Monday, 14 November 2016

Love Loud, Love Louder, Love the Loudest we’ve Loved (but not just within our cosy social media bubble who mostly share our views to start with). Where do picture books fit in, right now? by Juliet Clare Bell





It’s been an extraordinary week and a lot of people are feeling very unsettled (an understatement, I know). There were many reasons why people voted the way they did, but regardless of the reasons, a win for a team which has expressed openly racist, sexist and homophobic views sends a frightening message to many millions of people.

Now this is a picture book blog site and it’s a joint site (please note, any views expressed here are my own) so I’m trying to make this about what we can do, practically,  as writers and creators of children's books. And a lot of writers I know are feeling very low right now, and helpless, and not inclined to write. After all, lots of writers posted and shared posts calling out racism, sexism and homophobia –I was one of them– and all, seemingly, to no avail. I for one feel foolish –for a second time this year, I’ve let myself get too cosy in my own artificial bubble of social media contacts and probably felt better about myself for sharing things that were going to have absolutely no impact on anyone I shared them with except allowing other people like me to feel better about themselves, because we share a horror of such intolerance.

In fact, the last couple of years have been my best years of writing yet, because I’ve felt like I’m writing more honestly. I feel more engaged with my emotions, I’m more prepared to be vulnerable, and I like what I’m writing now much more than anything I’ve written before. Because it’s from the heart. And much of what I’ve written has been inspired what has been happening over the past few years.  And yet...

I still got it wrong. Properly wrong. I've let myself be duped by social media, where it has clearly been in the best interests of the people who profit from social media to let us live in our imaginary harmonious world of other people who think the same as us. I have my own protected life to live (with my three children), and it can be too easy to let Facebook be a comfort blanket and have my views reflected back at me without being challenged. And whilst I'm almost certain I've never shared anything (nor said anything) that mocked the opposite side or its supporters, in my cosy social media world where it was easy to assume people all pretty much felt the same, I didn't call people out on it publicly when I saw stuff that felt a bit patronising or even superior in the way I would have done if someone had been saying anything offensive from the opposition. I was lazy. And I am sorry.

In school visits, I encourage children to make mistakes and get things wrong. I make a big thing about it, because I think that it's critical for encouraging creativity, and we can get so much from learning from our mistakes. The children describe how it feels when they make mistakes: they feel embarrassed, upset, sad, small, horrible, angry, frustrated...


Barney Saltzberg's Beautiful Oops. Let's turn our mistakes into something positive and get to work...


Well, it's time to practise what we preach. I feel a lot of those emotions above. The circumstances that led to the possibility of people choosing someone whose behaviour and words encourage racism, sexism, homophobia and dismissal of people with disabilities, would have remained the same even if the vote had gone a different way. However the vote had gone, we would clearly need to be doing things a lot differently from how we've been doing them. I am part of the system that’s gone so wrong and as well as feeling horror at what is happening, I am also licking my wounds, feeling embarrassed and ashamed and accepting my part in that, however small. And then, I am making sure my response to it is positive and active, rather than despondent and inward looking. This isn't just happening now. It's been working up to this for a long time. There is so much for us all to do and since whatever we did do didn't work, we need to make changes. And tiny changes from large numbers of us can have a big impact. 

So what can we as writers and picture book creators, do right now, to play a more successful part in challenging intolerance, racism, sexism and homophobia? How can we encourage critical thinking in children (and remind us to use it better ourselves)? First of all, we can fight off the desire to go and hide under a duvet -and write (or take our pen and paper with us under the duvet and write from there). In the words of Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That’s how civilizations heal.”

It is not self-pitying to be inward looking for a little bit and challenge ourselves as to how we can do things better; it is crucial. And in terms of healing, which books are healing? I asked people (from a highly biased group of people of my Facebook friends, the SCBWI British Isles Facebook site and the US-based picture book writing site, PiBoIdMo group) which picture book they’d recommend for children at the moment during these unsettling times, with a view to writing this post. I was overwhelmed by responses -and a particular thank you to people with differing political views who posted. In this current climate, it can't have been easy. Here are some of the recommendations, with some responses:


Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B.Lewis (which came up quite a few times by American writers). Also, by the same author, The Other Side. ‘I love it so much. Especially poignant now because the children voted differently in the election than the adults did. And in this book, the children act differently than the adults, too--and they are correct’




Tusk Tusk, by David McKee ‘But maybe that's too depressing...’; also his book The Conquerors, which came up a couple of times: 'about a general who invades countries for their own good (all except one little country...) and Two Monsters (arguing about whether the sun's rising or the dusk's descending)'




Dr Seuss came up for lots of people:
The Lorax –which came up several times ‘Very pertinent’, as did Oh, The Places You'll Go!



‘...Chokes me up every time I read it to the kids (3 & 6) as it pretty much sums up life to me!’; ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a perennial favourite in our house. Reading it is not restricted to Christmas because we love it and take it in turns to recite the bits we know by heart. So the sharing of it is joyful and fun but there's also the lovely idea of his heart growing 'three sizes that day' because of the community spirit’; ‘The Sneetches are good for thinking about differences between us and the fact that ultimately we're all the same… they included it when doing Black History month at school…’  ‘I love Dr. Seuss's books! … teach… lessons in subtle ways. And I love his quirky kind of illustrations!’ and ‘who wouldn't want to build a quick trick chick stack? (Fox in Sox)… (and there were more)

No Matter What by Debi Gliori –which came up several times and was the book I’d also been thinking about most this week: ‘such a wonderful and important message to give children’ (but it's ended up in so many of my posts that I'm putting a different book of hers this time -but you can watch Debi reading it if you press on the link, above). (Also, her Dragon loves Penguin: ‘still makes me cry. A great story of just because you're different doesn't mean you can't fit in’



and ‘At home, when we're feeling sad, we go back to Mr Bear Says Can I Have a Hug? - which I can recite by heart, we read it so many times’)


‘I think wordless PBs would be so effective right now--



Henry Cole's Unspoken comes to mind; so does Sidewalk Flowers (by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith)’. Others recommended wordless books, too: Tuesday and Flotsam by David Wiesner


and the wordless The Arrival by Shaun Tan. 'Poignant, resonant and exquisitely illustrated. But to share with an older child obviously'. Suggested by several.


Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. ‘Classic story and the boy learns to love 'the other'’; also his Hueys books, and The Way Back Home ‘beautiful in terms of friendship and …co-operat[ion]… even when the same language and culture is not shared’; and The Day The Crayons Quit




And then there are many other fantastic books recommended, some I know already and plenty, especially recommendations I was given from people on the US PiBoIdMo site, that I've never heard of. And where I've found them, I've put links to a YouTube reading of them.



The Knowing Book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich… ‘a beautiful and comforting book’






The Tin Forest by Helen Ward. 'It's such a beautiful idea because this man wants so much to be in a real forest instead of a wasteland so he makes one out of tin, and soon one actually grows... and the illustrations really show how the two become one. It's a wonderful story about hope and the power of belief (but not the kind where you just want stuff - where you do stuff to make it happen!)'




You Belong Here by M.H. Clark. '[A teacher I know]… plans to use it in her legacy unit with 5th graders. She has a very diverse class and I love that she creates an amazing community'.




Waterloo and Trafalgar by Olivier Tallec



One Family by George Shannon and Blanca Gomez





Peace Is An Offering by Annette LeBox and Stephanie Graegin


The Journey by Francesca Sanna (which came up a couple of times)


The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin




Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko




Smoky Night by Eve Bunting and David Diaz  (a picture book about rioting)

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts ‘Rosie is a brilliant inventor of fabulous gizmos and gadgets. A couple of lines in the book that I love......."Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!" & 'Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit' A fabulous inspiring & heartwarming tale about failure, perseverance & self belief!’




Vanilla and Chocolate by Maritza Martinez Mejia and Estella Mejia (recommended by the author) ‘a bilingual book about tolerance’.

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and Tara Calahan King. It's about making friends with someone you thought was your enemy.

I'm Coming To Get You by Tony Ross. ‘A great story about keeping things in proportion. I'm not playing down our current situation but cutting monsters down to size is always a good idea’.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle andAlix Delinois: ‘A woman who listened and understood the words of the declaration of Independence and then took action in court to set it right. A perfect example of understanding of our Rights and Peaceful Protest’

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo ‘a story of compassion and inclusion’

That's What Friends Do by Kathryn Cave and Nick Maland. ‘I cried at least the first 5 times I read it to [my daughter]...’ and also Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell’s Something Else ‘Favourite for reading in class’

‘So, in the spirit of communities pulling together I give you The Giant Jam Sandwich [by John Vernon Lord] which details the extraordinary events that befall a small town and how the inhabitants deal with them. Lots of bonkers ideas and social cohesion’.

Zog! by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. ‘It is a brilliant book challenging gender stereotypes’.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. ‘Love it and somehow never scary!’


How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson--'I love the voices and the relationships'.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram. 'If only because it's life affirming and timeless and at the end of the day love is all you need. And it's reassuring for yourself and your child'




Wendel's Workshop (also Wendel and the Robots) by Chris Riddell ‘has both themes of protecting the planet and of creating a monster which is only overcome when they all get together, get creative and accept that they're all different’.



The Christmas Eve Tree by Delia Huddy and Emily Sutton. 'Festive, features a homeless boy yet quite positive and not scary...'



The Robot and The Bluebird by David Lucas. ‘Really got to me. Beautiful and bitter-sweet, brought a knot to my chest’. (I also felt really moved by David Lucas's honest and soul-searching approach to writing and illustrating picture books -which he discussed with us at the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat earlier this year.)



Little Beaver and the Echo by Amy MacDonald and SarahFox-Davies. Sweet uplifting story, gorgeous artwork.

And a couple of people posted really interesting blog post links which they've ordered books from (and so have I, since checking them out)…
‘because the best thing I can do at this point is try and impart to my children the ability to feel empathy, and the best way I know how to do it is through books’.

https://pernillesripp.com/2015/10/03/great-picture-books-to-teach-theme/

https://wakingbraincells.com/2016/11/10/10-great-picture-books-on-compassion/

And I loved this recommendation by a mother with a young baby:



‘It's not exactly profound but we've just read Dear Zoo and he laughed his tiny little head off’.

So, some really interesting books, suggested above (and note, there are titles up there without a happy ending –which is unusual but possible –Each Kindness, Tusk Tusk, for example)…


And now it’s time for us to get on and write.

People have clearly voted for change, and if we are unhappy and unsettled about that, then we need to be out there, getting across a message of love –and not just to people who think the way we think. It doesn't have to be an issue based story, or a preachy story (as the books above testify) -but when it is written from a place of love, that will come through. There is so much for us all to do (in our personal, public and writing/creating lives) to try and make a positive difference. 

We must write. I am writing. I will write.

And I am committing to taking bigger risks now –because we need to show even more love. To love loud, love louder and love the loudest we’ve ever loved. To everyone (which means there needs to be more support for school libraries and public libraries so the books can reach wherever they need to reach)–and we can do that through picture books.

And I'm massively looking forward to the upcoming SCBWI British Isles conference this weekend where we can regroup and look to the future, and do what we must do: write, draw, create.

A huge thank you to everyone who posted recommendations and comments in response to my question -regardless of your political allegiances. I've kept the quotes anonymous. And in the spirit of coming together and trying to move forward towards a time where someone who said such hateful things would never have got enough support to run, I'd love to hear from anyone with any thoughts on how we can love louder in our stories for children (and encourage real dialogue between people who have vastly different experiences of living in society, without name calling) in a way that isn’t preachy, and which other books would you recommend to encourage greater love?



32 comments:

  1. Can't speak for all the Den members, but your views definitely reflect my own, Clare.

    I'd add "Something Else" by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell – a great picture book about accepting otherness – to your list.

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    1. Thank you, Jonathan. I've got Something Else in there (under Harris Burdick) but I didn't link to it this time (I was running out of time but mainly) because I linked to it in my last post. I agree -it's an excellent book to read at the moment. Clare.

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    2. Whoops, I should have spotted that! Now I see it's actually in there twice. It was a favourite bedtime read in our house when the kids were little.

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    3. Twice? NO! (Thanks for that -I've just deleted one.)

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  2. I couldn't contribute because I was deep in something else but I just want to add - More People to Love Me by Mo O'Hara is the perfect book for these times. Love the post, Clare.

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    1. Thank you, Candy. I will check out Mo's book. I loved the sound of it and still haven't got hold of a copy. Thank you. x

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  3. This is just the right post today, Clare. We all need to work towards healing, and listening constructively, and helping to make positive changes. Keep on adding love to the world!

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  4. Great article, and what a wonderful list of books! Thank you for sharing your positive attitude.

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  5. Wow! What a great post Juliet. Thanks for sharing the love and the amazing list of books. All very inspiring

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    1. Thank you, Wendy. I've been really inspired by the book choices people made here. All the best, Clare.

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  6. Wonderful post & such a helpful list! A few I'd add are Friends, Aiko Ikegami; My Two Blankets, Irena Kobald & Freya Blackwood; I am Henry Finch, Alexis Deacon/Viviane Schwartz - about being the change.

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  7. Thank you, Patricia. Your suggestions look great. I've just ordered the last two (the first is very expensive at the moment). I'm really excited about the other two arriving. I've loved checking out the books people recommended. All the best, Clare x

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  8. Great post and it's fab to see such a huge list of positive books.

    I don't want to put a dampener on things but I've had several friendship, supportive, love themed books turned down by publishers because the stories are too quiet. Publishers still seem to want loud, funny, under garment type stories. Hopefully things will change, but if they don't then as you say we'll have to do loud love (with a bit of humour with a peak at under garments thrown in) to get published.

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    1. Thanks, Lynne. I think that's a very real issue you mention, with publishers often shying away from quiet books. Perhaps there will be a resurgence now, or perhaps, like you say, we love louder with pants thrown in. Most of the manuscripts I've written recently are 'quiet' with love at their centre, but I'm having a go at one with silly humour with a really serious underlying tone in order to make it less scary an idea. I think it's really worth taking some risks in what we write and if we can make them brilliant enough, publishers might take them on even if quiet is not massively in at the moment. There are some excellent books above, like Enemy Pie, which is really funny but still says something important.

      Thanks, Lynne. Clare

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  9. My kids loved a book called "Who Flung Dung?" by Ben Redlich, though I've never met anyone else who's read it. It deserves a wider audience- it's very naughty and very funny. And of course Where the Wild Things Are, which I never tire of reading.

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    1. Thanks, Andy. I'll check out 'Who Flung Dung?' soon.

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  10. From Faraz Kermani: "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. I grew up loving this and it has never left my imagination. It portrays love, pain, anger, joy and sheer madness. It still has the capacity to bring a tear to my manly eye...

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    1. Thanks, Faraz. Many a manly eye has been brought to tears by Where the Wild Things Are I am sure...

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  11. Thanks for the thoughtful and inspiring post, Juliet!! There are several books here which I haven't yet read, so thank you for the recs! The library list keeps growing.

    I would also add Worm Loves Worm, and Bethany Hegedus/Arun Gandhi's second book, Be the Change to the list :)

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    1. Thank you, Maria. A lot of these books are new to me and I've ordered about ten already (eek). I love the sound of your suggestions, too. All the best, Clare

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  12. You mention lots of books close to my heart, and several I don't know that I'll now see out, thank you, Clare. It's a theme I tried to address in Knight Time, illustrated by Jane Massey

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    1. Thanks, Jane. So we can add Knight Time to our list, too! And Paeony's I'll Always Love You (illustrated by Penny Ives). x

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  13. Loved this post! I have to mention One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, about a Muslim immigrant child trying to fit in with her classmates. I get choked up just thinking about it! At our house, my 5 year old and I have been coping with all this in a different way by reading the funniest books we can find. We're on night 5 of Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great by Bob Shea. Some good old escapism through KidLit!

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    1. Thank you, Erin. I've not read either of those but I'm checking them both out for different reasons... Going for funny books sounds great. My littlest (8) did the same this morning -and read out Oh No, George, by Chris Haughton, twice in a row, brilliantly using very silly voices. It was the best medicine!x

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  14. Oh that Debi Gliori book "No Matter What" has always been special for me, ending, so brilliantly, as it does, with the light of dead stars. My beloved husband, David, died about six months after I read it, and he was passionate about astronomy and the night sky.

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    1. Such a beautiful book. I'm glad that it's given you comfort after David's death. Sending love your way x

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  15. My Father's Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde. It's original, engaging and achingly beautiful. A tender, quietly told story. I love it. x

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    1. Thank you, Brynna. I love that book, too. It's very hard to get 'quiet' books taken on by publishers at the moment but when they're done that beautifully, some of them still get through, fortunately. x

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  16. Just saw this post, missed it when it came out. Thank you Clare, for doing so much work to give us a bookshelf full of books at such a time. Can't wait to read them all!

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    1. Thank you, Donna. There were some fantastic recommendations and I've read loads of really interesting new books which have already got me thinking along different lines for some ideas I've got.

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