reassuring even in time of war.
This got me wondering about how this might have impacted children’s book covers. There are plenty of smiling children on the front of Western picture books — but what about Russian picture books?
Well, not all Russian children’s books follow the rule, but I am slightly concerned about why this boy is smiling…
So I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding the history of smiling in the former Soviet Union’s children’s literature.
And here is a collection of Russian themed children’s books for English speaking readers.
See also: Nudity In Picturebooks
Header illustration by Harry Rountree