Hi all, and happy Friday everyone!
As some may know, last Wednesday I took part in a discussion panel on taboos in picture books, organised by the Children's Book Circle (www.childrensbookcircle.org.uk) at the Penguin Random House offices in London. Other members of the panel were Suzanne Carnell (chair), publisher for Two Hoots, a new illustrated imprint of Macmillan Children's Books; Laura Main Ellen, lead children's book seller and buyer at Waterstones Piccadilly, as well as picture book reviewer; Jessica Shephard, author and illustrator of Grandma, a gorgeous picture book that explores the effects of dementia from the eyes of a child; Imogen Russel Williams, arts journalist and critic, writing on trends in children’s and YA publishing for The Guardian, as well as editorial consultant; and Sarah Foot, author of Fragments and Fair Sex. She has written for Vogue, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
It was great to meet my fellow panelists, as well as to have such an active audience, who raised one question after the other. The discussion certainly reaffirmed my love for picture books! It also gave me a lot of food for thought, some of which I would like to share with you today.
Having been raised by two tolerant, open-minded parents with a rather no-nonsense approach to life and life's difficulties, who would drag one gorgeous picture book after the other into the house for us to enjoy, as well as me having written and illustrated Luna's Red Hat, a picture book that deals with the stigma of suicide, I came to this panel discussion with the mindset that, "yes, of course ALL topics are appropriate to discuss in picture books! Let's tackle all the issues right here, right now! Whooh, power to the picture book!"
Coming away from the discussion panel, I must admit, I have nuanced my mindset somewhat: Yes, all topics should be appropriate to discuss in picture books, as I still strongly believe that picture books are a magical yet powerful tool that create a safe environment in which children and parents can bond over exploring difficult topics together. However, whether they are, depends on a couple of things:
- Timing: as much one can't avoid children picking up on snippets of the news, is now the time to club young children around the head with picture books about Syrian child refugees/terrorism/war/etc.? Does society (and this includes children) perhaps need a bit of time to let current affairs sink in, to allow these topics to be 'taboos' for a while, until all of us collectively are ready to start making sense of these issues? Are there other ways to have these conversations with an anxious or a curious child?
- How the topic is executed: has the research been done properly? Have the right metaphors been used to soften the blow and to help young children identify with the main character and their conflict? What is the moral of the story? Are the story and the illustrations truly age-appropriate?
One of the questions that came up during the event was this one:
Who decides which topics are or aren't suitable for small children, and therefore, who carries the responsibility?
It turns out that this isn't a question with a straight-forward answer, but let's have a go anyway: let's start with deciding upon a 'difficult topic' for a picture book, say, slavery. Hm, a storybook on slavery for young children! Tricky one, right?
First of all, there is the author who comes up with the story. It's the author who carries out the background research, creates the conflict of the plot, and who develops the characters into the wonderful beings that both children and us adults are able to identify with.
Then there is the illustrator. As picture books are a beautifully balanced creation in which both words and pictures convey the moral of the story together, the illustrator is equally responsible for executing the topic in a gentle yet captivating manner.
Assuming that both author and illustrator have done their research and have taken feedback from professionals in said field into account, it will then go through a couple of 'gatekeepers': the commissioning editor of a publishers, the copy editor, the design team, the marketing team, and quite possibly a number of other departments, before the booksellers decide whether or not they want to sell the book in their shops.
One would like to think that, after going through all of these stages, the picture book has been approved to be both age- as well as topic appropriate. Luckily, usually this is the case, but when it comes to conveying difficult messages to young readers through picture books, there is always another gatekeeper who gets the final say: the public/the parents.
I'll give you two examples of the public acting as 'gatekeepers'. I don't mean to point fingers, as these recent picture books were clearly written and illustrated with all the very best intentions, but unfortunately caused somewhat of a shock to the public:
A Birthday Cake for George Washington
A Fine Dessert
Both picture books depict a parent and a child slave smiling as they are going about their chores, for which both books received negative feedback. If you are interested in more information about each of these books, please click on the following links:
- A Birthday Cake for George Washington: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/18/business/media/scholastic-halts-distribution-of-a-birthday-cake-for-george-washington.html?_r=0
- A Fine Dessert: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/04/childrens-author-sorry-racial-insensitivity-smiling-slaves-emily-jenkins-a-fine-dessert
Obviously, whatever I or anyone else says about difficult topics in picture books being appropriate does not matter in the end, as it is the parent or carer who knows their child's needs best, and who has the final say. Luckily, one does not have to exclude the other: I think it is important to cover all topics, including the more difficult ones, in picture books, to make sure there are books out there for those who need a tool or a good story to support them in their communication with their child. This, however, does not mean that there is no space for picture books that simply contain beautiful stories with magical illustrations to get lost in! Both are equally important to the bond between parent and child, and both equally to our collective culture.
Although that's it for today, I am very interested in continuing this discussion, and would love to hear your point of view, so please do get in touch via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook (Emmi Smid Illustration) or Twitter (@emmismid). Have a great weekend everyone!