Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 02: Traditional/Modernist Picturebooks

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U.

Modernist = the accepted standard of the moment. So that also means ‘traditional’, in a way. (The basic difference between post-modern and modern? A modernist book supports the standard ways of doing things, but a post-modern book challenges all of those views.)

What makes children’s books good? There is a lot of judgement that takes place of children’s books. They are constantly being judged, far more than adult books are. Adult books are left up to the reader.

Of all the children’s literature prizes, there is a tremendous distinction between what children choose as the best and what adults choose. There is sometimes not one book which appears on both lists.

What makes a classic a classic?

Morrie (Maurice) Saxby, who wrote Give Them Wings is the guru of writing about children’s books in Australia. Saxby writes a beautiful description of ‘what is quality’ in children’s literature.

Saxby’s criteria could apply to any book. The book must make the reader feel and hear and see. Children tend to read with their bodies. Adults tend to read with their eyes. For children, the sound of words is important because they’re often having the book read to them. Children might want to act a book out. So often a book’s experience is the child’s first real tingling of fear/excitement/danger. A book can be the preparation for real emotions which will be experienced later in real life. A good book doesn’t necessarily teach particular values but develops an awareness of them. Reading is an emotional and an aesthetic experience. Children are given the same respect for thinking as would be given an adult reading. Even without the vocabulary and life experience, you are capable of a response. Good kidlit doesn’t preach. ‘You are able to feel, so please do’. The most difficult and the most necessary knowledge — that of the human heart — is offered by good children’s books. (Not once is a child mentioned in Saxby’s criteria.)

The crossover novel is intended for a younger audience but equally enjoyed by adults. Harry Potter was at the forefront of this. Covers have changed to promote the reading of kidlit by adults. Bloomsbury started releasing Harry Potter with darker colours and no picture of a child. By the time the fifth and sixth novels of the series came out, more were being sold in the adult covers. Twilight, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time are also crossover books. The Mark Haddon book is really an adult book, but the protagonist is 15 or 16 years old, and has therefore been marketed as a YA book. Shelving determines the artificial distinction between children’s and adults books. So often the audience is defined by who is the key protagonist. Sonya Hartnetts books often defy this rule of thumb, which can be very dark but starring adolescents.

The adult can get something out of work of children’s literature, which is often quite different from what kids are getting out of it. Shrek is a good example, working with a dual audience. But many children’s books do that as well.

The principle distinction between a book for adults and one for children is that children’s books have a specific educational aim: to teach the child how to read or to encourage a particular preferable behaviour.

Children’s books for the youngest readers tend to have simple linear structure. (e.g. Rosie’s Walk.) The key character is named. Then some complicating issue (the black cat turns up or Max gets sent to his room or Rosie just continues on her walk with things happening around her) until finally the complication is resolved at the end. Who Sank The Boat isn’t resolved at the end and is one example of a book which breaks this pattern, but the characters tend to go off on an adventure and end up back home. There is a coherence between the words and the text. The two work together clearly across the story. It may be repetition of a phrase or a particular form of phrasing which is matching a particular repetition across the illustrations.

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat is an excellent example of a picture book which means something quite different to readers old enough to understand the symbolism.

One of the difficulties with the use of magic in fantasy stories: If magic is used simply as a tool to solve problems it doesn’t work. Magic is simply a bit of a decoration, like The Magic Faraway Tree. What matters is the relationship between characters and interesting plot — it is humans who are dealing with the story.

What matters to the child? Playing. The quest for amusement. Max is playing and having fun. He does get punished for it. In Who Sank The Boat, the mouse is just having fun. Likewise, Rosie’s just having fun by going for a walk.

There are plenty of plots about ordinary day-to-day activities: bedtime, going to school, having a meal.

Identity: I am independent. I can do what I like. This is what Max is saying in Where The Wild Things Are. Where do I belong? Who matters to me? These questions are important in so many picturebooks.

Privilege: The nuclear family is presumed to be the norm. Most existing books, if they have adults in them, they are caring parents. Max’s mother does send him to his room but still has a warm supper for him at the end. The animals getting into the boat are a nice little family. The family is the standard. The characters may be animals, but they’re still just normal human characters. The stories about the Large family (of animals) by  Jill Murphy are good examples of this.

There is nothing traditional about the ‘traditional family’. The paradigm is a legally married adult male-female couple with two children in a three-bedroomed semi. This ‘nuclear family’ is a product of the industrial age, and no older than the nineteenth century. In all societies beforehand, and in most non-Western societies now, families are larger and more diffuse groups, typically embracing more than two generations in which child-care is as often carried out by relatives as parents who, because they are of economically active age, tend to be out at work all day.

A.C. Grayling, The Meaning Of Things, Family

In picturebooks the pictures are doing at least as much work as the words. There are even quite a few wordless picturebooks. But if there are words, the two must work together, otherwise you’d end up with a picture dictionary. That’s not a story, not a narrative. Both must carry the narrative in order to be a good picturebook.

Yet: each of these two things has to have an integrity of its own. You will find elements in the pictures which are only in the pictures. Also in the words, there are elements that provide information the pictures may not. An example: Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? [Beagley’s favourite.]

Designed to be read by an adult with a child. Lots of repetition in the words. The illustration conveys particular personality — good facial expressions, the positioning of little bear at various times when he is going to bed. This is very much a shared reading experience. They are very human with a tremendous amount of meaning. You can see what each of them is thinking. The words make it very easy to read as an adult and as a child speaking. All the way through the story there has been a misunderstanding — Little Bear is scared of the whole concept of night. All the time, the adult has been thinking Little Bear needs a night light. So they go out into the night and Little Bear sees the stars, and everything is better, because the two characters have achieved communication. There are many elements for both the adult reader and the child reader. Each has integrity. The words have poetry. The progression of ‘groaned’ to ‘grunted’ works nicely as we see the Big Bear get more and more frustrated.

Who Sank The Boat is often used in junior arithmetic classes. The mouse is in almost every picture. This technique is used by Graeme Base — clues are there if you know how to look for them. The illustrations diverge a little from the story but they work together. What the words say is what is happening in the pictures.

Picture books are as sophisticated as adult books. There are deliberate techniques and tricks that play games with the reader. The balance is important and deliberate and chosen, in a good book, to work in this way. Because children are younger doesn’t mean they are less intelligent readers. They just don’t have the experience. Big difference.