Thursday 24 July 2014

Challenging Content in Picture Books by Emma O'Donovan

This month's guest blogger, Emma O'Donovan, discusses the potential for challenging, sometimes controversial picture books. Emma has spent the past ten years in the world of children's books, first as a children's bookseller and now as a publishing marketing manager. She may be found at The Book Sniffer.

As we bound head long into a new and magnificent golden age of illustrated picture books, I feel it’s time to take a moment to reflect on the role of challenging and controversial picture books in a world in which children are increasingly exposed to sensitive information. From the dark depths of Grimm’s fairy tales to an egg-laying mummy, dogs' bottoms, ‘boobs’, and the grim reaper, it seems there are few restrictions in terms of what is deemed acceptable content for the very youngest of readers

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch 
Historically the picture books available to young readers were thoroughly smattered with terrifying bone chilling characters (the mere mention of Struwwelpeter strikes fear into the hearts of many adults I know). Back then they were actively used by parents as a tool  to instill good manners, etiquette and a good moral standing in the young. Although perhaps some of the methods depicted in Struwwelpeter were slightly harsh.

Image from Struwweelpeter

It is probably fair to say that as a general rule, in anticipation of the impact on international sales, publishers tend to avoid content which may be considered controversial. It is well documented that tolerance for challenging picture books appears to be extremely risky, particularly so in the US markets.
With the picture book market beginning to flourish again perhaps now is the perfect time for publishers to create interesting and challenging picture books; for parents to trust with complete confidence the decisions made by the books creators; and for authors and illustrators to be given new freedom to experiment with new themes. It is certainly evident that picture books are becoming increasingly experimental in terms of design and the complexity of the stories within them. 

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

During a recent acceptance speech at the Greenaway Awards, Winner Jon Klassen reminisced about how his initial concept for This is Not My Hat was much darker than the one which was eventually published, dipping its toe into the dark and murky underworld of underwater gang culture, only to be rebuffed by his US publisher for being too dark. It turns out they created an award-winner so in this case perhaps it was a good call and after all it is a marvellous book and *spoiler alert* the hero still in fact dies at the end so it's not entirely sanitised and sugar coated.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

It seems to me that nowadays one of the best things about using picture books as an educational and emotional support mechanism is the propensity for readers to absorb information at their own pace whilst promoting further discussion. So often children are bombarded with information from all angles with no capacity for information filtration, but at least with a picture book they can relate an imagined scenario with their own and re-read to reinforce understanding.

It’s hard to believe that one of the most recent pioneers, legendary Babette Cole, created her magnificent picture books over 30 years ago! Babette illustrated books with confidence, engaging storytelling and side splitting comedy incorporating gender equality, sex education, puberty, death and same sex marriage in the most charming of ways, with a great majority of readers not even realising they were what are referred to as ‘issue driven’. Surely that magical picture book recipe can be replicated and re-invented.

Mummy Never Told Me by Babette Cole

I wonder if exploring challenging subjects that are enveloped in a safe and familiar picture book (probably shared with a grown-up you are very fond of) is actually the best place to do so.; and there we have yet another reason why pictures books are an invaluable and essential first step in the development of the next generation of marvellous book loving adults.

I’d love to hear what you think
Should picture books remain a sacred space for the pure innocent enjoyment of story and escapism and imagination?
Who holds responsibility for what our children are exposed to?
Which books have tackled challenging issues unsuccessfully?
Should books tackling ‘issues’ proactively advertise their content on the cover for added parental reassurance?
Does humour play an important role in broaching certain subjects with young readers?
It'll be great to discuss this further in the comments section below or on ‘The Twitter’ (please tweet me @maybeswabey with your thoughts #challengingpicturebooks).

Finally, some recommendations
In my previous incarnation as a children’s bookseller, I regularly recommended trusted classics to broach difficult subjects. There really is a wealth of brilliant picture books, covering all manner of subjects from dementia to late breast feeding and divorce. Here are some which I would confidently recommend (and a few suggestions from my dear knowledgeable friends on Twitter).  

Mum and Dad Glue by Kes Grey & Lee Wildish
Duck Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch  
Grandpa by John Burningham
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier & Kaatje Vermeire
Sad Book by Michael Rosen & Quentin Blake
Grandma by Jessica Sheperd
Really and Truly by Emilie Rivard & Anne-Claire Delisle
Other / Bottoms 
The Great Dog Bottom Swap by Peter Bently & May Matsuoka
The Yes by Sarah Bee & Satoshi Kitamura
Elmer and the Big Bird by David McKee
Leave me Alone by Kes Gray & Lee Wildish
Is it Because? by Tony Ross  
Marmaduke the Very Different Dragon by Rachel Valentine & Ed Eaves
Ant and the Big Bad Bully Goat by Andrew Fusek Peters & Anna Wadham
Don’t Laugh At Me by Steve Seskin
Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe by Brian Moses & Garry Parsons


Thank you to this month's guest blogger,
Emma O'Donovan,
who may be found at
The Book Sniffer


Claire O'Brien said...

I'm all for challenging and issue-led books. On a night to night basis I often choose to read picture books to my little ones to link in with something we have done that day, something we have talked about or somewhere we have been. I used Lola M. Schaefer's One Special Day to pave the way for the arrival of a new sibling. And I will definitely look for books to help with the bigger issues (thanks for the list).

I personally wouldn't want these books to be didactic about the issues, like you suggest, we want our children to learn to think for themselves and reflect. I certainly wouldn't want books to advertise their content on the cover, that sort of thing makes me think it is a commercial book. I know that selling picture books is an industry but you can tell the works of art, the labour of loves, the ones that come from the heart. They're the best books.

I'm also a fan of picture books that tackle the issues in a more abstract ways, for example how Eva Montanari deals difference in Witches and Fairies.

On another note, I hope publishers are currently looking for challenging books as I am just dummying up a manuscript about separation ready for submission!

Thanks again,

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks for a great blog, and an invaluable list. I'm currently being asked to work on some very didactic books, and my feeling is that they are just not child-friendly. Anything that is a bit different text-wise is almost impossible to get published. Only author-illustrators seem to be given the nod to innovate.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Great blog, Emma. I share Moira’s aversion to intentionally didactic picture books – most children know when they are being preached to and it’s a huge turn-off for many. On the other hand, it’s always good to question/challenge accepted norms and if a story can do this in an imaginative and engaging way that can be very appealing. Most of the challenging picture books that I enjoyed as a child contained an element of subversion.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post. I'll admit I'm in two minds and I think some of my inner debate is because there's such a difference between picture books for young readers (2-4) and picture books for 4/5+, and this goes alongside the jump in child development. Some thoughtful books can be read on several levels and straddle the entire age range, but they’re not the norm (or is that what you’re asking for – a new norm?!).

Many older challenging picture books have open endings and can elicit discussion and different interpretations, I feel they're often rather psychologically advanced for younger children and may not be comforting bedtime reading. Plus many parents want to read a few reassuring stories and not discuss issues at bedtime, or in many cases don’t even want to share a story. This makes these older challenging books especially suitable for schools. I’m thinking of books like the slightly disturbing ‘The Three Robbers’ (Tomi Ungerer), or the glorious ‘Varmints’ (Helen Ward and Marc Craste). These are the sort of books I wish 7-10 year olds would be encouraged to read and interpret.

By the way, I agree that it’s much easier to put forward a thoughtful and challenging book if you’re both the author and illustrator, because with these books there’s a lot of story in the images and the explanations to an editor can get rather complex if you’re just the author.

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks Emma for your fascinating post and list of books. I agree that some picture books should provide a safe and comforting place to explore challenging issues.As a reader and ex librarian looking for a picture book to explore a specific issue, then a title that does what it says on the jacket helps me find it. As a writer, however, the books I'm most proud of have hidden depths and ambiguous titles (eg Knight School addresses cultural prejudices).

Julie Murphy said...

I think that reading picture books dealing with challenging issues can be a valuable experience for young children, just as long as the book is not didactic, that the reading is done in a safe environment, and that time is allowed for children to "digest" the content at their own pace. The world is not perfect, and it is a sad fact that some children must cope with unfortunate real-world issues such as death, illness, bullying and divorce. Books can offer these children reassurance and comfort. If they only saw "happy world" picture books, they might feel very isolated.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there's room in the marketplace and on bookshelves for light and fun books alongside issue-driven ones. During my 35 years as a teacher, I found picture books to be a priceless stepping stone to some of the most important discussions in my classroom.

Pippa Goodhart said...

An interesting topic, and an important one. I think that it is the asking questions - leaving things in the air as It's Not My Hat does - that is powerful and exciting and thought-provoking for children, whereas giving answers is just a turn off. Thanks, Book Sniffer!

Abie Longstaff said...

Personally, I don't like issue books that are too obvious or didactic. The art is in getting a point across while still keeping the book beautiful - just like in some of your examples, Emma (The Sad Book and The Heart in the Bottle). I also agree with Jane that lots of fun books can have soft messages underlying the story. Picture books are perfect springboards for a whole range of discussions :)