Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

What makes a Picturebook Universally Appealing? And how does the kidlit genre differ from country to country?

Why do some picturebooks only become classics in one country? Is it just marketing, or something more?

Becoming a picturebook reviewer in an age of social media has demonstrated to me one thing. Almost nothing is universal. Picturebooks are no exception. It’s not something the average reader questions a lot, ‘is this book famous in other countries?’ But after spending a few years making friends with picturebook reviewers around the world I’ve learned that the kinds of picturebooks that are popular in each place varies quite a lot.

When I first started Bookstagram I was shocked and a little bit aghast that most people outside of Canada had never heard of
Robert Munsch. Munsch & Martchenko are a fixture of Canadian kid lit, having published over 60 books in the last 40 years, they are on every shelf and in every classroom.

Look I could write love letters to Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko all the live long day, and I have. Actually one time I met Martchenko at a party and I almost passed out, he was quite dashing. I’ve never been so starstruck. But I’ll spare you at the moment and get to the point, how, in the world are these books not famous everywhere? Certainly they are household staples here in Canada. For good reason, they’re unsurpassable.

Munsch’s stories are always funny, with an element of the ridiculous, and centre on the experiences and thoughts of children.
They are in my opinion unparalleld. But why don’t people feel that way outside of Canada?
Most are made by Scholastic so it’s not an issue of distribution.

But I’m not just going to dismiss this as a matter of lack of taste. I really want to know, why aren’t Munsch books as famous in other countries? They’re all humorous, is that the issue? Is Canadian humour-an ephemeral concept to try and define-fundamentally different from humour elsewhere, and if so then what is it? Is Canadian humour too ridiculous? Is it all the snow (they don’t all have snow…)? OR is it that Munsch books avoid lessons and morals? Is it the purpose of kidlit what makes them less appealing to people elsewhere? Do Canadian families just want to read for fun, where as elsewhere, families read for other purposes?

Is it that our sense of humour is fundamentally different?
Or is it that our purpose for childrens’ books is fundamentally different?
Are different topics just more popular in different countries? These Australians kids books never took off in North America, is it because we don’t have Wombats and…well do we have possums?

When you take a look at the most famous Aussie kidlit, they tend to heavily lean towards books about Australian animals. Which makes sense, it’s Australia. Are Australian readers more interested in Animal stories than elsewhere? Or did they not gain popularity elsewhere because readers in other parts of the world don’t have wombats and kangaroos?

And why isn’t Chicka Chicka Boom Boom not famous in the UK? Is it because of the pace? The accent while reading? Or is this colour scheme just too much for everyone?

When it comes to style and mood how does that play into this? Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is another fixture in every North American kindergarten room, but that’s not so in the UK? Why? Clearly I have more questions than answers today.

What makes a British Book a British Book? And do young readers even notice? Is it a mood?
Is it pacing?
Or is it just down to how things look?
And then some books just take off everywhere. Over 50 mill. copies have been sold of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Why?
Why THIS book?
What makes this universal?

When we look picturebooks that have ‘made it’ worldwide. Is there a theme? What connects them, is it all random? Or is it something more? “The Hungry Caterpillar” it’s simple, and carries themes of change, of growth, of hope. That’s pretty universal. But is it any more universal than any other of the thousands of books that are beloved in their home country and don’t make it abroad?

So what is it? What makes a picturebook universal? But also, what defines the needs and desires for readers of each country?
Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

#LibrarianFightClub to Hug or not to Hug?

One of the reasons I love picturebooks is that they take all of the values and social discourse of the time they’re made in and present them in this beautiful little package to pick apart and wonder at.  Looking at two books made a handful of years apart can show how society has grown and changed and there is no better example than this than these two hug books.

  I love both of these books actually, “Hug Machine” by Scott Campbell 2014, and “Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like it)” By Carrie Finison 2021. But what I find most fascinating about them, especially next to one another, is to marvel at how fast mainstream ideas are moving about issues around childhood, consent and, toxic masculinity. 

When “Hug Machine” came out in 2014 it was subversive in quietly challenging toxic masculinity and traditional gender roles in this beautiful pale pink and red ode to a little boy who loves to love and show affection.  Hug Machine is concerned with the emotional needs of those around him when; a baby is crying, a hedgehog feels unloved, etc. These things fundamentally challenge the emotional frigidity of toxic masculinity.

However, things have moved on, the world has moved on and become more complex, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? “Don’t Hug Doug” explores the complexities around consent, boundaries and, also the many ways that one can show their friendship. But I think what’s most poignant is the piece around expectations that children take on burden of emotional labour.

Less than a decade ago, it was seen as appropriate that the Hug Machine should be taking on the emotional labour of hugging literally everyone so that they felt better.  The kid didn’t even have a name he was reduced to his performance of giving.  In “Don’t Hug Doug” the onus is not on Doug to take on that burden, the children in this book are being relieved of that expectation and being given agency regarding their personal space.  This is a major step forward in society’s understanding of the fundamental rights of a child, and the nature of childhood itself.

Is there space to celebrate both of these books? Are they even fundamentally in opposition? #LibrarianFightClub  

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

Racism in Children’s Books is Still Racism: #LibrarianFightClub

Shit People Say to Keep Racism Misogyny &, Antisemitism Alive and Well in Picturebooks…
This mind bogglingly tone deaf article “The Dangers of being hyper-aware” by Claire Hennessy was released today in The Irish Times. Note the quotations around “problematic” and “insensitive.” The condescending & gaslighting implication that because it doesn’t bother this white author, whether or not it is a problem, is up for debate.
The author of this article, an established member of the publishing industry as both editor and author of 12 books, makes several points that we often see in defense of problematic children’s books. In fact, it makes the rounds so it’s a perfect case study! Let’s explore some of the main points shall we?
Argument 1: ‘Without Racism, books won’t be good.’ “Danger in this hyper-aware, hyper-critical culture: of literary culture becoming so anodyne and sanitised it dies out entirely”- C. Hennessy

Removing racism from children’s literature will kill of culture? …whose culture exactly are you worried won’t withstand being held accountable to any standards of common decency and respect for others?

Argument 2: ‘Just give your kids the Historical Context Disclaimer.” “Contextualizing the dodgy bits within Seuss’s overall body of work Developmentally ages-3-4 Time is a completely abstract concept. Ages 5-6 they begin to understand correlation between certain days in their daily life (holidays, birthdays, etc.) Concepts of historical time don’t develop until ages 9-11. History is valuable, discussion on literary theory is interesting but learning goals should be age appropriate. How do you teach a 5 year old historical context with any level of valuable understanding, when they do not know what Friday is?

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-how-children-develop-sense-time/

Argument 3: ‘But I liked it and it’s inconvenient you’re ruining it for me.’ “The delicious insanity of Roald Dahl’s fiction is forever tainted by his anti-Semitic comments (his family apologized in late 2020)”-C. Hennessy. Oh, his family apologized so as not to jeopardize their cash cow? Well then, that changes everything!
Argument 4: “Your fave is almost certainly problematic.”- C. Hennessy. Gosh could that be because picture books are written almost exclusively by white people, to this day? Maybe the publishing industry allowed other people traditionally to write picturebooks, we wouldn’t have such a crap selection.
Argument 4: ‘Fine, let some people of colour publish a few books and stop bothering us with your whining.’ “Focusing on diversity of various sorts, and the need for more of it, allows one to side-step the knotty business of trying to distinguish between pearl-clutching and thoughtful concern,”-C. Hennessy. Whether or not the concerns of marginalized people about how they are represented seem trivial to you is irrelevant. Shockingly, this is not about you.
Argument 5: ‘Complaints on Social Media are Invalid.’ “tempting to wonder if people-particularly within social media bubbles…are taking it all a bit too seriously, reading too much into silly, entertaining kids’ books. How could anyone take offence to, say, Dr. Seuss,” -C. Hennessy. For the first time in history marginalized people have a voice that cannot be controlled by gatekeepers, Social media.; Dismissing the medium of expression because it lacks the gravitas of print media is just another way of maintaining the status quo and of systemic oppression.
Argument 6: ‘It’s too hard to fix we better do nothing about it.’ “Hard-and-fast rules to ensure inoffensive content are impossible” -C. Hennessy. Try not starting out with stereotypes? Try researching? Try editing? Try consulting with people you’re representing? Try harder.
Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

Where are all the Fat People in Picture Books?

Sources

“Denial of Treatment to Obese Patients—the Wrong Policy on Personal Responsibility for Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3937915/

Eating Disorder Statistics /https://anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

“Glorifying Fatness, Really?: Why writing about fatness can be downright difficult” https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dry-land-fish/201207/glorifying-fatness-really

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health “Obesity Prevention Source” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-trends/obesity-rates-worldwide/#References

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

It’s Not as Simple as Animal Books Vs. “Diversity

Sources for this Post:

Lucy & James Catchpole https://thecatchpoles.net/

“Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

Book Riot https://bookriot.com/diversity-in-childrens-and-young-adult-literature/

https://www.scholastic.com/parents/books-and-reading/raise-a-reader-blog/why-its-important-kids-to-see-themselves-books.html

Larsen, N. Lee, K., & Ganea P.. “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviours in young children?” Dev Sci. 2018 May; 21 (3): e 12590 2

*C. Burke & J. Copenhaver. “Animals as People in Children’s Literature ” Language Arts Vol 81, N.3 Jan. 2004, P. 205-213 .

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

Dear Artists, Creators &, Writers, Please Please Please Stop Saying “I Don’t Do it For the Money”

High up on my list of things that upset me is the phrase often used by creatives “I don’t do this for the money.” 

I’m not sure exactly when art went from being seen as the work of a highly skilled paid craftsperson, to being a quasi spiritual pilgrimage to be endured only by destitute geniuses with wicked cool hair.  But somewhere along the line, that happened, and the creative community has never recovered.

It’s really the most insidious idea that we’ve all embraced without question. One that we’ve been fed by a patriarchal capitalist society that actively feeds off of the unpaid and underpaid labour of it’s creatives. That to truly be an artist of substance, we should do it entirely for free. And on an even deeper level, that artistic work, just isn’t worth money.

There are so many consequences of this. For example, why are most children’s books made by white women? A huge part is that writers and illustrators of most children’s books make almost no money from it, so generally the only people who can afford to devote their lives to it, are white ladies who are already financially secure. To be able to say “I don’t do it for the money” is a privilege and by perpetuating this as acceptable, we are complicit in shutting people who cannot work for free out of the arts.

So if you’re someone who likes to proudly say “I don’t do this for the money” especially when receiving a negative review, I would kindly ask you to please cease and desist for the well being of the entire creative community.  Encouraging each other to value our time, and our work, is necessary if we ever want the rest of society to value us as well.  By pushing for a shift in values, we work towards change and better conditions for artists in the future.

 And if you’re someone who unfollows and abandons creators who monetize their work; rather than getting angry about them “selling out,” maybe closely examine why you feel this anger? And consider supporting their efforts to make a living.

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

We Need Books About Losers #LibrarianFightClub

Everybody loves a winner, and when it comes to the stories we enjoy, all we see are stories of winners. On the surface I guess it makes sense, we invest our emotions in a character, and we follow their journey, through every obstacle and failure, in the end, we want to be uplifted mostly. We want to see that win, we want to glorify it.  And yes that applies to picture books. 

But what does it mean to lose then? If the only stories worth telling in our society, are stories of winners? Accepting defeat isn’t just a reflection of the moment, but accepting an inferior identity and some people, clearly, just can’t handle it.

The more I think about it, the more nefarious the whole thing becomes, the ‘chosen one’, the ‘hero’s myth’, it’s all wrapped up in patriarchal white supremacy.  There is only room for one person at the top.  

White men see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and so it’s not over until they win.  Because isn’t that how the stories go?

      There are so many pieces of this narrative that we need to change, in every book, and honestly I think including BIPOC representation in the stories that are coming out just scratches just the surface.  Because clearly, the narrative and values themselves need to change.  

   One facet of this is accepting a loser’s journey as equally valid, being able to accept loss gracefully, to not be the chosen one, and to still be decent and gracious has value. 

  Many reviewers have been asked to recommend books about losing graciously recently, and I just plum can’t think of a single one, can you?

#librarianfightclub

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club, Uncategorized

Beyond 2020: Will Kidlit Evolve or Revert?

Before 2020, the children’s book industry wasn’t something that most people could care less about. Sure, there were handfuls of teachers, librarians, niche collectors and people actually in the business of making kids’ books, but the general adult population at large wasn’t overly concerned with it.

  2020 changed that, well, it changed a lot of things.  It shone a burning spotlight on a number of issues and KidLit was one of them, people got fired up. The Black Lives Matter uprisings in June had people looking for ways to be anti-racist, to change the world, to take part, and it was decided a great place to start was with children’s books. The cynical part in me wonders if that’s because purchasing kid’s books, and putting them on a display shelf, is only two clicks up from the most basic form of armchair activism. Whether or not people were actually reading them and discussing them with kids is to be determined.

  During the June uprisings, the status quo of children’s literature was found to be woefully inadequate, lacking in representation of BIPOC characters (Black Indigenous People of Colour), lacking in #ownvoices of Black authors and illustrators, lacking in stories that represented BIPOC characters in a range of types of stories.  People who had probably never thought twice about what sort of books they were buying their kid at the grocery store, suddenly were up in arms demanding immediate change from an industry so slow that you’ve got to wonder if they’ve only got one poor fellow binding every book by hand. Of course, all of these problems I’ve mentioned were no secret; studies, surveys, statistics, have all existed and been done for years showing that this is a huge issue. It’s just in the heat of June, and the fire of the protest, people suddenly cared a lot.

Books like “A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara, were cleaned out of every online store for months. Social Media Accounts focused on Diversity and Black representation in kids’ books were flooded with new followers, some accounts growing by fifty thousand followers or more practically overnight.  An entire generation of new Bookstagram accounts emerged.

With people clamouring to buy more books that just didn’t exist, the publishers have been left scrambling. They couldn’t do much that would have any immediate effect aside from reallocating marketing budgets to favour the books they did have featuring BIPOC characters. Suddenly popping out new books wasn’t an option. Especially given the constraints of being in the middle of a pandemic. Even under normal circumstances it takes about two years for the average book to be produced, 

Publishers have gotten to work as fast as they can, finding BIPOC authors and illustrators, and getting to work on publishing socially conscious books, but it will still be approximately a year and a half before most of the books will come to fruition. 

The big question is, how will these books be received, and how will that reception impact the course of Kidlit into the foreseeable future?

Will these books be rushed?  Will they be of questionable quality because of that rush?  Will the books all focus on delivering incredibly serious messages of social activism instead of providing picture books by and about BIPOC people that are meant for children to enjoy again and again? Because if the answer to any of those questions is yes, then there’s going to be a problem. 

Secondly, by the time these books are released how many people will still be interested? The fervour of the uninvested has cooled considerably in the last few months. That paired with having had to endure the absolutely revolting deluge of self published Amazon books about Racism slapped together in an attempt to Capitalize on the BLM movement has me wondering, will people be tired of it?

The fact remains that lack of representation in kidlit, is an issue that needs to be addressed. If this massive wave of #ownvoices books by Black Creators about BIPOC characters does not fulfill the industry’s expectation, then what will happen?  What will their conclusion be? What happens if they do not sell?

If things don’t work out my concern will be that the industry executives will conclude that they were correct all along in not investing in BIPOC creators and BIPOC stories.  Capitalism may dictate it would be best to just quietly close the lid on all of this, and let it collect dust with every other trend from 2020.

Or maybe, maybe I’m just jaded, and it’ll be fantastic, and people will turn up in droves to buy them. Maybe the demand for change brought out in 2020, is just what we needed to launch a new era in children’s books, a more inclusive one.

Posted in #Librarian Fight Club

The Secrets of in “The Secret Garden”: #LibrarianFightClub Edition

“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published as a full novel in 1911, is my favourite book of all time, since the first time I read it when I was a child. It is also, therefore perhaps surprisingly, the book I am putting forth today for #LibrarianFightClub, because when it comes to examining internal biases and problematic messages in books, nothing should be sacred.

  I was first alerted to the problematic nature of the portrayal and attitudes towards disability in this book while chatting with my friend Lucy, @thecatchpoles.  Previous to us discussing it I had never questioned this book.

  You may be familiar with the story, it has been redone as plays, movies, picture books, etc., though I find that the original novel despite being a “classic” very readable for a modern reader, because Burnett was a boss writer.

The story is as follows, Mary is a British expat raised in India when, after Cholera strikes her parents and basically everyone she knows dies.  She couldn’t care less, beyond inconvenience to her lifestyle.  She is shipped back to England, to be raised in Misselthwaite Manor, the home of her Maternal Uncle by marriage.  It is all very Edwardian gothic, she is a miserable “sickly little creature” and being back in the healthy English air and surrounded by good English people who take “no nonsense” improves her horrible temper and health. In fact upon her arrival at the English manor her maid says that India is full of “a lot of blacks instead of respectable white people.” To which Mary very angrily informs her “Natives are not people.” It is not mentioned again overtly, but the implicit racism, colonialism, and colourism runs deep in the veins of this book.

 Serious question, is it possible to find a classic book that isn’t full of a deep base of white supremacy and colonialism?  I’m not sure. And how does this affect if and how we approach reading it.  These overt lines are of course scrubbed from modern retellings, but can you really remove the attitudes which form the basis and premise of this entire book? Does simply erasing the overt lines actually do more bad than good because it makes it harder to critically look at the entire structure? 

Now, as to the depiction of disability and chronic illness, that gets complex. So, in this book the uncle is a romantic wretched fellow who is a “hunchback.” After being widowed by a beautiful girl who it is made clear should never have looked at him twice he never recovers and abandons his son who is also disabled, to wander around the world being morose and stinking rich. The son is a miserable tyrannical child who lives his life in bed having panic attacks about being ill.  After meeting Mary, and spending time outside with her and learning about love and friendship, he is magically cured? Or, it was all in his head in the first place. His father when he sees his son is not in fact disabled, decides to return and be a father. Talk about a fairweather relationship.

  So the trouble here is that really, this attitude that disability is partly in the mind and inextricably tied with a poor attitude is something that is still arguably ingrained into society. Or that disabled children are a depressing burden on their parents.  We can connect these ideas back to all of the sorts of books people applaud about disabled people using a can-do attitude to overcome, to be inspiring. The basis is all here, and written out in the 1890’s.

  However to further complicate things, it turns out, that this is actually a story that reflects the author’s own very fascinating life.  Frances Hodgson Burnett as it turns out lived many of the experiences she wrote about personally including chronic illness and depression.  

As a child, her family fell into ruin after the sudden death of her father.  They were forced to immigrate to America from England, where she befriended a young ‘invalid’ boy, who she later married (arguably her inspiration for the relationship between Mary and Colin?) She began writing to support her impoverished family when she was only 18 and continued to write as breadwinner her entire life. She supported her husband through medical school, while raising two boys and keeping a household. She suffered from chronic undiagnosed illness throughout and bouts of depression. She eventually left her husband, and her elder son fell ill with tuberculosis.  She moved back to England with her elder son, where he died.  She divorced her husband, had an affair with a much younger man who then blackmailed her into marriage. She was roasted by the media and local religious leaders for her  “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” She was also criticized heavily for the femininity with which some of her male protagonists were depicted, they were based on her son.  

She wrote “The Secret Garden” after the death of her own son, surrounded by an English garden, in the depths of the grief and depression that her characters experience.  Does this change the way we see the book?  

This really brings me to think about European “classics” in general. They’re all problematic because they’re all written by people who lived within this society. They inform an entire Anglophone writing tradition and I’m not sure if simply removing it from a reading list is the most useful choice. You might disagree with me. Thinking on the ideas in this book, on its context, and then considering how it impacted, influenced, and inspired so much of modern children’s literature.  Do we not gain something from picking apart the original?  Especially when that original is written by a woman who was really pushing the boundaries of women and what was acceptable in society?  What do you think?