The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

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What is a heterotopia?

heterotopia

I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

  • The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
  • The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.

So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

Continue reading “What is a heterotopia?”

Rapunzel The ur-Story Of Young Female Sexuality

Rapunzel Michael Foreman

THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL

Girls locked inside towers, women locked in attics; missing girls, dead mothers. The life of a fictional woman hasn’t changed all that much over the years.  Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?

It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.

Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)

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Sleeping Beauty And Cannibalism

Sleeping Beauty In The Woods Angela Carter

If you’ve already read Angela Carter’s original short stories, in which she rewrites famous tales as feminist ones, you may well hear her scoffing silently in your head as you read these tales, mostly by Charles Perrault, who added his own paternalistic, misogynist morals as paragraphs at the ends. And if you’ve never read these tales by Perrault — and you may not have, because many different versions have been written since — it’s worth a look. This tale is quite different from any I read as a child. This is probably because modern tellers of this tale have simplified it.

This 1982 collection of fairytales translated into English from French by Angela Carter is illustrated by Michael Foreman, who has had a prolific career since then. You may have seen his work in the books of Michael Morpurgo for instance. He’s been working from the 1960s through to now. It seems he can produce up to about 8 or 9 books per year — a phenomenal work rate, especially considering his painterly style.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PERRAULT’S TALE AND MODERN VERSIONS OF SLEEPING BEAUTY

Sleeping Beauty Ladybird well loved tales

In Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty from the 1700s, there is not one but two wicked women — the version I remember from the childhood stories is one of the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales.

In this much simplified story from Ladybird there is no second ‘chapter’. The prince arrives, Beauty and Prince get married and they ‘live happily ever after’. In order to beef out the story a bit we have a succession of princes who try to get through the thick brambles that grow around the castle, but none of them is able to get through until the lucky dude who arrives at exactly the right time, at the 100 year point.

Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been bowdlerised for modern children in a similar way, to the point where you might even get them a bit mixed up if you’re out somewhere and your kid asks you to recount a fairytale from memory. In modern adaptations of both stories Beauty is awakened by a passing Prince, she marries him and they live happily ever after. It’s all good.

There is no happily ever after in the earlier version of Sleeping Beauty; nor is it a tale easily conflated with Snow White.

Illustrators vary in how they portray the fairies. In the Ladybird version above, the fairies all look like youthful Miss America finalists from the 1970s, with their long, blonde hair contrasting with the part witchy/part nunnery black costume of the old, evil fairy. Think a bit harder about what this says about women’s worth in general: Women are only ‘good’ if they are sexually alluring. An old woman dressed in a cross between a witch’s costume and a habit is as far away from sexual as you could possibly get. Therefore, we are to assume, she is no good. It’s therefore a slight feminist improvement that the most recent adaptations of Sleeping Beauty tend to feature ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairies rather than this Ladybird woman from the 1970s.

Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty isn’t even the worst one. It seems he sanitised it his own self.

Still older versions of the same tale type, among them Sun, Moon, and Talia, replace the prince with an already married king. In these versions, he rapes the princess while she lies sleeping and she gives birth to twins before waking up when one of the babies sucks the splinter out of her finger. The cannibalistic queen in this case is the king’s wife. Compare The Brown Bear of the Green Glen“.

TV Tropes, Sleeping Beauty entry

Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” describes the enchanted castle in Gothic terms: blood-chilling and full of death. A frequent element of gothic novels is the heroine who falls into a death-like state. The links between death and sleep appear in many gothic works, not just in this very well-known tale. They tend to feature entrapment and towers.

CHARACTERS IN SLEEPING BEAUTY

In Perrault’s version we have not one but two evil women: first the evil fairy, next the evil mother-in-law. The girl never sees her own parents again, for although they’ve made all their staff and attendants fall asleep so she will be well looked after when she awakes, the bereaved parents leave their castle forever and go somewhere far away. There are two distinct parts to Perrault’s version, translated by Angela Carter in 1982. Honestly, it’s not ‘going-to-sleep’ book, as the title may seem to imply. This is a young adult tale, designed to warn young women not to rush into marriage. Now, it baffles me how Charles Perrault drew this particular moral from the tale, considering the girl in question had already been asleep and dreaming of this prince for 100 years!

Sleeping Beauty’s transgression is that she attempts to spin when it’s actually beneath her social class to do so. Spinning kept peasant women alive but will kill her.

STORY STRUCTURE OF SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOODS

Whose story is this? While the title tells us the tale is about ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the girl is only a plot tool of a character. She has zero agency. At first I thought this was a story about the girl, but when I try to fill out the story structure it becomes obvious that actually the main character in this story is her evil mother in law. The whole thing about the evil fairy, that’s what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin: an event to get the story going. In the end, we don’t even think about what happened to that evil fairy.

maleficent-fairies
The good fairies from Maleficent

WEAKNESS

The mother of the prince — I assume — feels usurped by the beautiful new daughter in law and is envious of the time her beloved son now spends with her.

DESIRE

She wishes her daughter-in-law gone and her son back.

OPPONENT

Sleeping Beauty, whose very beauty and privilege of birth mean she has lost her own boy forever.

PLAN

She will first eat her two grandchildren and then she will eat her daughter-in-law. (She is part ogre.) But her plans change once she realises the son’s wife and children are not dead at all, that they have been hidden in the cellar by a sympathetic servant man. Now she plans to kill Beauty in the most heinous way herself. She orders a huge vat to be brought into the courtyard, filled with horrible creatures. She’ll have the daughter-in-law and her children thrown into it.

BATTLE

This part is much truncated and rather unsatisfying in Perrault’s version. All we know is that the king comes back early from faraway. He gallops into the courtyard and presumably there is some sort of showdown that the reader doesn’t get to read about. The evil queen rather impetuously, I feel, throws her own self into the vat of vipers instead.

SELF-REVELATION

The self-revelations of Perrault’s tale are actually ‘reader revelations’ and they come by way of the ‘Moral’ tacked onto the end of each transliteration. Don’t rush into marriage or you’ll end up with a mother-in-law who wants to eat you, is what Perrault gets from the story.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

“The king could not help grieving a little; after all, she was his mother. But his beautiful wife and children soon made him happy again.”

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY AND CANNIBALISM

Sleeping Beauty in the woods love quote

Strangely enough, the cannibalistic nana has been left out of modern versions for kids. But look around at other fairytales and you’ll find that kid-munching mummies aren’t all that rare. These tales date from much earlier eras in which famines were common, and mothers did occasionally eat their own children:

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

But Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child. The child eating mothers of yesteryear are therefore mostly a myth, but have captured the public imagination and been incorporated into oft-shared tales, much like an urban legend of today. (Urban legends often have their origins in bits taken from real-life heinous crimes which have been sensationalised by the media.)

SLEEPING BEAUTY AND MODERN FILM

Writing of Sunset Boulevard, John Truby describes Norma’s house in what is a separate kingdom of Hollywood (a fairytale world):

This fairy-tale world, with its haunted house, its thorns, and its Sleeping Beauty, is also the home of a vampire. […] Sunset Boulevard does not end with the death of the hero. The opponent literally descends into madness. Her ability to distinguish fantasy from reality now gone, she is both her character—“Down below, they’re waiting for the Princess”—and an actress performing in another Hollywood movie. As the newsreel cameras roll, Norma walks down the grand staircase of the “palace” into a deep sleep from which no prince will awaken her.

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Annex - Swanson, Gloria (Sunset Boulevard)_06

Maleficent promised to be excellent, as a dive into the backstory of that evil fairy. But the 2014 film did not get good critical reviews. When will filmmakers understand that when you change the best known version of a well-loved tale too much you’re going to run into strife? The other problem for filmmakers though: Which version do you take as the ‘true’ version of the tale? Fairytales change so much, it’s not surprising they make huge alterations themselves in the name of original art.

In 2011, Australia produced a film called Sleeping Beauty — a rather disturbing look into a certain kind of sex work. (The girl is drugged unconscious and used by men with a certain kind of fetish.)

Sleeping_Beauty_film

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Sleeping Beauties: Transformation and Codification from Karen Healey

Sleeping Beauty, zombified and turned into a comic from Mary Sue

Angela Carter utilised Perrault’s  Sleeping Beauty in her radio play Vampirella and in its prose variation The Lady of the House of Love.

…she felt as if she had become the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty” and this feeling started manifesting itself in her daily behaviour.

a documented case of someone hallucinating a fairytale.

The ‘Forced Sleep Trope’ is used in many different modern stories, in which a character is forced to fall asleep by means of a spell or magic potion. This can get very dark in stories about date rape and so on.

Review: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Rests Uncomfortably and Unsuccessfully Between Nightmare And Wet Dream, from Film School Rejects

Short Film Of The Day: Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty from Film School Rejects

La belle au bois dormant : The sleeping beauty

Run, run, as fast as you can!

THE GINGERBREAD MAN

I recently looked into The Magic Porridge Pot (a.k.a. Sweet Porridge), part of a whole category of folk tales about pots of overflowing food.

Related, there is a another category of folk tales about food that runs away. In the West, the most famous of those would have to be The Gingerbread Man, but have you also heard of The Fleeing Pancake? That would have to be the best name for a folk tale ever. Also in this category we have:

  • The Bear Ate Them Up
  • The Bun
  • The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow
  • The Gingerbread Boy
  • Johnny-Cake
  • The Johnny Cake Boy
  • The Little Cake
  • The Pancake
  • The Runaway Pancake
  • The Thick, Fat Pancake
  • The Wee Bannock

As you can see, bread-like products are more likely to run off than, say, meat. I find this comforting. That said, the Hungarian version stars ‘head cheese’. I’m not sure what to think of that. Sometimes the gingerbread isn’t actually fashioned into the form of a toilet symbol, either — sometimes it’s just a ball of dough.


A Performance Tale

What makes ‘The Gingerbread Man’ such an enduring classic? This is a great example of a tale that’s satisfying to read aloud, or rather, to perform. First we have the arc phrase, repeated and easily remembered: Run, run, as fast as you can! This is even a phrase that can be used in other circumstances, like in a game of chase.

Then the teller has the chance to snap their arms like a crocodile at the climax. This is very similar to the way Little Red Riding Hood was originally designed to be performed, when the wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood. Listeners enjoy the frisson of excitement, knowing that the death is imminent, able to enjoy the same tale over and over again. Another tale that works like this is The Little Red Hen, with much repetition and a climax that can be performed.

The Gingerbread Man is meant for performance but first made it into print in 1875, in a magazine.

Disneyfication Of The Ending

As a testament to just how far modern adults will go in protecting our children from bad endings, many versions of this tale avoid the original ending, the one in which the gingerbread is dismembered — first a quarter, then a half of him, then only his head is left… This despite him being… a food product. I suspect the amelioration of the ending happened once the gingerbread started looking more and more humanlike, aided by print, due to accompanying illustrations.

The Gingerbread Boy Well Loved Tales

Gingerbread People In Modern Stories

Jon Sciezka wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales which was published in 1992 and is now a picturebook well-known for its postmodernism. The Stinky Cheese Man is a retelling of The Gingerbread Man but with a gross out factor. (The cheese man runs away from everyone fearing they will eat him, when really everyone just wants to get away from his smell.)

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is the ultimate exercise in metafiction to the point where it parodies metafiction itself.

Playing with Picturebooks: Postmodernism and the Postmodernesque by Cherie Allan

220px-The_Stinky_Cheese_Man_Book_Cover

For a comparison between this book and one from the other king of postmodern picturebooks (yes, Anthony Browne), see Voices of the Stinky Cheese Man: A Comparison Study of Two Postmodern Picture Books  by Voicu Mihnea Simandan.

You may have also heard of an American author called Stephen King. King also wrote a riff on the Gingerbread tale called The Gingerbread Girl. It’s long enough to be considered a novella and was included in the short story collection Just After Sunset (2008). 

This is the audiobook cover.
This is the audiobook cover.

Gingerbread Men and Feminism

As you can see from this cover, another faceless woman whose body is the main grab, both for the baddie in the story but also for the reader.

In my middle age I have grown somewhat weary of stories with:

  1. Women who have child loss as a reason for psychological trauma (see also Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character)
  2. Women in ‘fridges’ (or in the boots of cars)
  3. Exercise induced anorexia nervosa re-visioned as kickass strength.

Experienced readers know, surely, that this particular woman in this particular story is going to overpower the bad man. We forget about all the fictional, faceless, female victims who have come before and are encouraged to rejoice that evil has been overcome… until we read the exact same kind of story again, with a different baddie man and a different but equally good-looking young white woman. This tale has been done too many times to be making any sort of statement, but I predict a defence of this particular version would be that, in using ‘The Gingerbread Man’ folktale as an allusion, King is making deliberate use of the female as a food. But because faceless female victims are consumed so very regularly in fiction, I don’t buy any feminist ‘strong female character’ arguments.

In many versions of the original tale, the little old woman has actually created a live action version of a gingerbread boy to stand in as a surrogate child, as she cannot have her own. Because of course if a woman cannot have her own children she cannot possibly have a fulfilled existence in her own right.

The Gingerbread Man As A Crime Story

The Gingerbread Man has been a popular allusion in modern crime shows. (The folk tale is basically a crime story after all — it should not be legal for properly purchased food products to run off.) Gingerbread is a comfort food associated strongly with the home and hearth, and with family get-togethers. So by pairing these images with crime writers can create ironic juxtaposition. We may eventually get to the point, though, where gingerbread functions much like playgrounds,  ice cream vans and clowns for most viewers.

There’s a 1998 film called The Gingerbread Man. It’s a legal thriller but I don’t watch anything that gets less than 6.0 on IMDb so let’s not dwell on that. The Gingerdead Man, however, looks even better, at 3.4.

The Gingerbread Man is also recast as a mass murdering villain in Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear.

The_Fourth_Bear

What We All Learned From Disney’s Aladdin

Arabs are a desert people.

The peoples, and states, of the Middle East have been more or less at war for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

Good guys have light skin and speak English without accents.

Bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and wield swords constantly.

 

Aladdin movie poster

IN FACT

Most people in the [Arabian] Peninsula are not nomads, but are either agricultural labourers (Yemen, Oman) or inhabitants of the eight or so major maritime and cosmopolitan cities that mark the coast of the Peninsula, from Kuwait City in the northeast via Manama, Dubai, Muscat, Mukalla, Aden and Hodeida to Jeddah in the southeast.

In modern times the Middle East has been no more riven by war than other parts of the world such as Africa and East Asia, and, in the past century, much less than its neighbouring continent to the northeast, Europe. For all the wars between the Ottomans and Safavids (later Qajars), the two empires coexisted reasonably well for four centuries (1500-1914). In the period since 1945 there have been five Arab-Israeli wars but these, while catastrophic for the Palestinians, have been confined in time and space. Only the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8 escaped external and regional state control and involved, by modern standards, high levels of casualties. Peoples of the Middle East have historically been busy doing things other than warring, like inventing algebra for instance.

Good guys can look like anyone. Bad guys can look like anyone.

 

— above information from World History Connected

Disneyfication Or Disneyization

Defintion of Disneyfication at Wikipedia

 

Walt Disney, the dude, was an interesting and resourceful fella. I have respect for the man behind the mouse. I also have tons of respect for the digital artists and computer whizzes who make Disney’s visually breathtaking animated movies. Having known a few, I even respect those poor saps that have to spend their summers wearing giant costume heads at the Disney branded theme park experience. The rest of Disney, however, can get bent.

Selena, Persephone Magazine

 

Fear or distaste for the real Grimm fairy tales is as ubiquitous as it is hoary. There may be no more systematic case of bowdlerization than Disney’s treatment of them.

WSJ, In Defence Of Real Fairy Tales

 

Elyse at Skepchick, while wondering why men feel that they’re not welcome at conferences with ‘women’ in the title, thinks it starts in childhood and brings up Disney’s movie marketing as an example:

…there still seems to be an idea that white and male is a default, neutral thing that appeals to everyone, and straying from that is somehow focusing on special demographics. For example, Disney’s Tangled is an adaptation of the Rapunzel story. But Disney had to work very hard to make sure that boys weren’t turned off by watching a movie about a girl. For one, they didn’t call the movie “Rapunzel”. The story is narrated by the male lead, despite the movie being about Rapunzel’s journey. Or if you pay attention to Pixar’s marketing of Brave, […] you’ll notice, for example, that they advertised during the NFL draft… but that preview shows the female lead for maybe 2 of the almost 60 seconds, and gives the very distinct impression that the movie is about tough men… especially bothersome since this is the very first Pixar movie about a girl.

Girls Still Have Cooties

 

So that’s marketing. What about the stories themselves? The lecture Disneyfication by David Beagley, at La Trobe University (available on iTunes U) is about the formulaic structure of Disney story-telling, and how they change classic fairytales. I highly recommend it. It’s important to acknowledge that while Disney is only one (albeit huge) company, that one company has influenced the way children’s literature looks, as an entirety, today.

Disney TV Is Poisoning Your Daughters from LA Weekly is a scathing summary of the Disney Channel, which we don’t get in this house because we don’t get pay TV. This doesn’t make me want it, either.

I love these: Disney Posters Get ‘Honestly Remixed from Visual News

Tumblr Artists Diversify Disney Because Disney Won’t Do It Themselves from Jezebel

I also totally relate to this article: I Regret The Day I Let My Daughter Watch The Little Mermaid, from Mommyish. Movies absolutely have an impact on the world view of children. I have yet to learn how lasting this is, and it’s possible the least ‘girl-friendly’ films will have the effect of turning our daughters into feminists under their very own steam. My own preschooler hasn’t seen that particular film, but I have made sure to lose a few others I don’t want her watching over and over again. I should note that the worst of those aren’t coming out of Disney right now. Disney is actually coming up smelling of roses compared to other animated films coming from similar studios.

5 Ways Disney Films Are Bad For Married Men from GMP

The Disney Characters You Never Saw from io9

My Town: the Strange Sexuality of Disney’s Underworld from Bad Reputation

Should America Import More Children’s Books?

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

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

– Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

Podcast freely available on iTunes U (episode 44)

 

Is children’s literature art?

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

Children’s Literature Is Middle Class

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

The gentrification of comic books

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

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

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

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

The Medium Is The Message

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

The Impact of the Internet On Children’s Reading

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

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

The Impact of Big Publishing Corporations

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

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

– Stephen Kline, 1993

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

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

Smoodin, 1994

Giroux on Disney

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

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

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

America Exports A Lot But Doesn’t Import Much

This wasn’t always the case, partly to do with technology barriers.

Before 1800, the American colonists depended on Britian for most of the books they owned and read. Bookseller-printers living in the colonies and their successor states faced daunting technical, financial and legal barriers to the formation of a book culture independent from that of England. In the 1720s, when young Benjamin Franklin worked in the Philadelphia print shop of Samuel Keimer, North America lacked even a single type foundry, and type imported from England came at considerable cost. When Keimer’s stock of letters proved insufficient — “out of sorts,” in the terminology of the trade — to meet the shop’s workload, it fell to his nimble assistant to improvise a method for molding type with which to increase their stock. Because the colonies had so few paper mills of their own, much of the paper needed for printing had likewise to be imported from England, and paper remained the single greatest production cost for books and other publications well into the first half of the nineteenth century. Most printer’s inks, another costly commodity, also had to be imported.

— Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard S. Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Brands.
  • Celebrity authors.
  • Series books.

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

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

Not Censorship, Exactly: Business Decisions

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

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

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