There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don’t pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children’s books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.
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.
– Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero
“We’re not trying to make stories that are going to be read, we’re trying to make stories that are going to be read a milliondy billiondy times.”
While children’s books need to be re-readable, books aimed at an adult audience do not:
Nick Cross has compiled a list of things which give a book re-readability. First on the list is brevity, and picture books certainly achieve that.
If I’m talking about picture books specifically, I’ll add a few to the list:
1. Great Use Of Language
Masterful rhythm, something that has good mouth-feel when you read it aloud.
2. Layers Of Meaning
Picture books which appeal to both adults and children will help persuade adults to re-read the books in the first place. One thing which gives a picture book different layers of meaning is with words which tell a slightly (or completely) different story from the pictures. Rosie’s Walk is a classic example of a picture book which does this. Martin Salisbury explains the ‘read-it-again factor, and compares picture books briefly to theatre, in an interview on NPR.
3. Personal Connection
If the story moves you emotionally or reminds you of a time in your own life you’re more likely to revisit.
4. A Circular Story Structure
A lot of picture books end with an image or suggestion that the same story is going to happen again, only with a slightly different slant. For example, the monster under the bed has been found, the child has made friends with it, but the final image shows a different monster inside the cupboard. This circular plot shape is not limited to children’s books. Funnily enough, you’ll also see it quite often in horror for adults. Take Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman’s 1989 horror film Dead Calm, for instance. Just as the characters think the monster has been defeated and that they will live happily ever after, the audience sees him rise from ‘the dead’. For more on plot shapes see this post.
Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three ‘animal’ picturebooks on Radio New Zealand.
Blue Moon Bird by Sabrina Malcolm
This picturebook is really charming. Sabrina Malcolm is principally an illustrator, possibly best known to New Zealanders via her collaboration with Melanie Drury on Koro’s Medicine.
De Goldi was drawn to it but at first couldn’t work out why. Then she realised it was probably the slightly retro feel. The illustrations have a palette and design influenced by the 70s. That’s deliberate of course. Even the toys are retro. The pictures are intricate. The MC has red hair of course, like all good heroes and heroines!
This is a very simple, modest, unassuming story with a very alluring opening, echoing people as various as Roald Dahl, but other authors right through storyland history. The story is incredibly compacted.
The text is very beautifully designed throughout, incorporated into the visuals.
The middle page spread is particularly beautiful.
The story is about loneliness and friendship. Shaun Tan explored those same ideas with The Lost Thing (in an entirely different way, of course).
The writing is very economical. The pictures star, but the writing is also very good. There’s a lot of momentum.
This is an adventure a boy has all by himself. The adult caregivers are mentioned but never actually there, so the young readers know the boy has safe harbour.
Blue Moon Bird would be a lovely story to read to an under 5.
Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
Mal Peet is an English author and illustrator best known for young-adult fiction:
Elspeth Graham is Mal Peet’s wife. They have collaborated on two beautiful picturebooks which have been illustrated by some wonderful artists. Elspeth does a lot of work on books for young/learner readers, and does a lot of research for those books. She comes up with an idea that entrances her for one reason or another. For Cloud Tea Monkeys she got very interested in merchants who took long, dangerous journeys to find foodstuffs. She and Mal go for walks. She talks passionately, then he picks up the ball and then writes the story. They didn’t meet the artists at all. These days it’s much more likely that you’ll have had discussion with your artist.
These stories are beautifully written.
The sentences are of varying lengths. The word choice is excellent, and unusually for a picturebook, the colon and semi-colon is used beautifully as well. (It’s a triumph!)
In terms of a story to grip, first of all it paints a place, a child, a culture and then the line, ‘Inside the house, the mother coughed.’ Twice, because this is going to be really important to the story.
The illustrations are by Juan Wijngaard, who is Dutch, born in Argentina, and studied art in Britain but now lives in California. He has also illustrated the work of some brilliant authors such as Jan Mark and William Mayne.
Cloud Tea Monkeys is enchantingly old fashioned (which is by no means a criticism). This is old-fashioned in quite a different way from Sabrina Malcolm’s work — the illustrations in this book are reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There are little line drawings throughout, but they are framed on the opposing side of the text, which is very much like books from the 50s and 60s.
Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
The artwork in Mysterious Traveller is equally beautiful. P.J. Lynch is an Irish artist.
Again, the story is alluring in the Arabian Nights kind of way. A baby is left by travellers who get caught in a sandstorm, found and raised by a man. She eventually becomes his eyes.
Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham wanted to write picturebooks that were longer than usual because they grew sick of having to read nine picturebooks every night before bed. Kim Hill hesitates before calling these picturebooks because the text is so thrilling. [This includes some assumptions about picturebooks!] These fall somewhere between chapterbooks and picturebooks. It probably would take a couple of nights to read a single story.
The words on the tongue are a genuinely sensuous experience.
These are gift books — books that will be read over and over again.
Well done Walker Books for bringing us back to that kind of book, and well done to Mal and Elspeth for insisting on it.
Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three books on Radio New Zealand.
The Queen and the Nobody Boy by Barbara Else
This is the second installment, following The Travelling Restaurant, which is hysterically funny.
Sequels can fall down a bit but this is very good, if not a little more taut in its storytelling than the first.
Queen Sibilla is about to come of age and everyone hopes she’ll come into her magic, though there’s some anxiety around this. The story is told from the point of view of a young man. – Hodie, the odd-job boy. He’s a boy of character and sensibility and kindness. He ends up doing good against his better nature. This is a story of a growth of nature.
Else has a very arch way of poking fun at the inflated egos of people of status. For a fantasy writer she is very good at describing the material. There’s a lot of food in here too.
Highly recommended, especially for junior readers.
The New Zealand Art Activity Book
This is allegedly for kids, but adults may want to keep it. Strongly reminiscent of a previous book about creative writing in the classroom. [If anyone knows what that book is, let me know!]
This book tries to jump would-be artists out of their comfort zones when it comes to making art. Exercises on every page narrows the process to give readers a specific way in to a project. There are ways of translating noise into art, ‘taking a line for a walk’, ‘sticking two pencils to your hand’, and other activities that wake up the kid inside the adult, or actual kids. You’re asked to cut things out of the book, so De Goldi recommends buying two — one to keep, because you don’t really want to cut bits out of it.
This book is full of fantastic ideas. Published by Te Papa Press.
A Winter’s Day in 1939
A really riveting first novel. Set during WWII. There are all the coordinates of people being taken away to camps. Adam and his family live in a part of Poland that was once the Ukraine. Their father has been given land as a reward for services to the army. He’s done good things with the land.
The story includes wonderful detail about living from the land. Readers will learn so much from that.
The story is not complicated, though there is a lot going on.
A device used is italicised, interpolated narration to explain what’s going on in the wider world of the war.
The story is told through the view of Adam, the second child in the family, and pretty immediately they are the victims of what’s going on between countries. Their farm is taken from them and so begins an enormous journey across a huge amount of the USSR. The author makes the reader wonder what it might be like to lose absolutely everything. Every now and again she reminds us clearly and sweetly that this is from a boy’s point of view (rather than an adult’s) because he’s feeding a rabbit.
The soviet labour camp is just dire, but their capacity for survival blows you away. There are many tales about children surviving through war, and this one can stand proudly beside them.
There is a big surprise at the end which will make you sad. The family eventually comes to New Zealand. This is the author’s father’s story blended with facts from other people’s lives. He had kept documentation. There is much attention to material detail. The relationships are fascinating, with the boy having a difficult relationship with his father.
There are small and big kindnesses from the people they eat.
There’s a strong sense of the family coming from the land, with the land being their life blood, which is surprising in a story with a backdrop of war.
Highly recommended for anyone between about 8 and 12, or even adults. Would be good to read aloud.
The fact that something is culturally alien may not really be perceived as a stumbling-block… Children take little notice of an author’s name and do not relate to macrocontextual data. An awareness of authorship develops quite late, and the realization (not present even in many adult readers) that a translated text is in fact a translation comes even later, if at all. However, in reading — as in life — children are always being confronted by elements that they do not yet grasp and cannot understand, and so, in the process of learning to tread, if it is a successful one, young readers can develop strategies that help them to cope with such things: they skip something that is incomprehensible to them or refuse to allow minor disruptions to interrupt the flow of reading. In principle, children read texts from foreign contexts in just the same way as texts from their own cultures. We can assume that the foreign contexts are assimilated in the course of reading.
— from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan