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.
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.)
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.
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).
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically fake. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a homebaked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week.
Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
— Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair.
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee.
Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.
“Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.
“Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets told off by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a slightly wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist problem — concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness.
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. She is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes with her nose in the air.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in opposition to the feminist ‘girls can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents — these heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often have frenemies. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the reader to despise her. We don’t like women to have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to hate her even more. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person. We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness.
Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists.
You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organization is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
— Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage girls? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.
The following terms refer to Americans in high school AND in university.
year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior
We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.
In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).
Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).
PAYING FOR UNIVERSITY IN AMERICA
Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
Low income Americans can get the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.
OTHER AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY
BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.
JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.
GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.
CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)
If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.
‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.
Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)
CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.
HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.
PROM – Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious. For a fictional, horror example of a prom, see Carrie by Stephen King.
In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.
DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.
YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.
American methods of child-rearing were far more lenient than in Britain.
Although American ladies’ journals began to promote slenderness and weight control for women in the 1890s, it wasn’t considered necessary to restrict the diet of children.
Medical experts advised parents to make sure their children — particularly boys — were not underweight. Between-meal snacks and fatty foods were encouraged.
Home was thought of as a refuge from the outside world.
Children were believed to be innocent rather than inherently sinful.
Indulgence was preferred over strict discipline.
Children were considered ‘priceless’. They were given allowances, had lavish birthdays, were allowed treats such as candy bars, ice-cream and Eskimo pies.
American children were allowed fruit, salads, oysters, johnny cakes, toast swimming in butter, fish, flesh and game at breakfast, jellies and ices at night, tea and coffee. (In England children were eating bread and milk in the nursery.)
American children were treated as ‘robust and confident’ whereas British parenting was watchful and anxious.
English family stories (especially those for girls) had little appeal for American children and didn’t do well across the Atlantic.
Since American children were allowed to eat, American children’s literature from this time isn’t quite so full of food fantasies as it was in England at this time. (More food fantasies appeared later, during WW rationing in the mid 20th century.)
The Rootabaga Stories are modern American fairytales (set 200-300 years ago). Few British children would know of them.
In the years immediately after WW2 Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes was a work of historical children’s fiction that stood above all others and which everyone knew. But in the 1970s it was damned as embodying an old-fashioned view of the Revolution.
Features Of American Kidlit
Often, as explained by Griswold: a child is orphaned, makes a journey, is adopted and harassed by adults, and eventually triumphs over them and comes into his or her own.
On the whole American kidlit is more down-to-earth because America’s earlier children’s writers rejected fantasy and escapism.
When authors do do fantasy it’s often set in the old world (e.g. Madeliene L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander)
American stories have tended to portray the family as a mini-nation. This applies to children’s books especially, e.g. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Huck Finn, Wizard of Oz. So many American children’s books can be seen as nationalistic tracts. We glimpse in them ‘America-as-Child’.
Puritanical compared to Europe – closer to Russia than to Sweden in this respect. And compared to England, the trend was not so soon relaxed.
“American publishers,” Nicoletta Ciccoli laments, “do not like the dark and disturbing. They love the mainstream.” (As a result, her illustrated children’s books for American publishers seem less challenging: employing a light palette and offering only hints of her genius with the weird.)
Many mothers stay at home with their children
Translates very few foreign books, and many of those fail to catch on
European books don’t do well in America
Material things in general
Raised on a national myth of a strong and active hero
Acquisition of material wealth preferred over spiritual knowledge and maturity
The spirituality of European kid-lit is alien in America
European kid-lit seems introspective
Something has to happen in American kidlit
American classics advocate positive thinking. There is a substitution of psychology for religion. (The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Wizard of Oz — believe in yourself! Have confidence!)
Although American classics include tricksters, there is a conviction that Adamic innocence alone is redemptive.
Optimism, ignorance of evil and naivety is rewarded, and is enough to save a main character. (Dorothy is innocent, Little Lord Fauntleroy is especially optimistic. Pollyanna is the ultimate example.)
American childhood classics are about physical health. But there’s also a vision of the world as a sick ward. (Little Women, The Secret Garden).
There are lots of orphans in American kidlit. A lot of the classics are based on the Cinderella ur-story.
E. Nesbit’s failure in the United States is not entirely mysterious. We have always preferred how-to-do to let’s-imagine-that. In the last fifty years, considering our power and wealth, we have contributed relatively little in the way of new ideas of any sort. From radar to rocketry, we have had to rely on other societies for theory and invention. Our great contribution has been, characteristically, the assembly line. do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, wouldn’t it be interesting if…? he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it will be like to own a car and make money. As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American society.
In the early 18th C, besides the Bible and the New England Primer, the staple items of approved reading were Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Watts’s Hymns, and Divine Songs, and Janeway’s Token for Children with American additions. There were many other memoirs of pious children, admonitions from solemn and forbidding divines, and legacies of advice from father to son or mother to daughter.
But Defoe and Swift soon crossed the Atlantic. There were also the chapbook versions of such old stories as The Seven Giants of Christendom and Valentine and Orson.
The Babes in the Wood and Tom Thumb sold particularly well.
Sometimes it was possible to combine dreadful warnings with sensationalism e.g. The Prodigal Daughter, who makes a bargain with the Devil to poison her parents.
For most of the 18th C America was still colonial, so ‘American children’s literature’ didn’t exist — the cultural capital was London. That said, there were printers in Philadelphia and Boston. They would often change minor details in British books to Americanize them.
For the 100 years following Newbery’s death there were main types: didactic and commercial American books for children. They were written for ‘respectable’ children, for future masters and misses of the middle classes.
In the 1850s there was Tom Brown and Eric (boys’ school stories).
Miss Charlotte M. Yonge preceded Louisa Alcott’s Little Women by writing domestic stories for girls.
In the 1860s: two great fantasies: Alice and Water Babies.
The period 1865-1914 was ‘The Era of the Child’. Several intellectual trends contributed to this: Nostalgia (because the second half of the 19th C was dramatically different from the first half — the Civil War changed everything, urbanization), Fascination With The Future (there was the laying of the transatlantic cable, the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, telephones, electric lights, first flight, and children were symbols of the future), Progress Through Recapitulation (nearly all the big name American writers of this time were often on steam ships, crossing the Atlantic and were early adopters of tech, and this seems contradictory since they were writing about childhood idylls, but adults of this time were able to regress to the psychic age of their children in order to write for them), Changing Attitudes About Childhood (children were less indulged before this era, which became a lot more middle class with free time for the masses), New Interest In Child Raising Practices (parents were careful about not sullying their children’s innocence, the first paediatric clinic was established in NYC, parents started to think about how they were parenting and realized that ‘parents’ were responsible for children’s needs), The Child As Public Figure (before now children were mostly raised in rural areas but now they were the center of American cultural life, vehicles for nostalgia, symbols of the future, put on stage for the first time. No longer seen and not heard.)
Escape from slavery is a common theme in historical fiction. (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn forward). The outstanding novel about slavery is The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (1973).
In the 1870s: Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty.Before Tom Sawyer there were two general kinds of American Children’s Literature: Aesopian tales of Good and Bad children (finally codified in the Sunday school story), and spiritual biographies of woebegone but saintly waifs (a genre that eventually became the stories of the child-victim in sentimental fiction). But Clemens too on the first kind of story, turned it on its head and celebrated the Bad Boy. Tom Sawyer also lampoons the second type of story.
The 1920s was a great decade for American literature, whereas it was going through a down period over in Britain. There were now specialist courses for children’s librarians and the first children’s editor was appointed by Macmillan of New York in 1919. Other American publishers followed.
Between the wars the best American fiction tended to be about European settlement of the East Coast, the War of Independence and the drive to the West. The viewpoints were white Anglo-Saxon, since this is who was writing them.
Master Simons’s Garden by Cornelia Meigs was an example of this kind of between-war American kidlit, and was influential for what followed.
The Little House on the Prairie is fictionalised autobiography — things in the series actually happened and the people were real, but Wilder’s life was significantly harder than that portrayed in the books. The message is that ‘happiness is not related to material possessions’. The best of the books is thought to be The Long Winter.
Caddie Woodlawn (1935)is another book (a Newbery award winner) that looks west.
Johnny Tremain (1943) is set in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. Unlike Caddie Woodlawn, this is a true historical novel.
Picture books have blossomed since 1945. There have been great technological advancements in printing and growing awareness of the importance of books for young children. Maurice Sendak is regarded by critics as the best of the past 100 years or so.
It took some time though for excellent American children’s literature to come out of the more welcoming environment. Some of the early Newbery Medal winners aren’t actually all that great.
Even today there is a difference between Europe and America regarding what is good for children to be reading:
British YA author Jean Ure on using ‘four-letter-words’ in her novel One Green Leaf:
I finally made a stand — I gave the good and defensible reasons, heard no more, and thought with smug satisfaction that here was one author who couldn’t be bullied into submission. Poor innocent fool! On receiving my advance copies from the States, what did I find? In the face of my bold authorial intransigence, the whole speech had been wiped out entirely. I could, of course, have got back to the publishers and made tremendous waves … but equally of course I didn’t. I bowed in the end to the inevitable economic pressures.
In the middle of last century kid-lit tended toward idyllic or slightly humorous (Vera and Bill Cleaver, Elaine Konigsburg, Beverly Cleary). The 1950s were a peaceful era in children’s books. America had what Ann Durell (a distinguished editor) called “the Indian summer of the Eisenhower years” when “society was dominated by a sort of mid-Atlantic bourgeoisie that felt it had saved the world for democracy and had thus earned the right to perpetuate forever the sociological and cultural values of Edwardian England.” The children’s book world in the US was solidly Anglophile. “It seemed that almost any book published in London would have an American edition sooner or later.” There was an unwritten ban on lying or stealing, unless punished. No drugs, sexual suggestiveness, drinking or smoking.
In the 1970s and 80s there was a trend towards problem oriented books (Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voigt, Betsy Byars). This happened in the shadow of the Cold War, which people were worried that a bomb could decimate the entire world. This had never been a threat before, of course.
Alongside the problem oriented stories fantasy has also thrived (Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Natalie Babbitt, John Bellairs, Jane Yolen, Anne McCauffrey, Robin McKinley, Meredith Ann Pierce etc)
The difference between books ‘for girls’ and books ‘for boys’ is clearer than for example in Asian countries, where people like Hayao Miyazaki are confidently making mainstream movies for children starring female protagonists, without expecting that ‘boys won’t be interested in stories about girls’ (but not vice versa). This is surely related to a culture which romanticises masculinity: I recently heard about a study showing that in the United States, girls three to six years of age have a much better ability to regulate their emotions and their behaviors than boys of the same age. Interestingly, this gender difference in self-regulation wasn’t found in any of the three Asian cultures included in the study. The lead author’s take-away was that here in the US, we expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys. – Boy Behaviour or Bad Behaviour from Good Men Project
The characters in many American children’s novels take for granted that anyone, no matter how humble, can improve his or her lot in life and achieve a dream. That basic, unquestioned assumption defines them as Americans. It is not shared so unquestioningly, however, by the British animals in Wind in the Willows, who tend to be content with the way things are, and who get into trouble when they try to live out their dreams. – The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, by Nodelman and Reimer. (See Downton Abbey for the adult equivalent of this British tendency in fiction, to punish characters who ‘don’t know their place’.)
While British kidlit encourages children to grow up, American kidlit holds up the ideals of domestic Utopia. This happened after WW2 after several decades of economic deprivations and war had deprived Americans of the pleasures of domesticity. (This same ideal had significant consequences for feminism, too, with the domestic ideal requiring a housewife, preferably in curlers and an apron.)
Even in postwar decades, American kidlit has been exceptionally idyllic. Then writers such as Katherine Paterson and Patricia MacLachlan came along. Their stories departed abruptly from Arcadia.
In the 1960s American children’s literature got a big boost by Title 2 (of President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) which made huge funds available for book purchase in schools.
Family life was exemplified in the reassuring pages of Eleanor Estes, Elizabeth Enright, Madeleine L’Engle et al.
In 1965 there was a seminal article in Saturday Review on “The All-White World of Children’s Books“, so the discussion has been taking place since then (with not all that much progress). There already existed books about black children but they were written by white authors and implied that black children were really white under the skin.
The first outstanding black author for children is sometimes thought to be Virginia Hamilton. She was certainly the first “black woman and black writer to have received” the Newbery Medal.
Another black writer Mildred D. Taylor also won it a few years later for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Walter Dean Myers sets most of his stories in Harlem.
Books started to reflect the change in family dynamics, preparing children for the possibility of broken families
Adolescence was portrayed (and perhaps experienced) not as not a time of boundless energy for life but a time of negative rejection of adult values.Adults were no longer automatically entitled to respect.
Authors were faced with the tough job of writing about an adolescence they hadn’t experienced themselves. There was a big gap between generations.
Parents were often useless or vicious, e.g. the novels of Paul Zindel.
In the 1970s there was backlash against feminism and anti-racist groups, and a bunch of book banning.
There was also a recession in the 1970s which affected the economics of publishing both in American and Britain. Initial print runs were smaller which raised the price of individual units. Libraries did their best to buy new books but didn’t replace as many old ones. High warehousing charges didn’t help, especially backlists — the majority of books which sell slowly but steadily, if they’re allowed to. Traditionally, children’s books were published for the long term, but now, if a book didn’t immediately take off, it would fall out of print. This made it more difficult for writers to establish themselves.
The publishing industry since the 1980s has been more welcoming of new writers than Britain has. There is stronger institutional support. The 1980s were good for children’s literature, and children’s book shops were said to be the fastest growing retail sector.
But by the 1990s that was no longer the case. The Association of American Publishers reported that sales of juvenile hard covers in 1993 were down by 8%. Paperback sales were up by double that, but lower than in previous years.
When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.
What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults becauseitis Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:
Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.
This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:
A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.
Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:
Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)
Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Libraries didn’t have much money anymore.
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?
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.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.
The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaning…the hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.
If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.
– Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)
I am neither American nor French, so as an adult who grew up in New Zealand, I’m wondering about my own view of childhood. Is it possible to fit neatly in the middle, viewing childhood as neither particularly good nor particularly bad? I certainly had worries as a child. I distinctly remember that one of my greatest fears at the age of five was to arrive home from school to find the gate shut. Dad had built that tall gate several years previous, to keep me in, after I ran off ‘to see the lions’ at the age of two and a half, wearing nothing but a nappy and a bib (I’ve heard that story many times), but I feared that if I ever came home from school and it was shut, I’d never ever get into the house again. I don’t know quite what I thought. Perhaps I was expecting permanent banishment. In fact, I never thought that far. My fear was irrational. So every morning before I left for school I told mum to leave the gate open for me.
Mum remembered the gate almost all of the time. Except for once. When I got home it was shut tight and I couldn’t reach it. I screamed and hollered so loudly that the mother from across the road came and rescued me… and changed my pants. How humiliating. I suppose my own mother had got caught up at the shops or something. I wasn’t permanently banished. I don’t remember worrying so much about the gate after that, though.
These days I worry about bigger things, but I’m better able to cope with those things, so the worries seem neither more nor less significant than that simple childhood fear of abandonment. Childhood would be blissful, perhaps, if we could approach it with the carefree spirit of adulthood, knowing all that we know as grown-ups.
I do find it interesting that different cultures have different general concepts of childhood, because the American view of childhood as bliss, and its depictions in certain stories, has never sat right with me. It’s nice to know that this is due in part to my culture, and not to some terrible repressed memories I must’ve had, colouring my relatively pessimistic view forever after!