A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.
As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”
A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.
As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”
Goodnight Moon is an American picturebook classic, and is of particular interest because who would’ve thunk it? Margaret Wise Brown had a talent for creating odd-duck prose which went down a treat (and still does) with the preschool set. But is this book only of value for toddlers? Never.
Continue reading “Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown”
In a great green room, tucked away in bed, is a little bunny. “Goodnight room, goodnight moon.” And to all the familiar things in the softly lit room — to the picture of the three little bears sitting on chairs, to the clocks and his socks, to the mittens and the kittens, to everything one by one — the little bunny says goodnight.
In this classic of children’s literature, beloved by generations of readers and listeners, the quiet poetry of the words and the gentle, lulling illustrations combine to make a perfect book for the end of the day.
The Telegraph (UK) this week published a summary of a survey in which parents were asked for their opinion on which books every child should read by the age of 16.
Can you guess what the top books were?
I’ll give you a hint: The books most highly recommended by parents were all around when we parents ourselves were children. In short, most parents think that children should be reading what we were reading when we were their age.
I’m not sure about the publishing industry in the UK, but I have heard from a list_serv I’m on that Australian picture book sales have taken a nose dive over the past ten years, which directly influences how many new Australian books are produced. I had noticed myself how difficult it has become to purchase even very good Australian picture books if they’re even a little bit old (especially if they missed out on top awards), but I hadn’t realised it was such a recent and such a violent downward thing, and I hadn’t realised it started 10 years ago.
What happened there, then? I’m sure a publishing expert knows far more than I do about this, though the Internet and parallel importing from Amazon owned businesses surely had something to do with it. Despite trying my best to purchase an Australian picture book this week from Not Amazon, I failed. The bookstore I sent money to told me five days later that the book that had appeared to be in stock actually wasn’t, and now I have to wait an extra week or so for the refund. Say what you will about Book Depository, but they don’t do that.
It’s easy to believe from the sheer number of picture books published each year that the children’s book market is flourishing, and in some ways it most definitely is. The big corporations are making a lot of money out of children’s books. On the other hand, take a look at the picture books on the shelves of children you know and you’ll see the same books over and over again. A lot of Australian kids have books by Nick Bland, because for several years his work has been chosen for National Simultaneous Reading Time, and there was a super-cheap (I think $5) version produced so that every child could afford a copy. Then you’ll find books that are sold in boxed sets in places like Aldi (always the classics), or Costco (the best-selling modern series). There are highly gendered books you can get as birthday presents from places like Target and Big-W — pink and glittery for girls, blue and action-packed for boys. You can also find in chain stores those books which are ‘tentpole’ books such as those by Lemony Snicket, Jon Klassen and Julia Donaldson. A lot of those make their way onto children’s bookshelves.
What else do you find there? Battered and loved books from our own childhoods. In some cases (ours no exception) old books make up the bulk.
But I can tell you as a keen and discerning buyer of books which kind of books my own daughter prefers. She most definitely prefers the new books I buy for her. And you know what else? I do too! The more modern books I read, the more outdated the classic books feel. As a culture, we are far too used to a children’s literature landscape which is predominantly white and abled and male.
There are actually very few adults seeking out the high-quality, lesser-known picture books. It doesn’t help that these tend to cost twice as much, and are often available only in hardback. It’s difficult to find the wonderfully quirky books of Australian Chris Kimmie on any home bookshelves, and if you want to complete your series of Lily Quench by Natalie Jane Prior, good luck, because these wonderful books seem to have fallen out of print.
In sum: Childhood is surprisingly short. Children move through developmental phases very quickly, and there are only so many books that can be read during each window. If your child is busy reading The Secret Seven, she is not busy reading Lily Quench, with the wonderfully ‘strong’ female hero. This is actually a zero sum game, even for the most enthusiastic readers.
Quite rightly, a lot is being said about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and I feel like the discussion really took off — on Twitter, at least — with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.
(I don’t think it’s just a ‘feeling’. See: The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity, an excellent article from SLJ.)
The main problem with expecting children to read what we read, and oftentimes what our grandparents read (see Enid Blyton for a glaring example of this), is that apart from preferencing the experiences of white boys, you’ll find if you re-read critically, a lot of problematic ideas which no longer deserve a revered place on our children’s bookshelves.
Despite having loved Enid Blyton myself, and despite owning a 2-metre-wide collection of Blyton stories, I have decided not to encourage my own daughter to read these. I haven’t got around to it yet, but I intend to free up some shelf space by giving them away. Truth be told, I don’t even want to do that. If I donate them to Vinnies, someone will buy them and some other kid will be the recipient of some very dodgy ideas.
My distaste for Enid Blyton is controversial. I’m aware of that. Not really because her sexism and racism aren’t well-known, but because of the parenting style which ‘Lets Kids Be Kids’. Kids, apparently, can read as critically as adults, and by exposing them to racist, sexist stuff, you’re somehow promoting critical thinking skills.
I’m not so sure about that. I did a school project on Blyton when I was about 12 — technically old enough to be engaging in critical thinking. I found articles about the problematic racism and sexism in those books. I had noticed the sexism all by myself, but I hadn’t noticed the racism. That’s because I myself was a white kid living in a predominantly white environment. No one at all pointed out to me the racism.
What I realised for the first time about reading Folk of the Faraway Tree as an adult,was the way in which the young reader is asked to identify with Dick, Bessie and Fanny, and jeer with them about the ridiculous Connie in her fussy, frilly dresses. There’s some very uncomfortable femme-phobic bullying in there of the sort that was tolerated when I was at school but which is not now. My point being: A lot of what’s wrong with older books goes completely under the radar for young readers.
If we are to accept that literature is life-changing for the better, we must accept that literature can be life-changing for the worse.
Part of it is snobbery. See another article from The Telegraph, in which Jemima Lewis bemoans the changing landscape of children’s literature:
The study notes a “marked downturn” in children’s reading habits from the age of 11. Instead of aiming higher than their age range, they swivel back on themselves, returning to the likes of Walliams and Jeff Kinney (author of the smash-hit Diary of a Wimpy Kid series). Their most sophisticated literary excursions take them no further than the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson franchises.
Back when one was allowed to make artistic value judgments, these latter books would have been described as Good Trash. Well‑crafted, entertaining and fun – but not intellectually sustaining on their own.
When I was a teenager, there wasn’t much Good Trash around. The “Young Adult” market had yet to be invented, so we skipped straight to “Adult” for our low-brow pleasures. I devoured Jilly Cooper’s early romances – Imogen, Harriet, Octavia and the rest – and even dipped into the unarguably Bad Trash of Jackie Collins.
I actually share a lot of Lewis’s concerns: The binarily-gendered book covers, the reluctance for publishers to acquire much of anything that isn’t part of a hit series. The Scholastic Book Club pamphlet my six-year-old presented me with yesterday is full of plush toys, craft-kits and branded products: Super Heroes, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins and the odd tent-pole Australian series, to the exclusion of all others.
To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the so-called ‘dumbing-down’ of children’s literature, but I’m inclined to think that modern children’s literature offers modern young readers everything they’ll need to do very well in this world, thank you very much. The main reasons for reading in childhood are to:
The only drawback I can see in your child reading contemporary literature to the exclusion of all else is a possible lack in number four. Reading contemporary books ‘about’ history isn’t exactly the same as reading books that were set in historical eras. But if your child is reading all the classics to the exclusion of much that is contemporary, they’re going to fall short at number three. And possibly at number one, if they’re having your old beloved classics forced upon them. Take your pick.
If anyone is reading all of this, I realise I’m preaching to the choir, but we really must make an effort to spend money buying the sorts of books we’d like to see more of in this world.
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
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 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.
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 big struggle. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.