Saturday 5 April 2014

Can You See Me Now? By Pippa Goodhart

Back in February, the wonderful Imagine! Festival for children ran in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank.  I was involved in a small way with the part of that festival run by the Inclusive Minds collective.  As the name implies, their session was all about making books and stories accessible to all sorts of children, and making sure that books for children include every sort of child and children from all sorts of backgrounds.  It was a wonderful day of sensory stories, signed poetry, a huge wall on which all could draw themselves (or anything they fancied), some serious adult debate, and a lot of story sharing, drawing, chatter and fun.  And it set me thinking.

It is, of course, important to include children of all races, from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and those with disabilities, naturally within picture books; representing all of us without exclusion.  Nick Sharratt has managed to include a number of children with visual clues to particular conditions in our’ Just Imagine’ book’s busy pictures.

But the What About Me? event stated that, ‘the organisers believe that ALL children should be able to see themselves, their lives, their friends and their families represented in the stories and pictures they are given.’  But I wonder if there isn’t a danger that that idea might be taken too literally?  Does that mean that a boy with ginger hair who wears a hearing aid won’t see himself in a picture of a black haired girl wearing a hearing aid?  Do we really want to see ourselves exactly in books?  If so, books will have to be tailor-made for each reader … and I, for one, DON’T want to read about, or see, a story about a plump middle-aged woman with scruffy hair who writes stories for children!  I want other experiences, beyond my own real ones, when I read.  But I DO want to find emotional states in stories that I recognise and want to explore.  It’s at that gut feeling level that I find the point of contact between myself and a story. 

I think we’re in danger of forgetting the power of imagination in all this, and I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter. 

For some reason it’s easier to identify with a fictional character who looks totally unlike us than it is to identify with a character who is human, but different from us in age or sex or appearance or background.  So we all sympathise with lovely elephant Elmer’s insecurity in the happy story about him by David McKee in which patchwork Elmer attempts to blend in with the grey elephants.  A similar story about a child with, for example, a walking frame, who tried to get rid of the walking frame so as to look like the other children, would tend to be a very uncomfortable and unhappy read.  Elmer does a better job than a human character could in making us realise how it might be difficult to be different, and the need for others to consider and do something about that difficulty … in this case by having an Elmer Day once a year when all the elephants paint themselves fancy colours.    

There are picture books with animal characters which more obviously tackle a specific disability.  Jeanne Willis and Sarah Fox-Davies’ ‘Mole’s Sunrise’ is a very beautiful book in which blind Mole’s kind friends take him to ‘see’ the sun rise, and describe what they see so as to share that visual experience with Mole.    

Yes, we certainly do need children of all sorts included in picture books, but please don’t forget the richness of what is already out there in stories that on the surface are about animals, but at heart are all about human emotions and experiences.

Have you got other picture book examples you would recommend, featuring examples of anthropomorphic characters whose experiences might chime with disabled or marginalised children? 



Moira Butterfield said...

I agree, Pippa. Non-human characters can bring everyone in - they're very inclusive. Kids hate being preached at. They can spot it a mile off. My own son loved 'A Dinosaur Called Tiny' by Alan Durant, illustrated by Jo Simpson. its about a dinosaur who is born very tiny, and stays tiny compared to the other dinosaurs, but becomes a hero. My youngest son (who is disabled and doesn't speak) handed that book to me to read over and over and over again, and I never got bored sharing it with him, as we both gloried in Tiny's triumph. I'd recommend it. Our copy is now very battered, a good sign!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thinking about it, he also loves The Gruffalo, another book where the tiny guy triumphs!

Paeony Lewis said...

'Moles in Love' by David Bedford (illus by Rosalind Beardshaw) is a fun story about a mole searching for love, and it portrays the wearing of glasses in a positive way. I remember a nursery school teacher saying she was always on the lookout for inclusive picture books, such as the wearing of glasses, because she wanted them in the nursery and had difficulty finding enough (plus it ticked Ofsted boxes).
There's also a follow-up: Moles's Babies!

Pippa Goodhart said...

That sounds a wonderful book, and a very important one for a particular child. An example of picture books at their most positively powerful. Thank you so much, Moira.

Michelle Robinson said...

A good point well made, Pippa. I love 'Oh, Boris!' which is about a new bear in school struggling to fit in because he is so different. It makes the point in a far more cosy way than human characters ever could.

By the way, we have a baby board book at home with a picture of a dark-skinned woman and the caption reads 'Hello, Mummy!' I sometimes - not always - edit as I read aloud and say 'Hello, lady!' instead, because to my children, the picture looks nothing like mummy. Imagine how it feels to find that in just about every single book you read!

It is so important that there are plenty of books for plenty of people, so that all of our lives are properly reflected. Looking at some of the publishers' catalogues for Bologna, there are some wonderful titles coming out in the next 12 months with black and mixed race main characters. But most importantly, they look like strong stories. That's what unites us all.

Jane Clarke said...

This book belongs to Aye Aye by Richard Byrne - Aye Aye desperately wants to be in a picture book, but the other animals don't think he's cute-looking enough...

Pippa Goodhart said...

Sorry to have been slow in responding. I was busy with filming yesterday as a local yokel 'extra' in the congregation in church for a new murder mystery series based in my village. A strange experience, but fun!
That's a really interesting book for discussion, Paeony. Glasses as an accessory for an animal works, I think, as do bags and hats and the like. And they have a real role in the book you describe. But, meanwhile, there's a growing feeling that the gender coding of 'naked' or natural looking animal being male whilst a female needing to be signalled with a bow in the hair or similar is sending out messages about the sexes that might not be good.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Good points well made, yourself, Michelle! And that sounds like positive news from Bologna. Thank you.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Ah yes, I love that book! And it's a book that's exactly about the inclusion or not into a picture book. A spot-on example, Jane.

Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post Pippa. The film extra stuff sounds fascinating btw ;-)
The only books I could think of off the top of my head were the 'Monty, the Dog Who Wears Glasses' series, though whether they count I'm not sure as the story lines weren't often about the glasses, he just wears them.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I think that's very much the point, Jonathan; that he just happens to wear glasses rather than them being a big deal that defines his character and his life. He's a really good example.
Being an extra (or 'supporting artist', apparently!) is fun, but they took one look at me and said 'I think you can be a village eccentric', so I look more barmy than in real life, and no glamorising at all. The real star of the show is a puppy!

Unknown said...

Oh, goodness, that gender marking has been annoying me for YEARS! Eyelashes, larger eyes, bows, curls, skirts, sometimes even bumpy bits = female. 'Normal' animal = male. Very common in cartoons, too. I feel it's imposing something on small readers that isn't good at all, teaching them to look out for signals like that to interpret.

Unknown said...

Great post in general, but having worked with very young children with developmental delays and disabilities of all kinds, at those early stages they may need something really concrete and familiar to identify with. Animals often don't cut it at first. There is a developmental hierarchy to interpreting pictures which starts with photographs of the real thing and moves on to clear drawings, then to more stylised and fanciful representations. (Of course, children who are learning quickly may well appear to skip these stages.) I've known children get very excited to see photo picture-books of children like themselves in glasses or with hearing aids, walking aids etc. as a starting point to getting engaged with books. Just as babies love pictures of other babies! Sadly, photo picture books seem to go in and - mostly out - of fashion and aren't always available when you need them.

Pippa Goodhart said...

That's really interesting to learn, thank you, Julia. I didn't know that, but now that you point it out it makes perfect sense. Most non-disabled and non-disadvantaged children are so sophisticated in their understanding of the game of storytelling that it's easy to forget that understanding has to be learned. I wouldn't ever advocate that picture book stories are always about animals, only that animals can be helpful in reaching out to children. But it would be interesting to try storytelling with photographs. Most books that use photographs are non-fiction. Interesting. Thank you.

Taurean Watkins said...

This is part of why I had to start "Talking Animal Addicts" in the first place, I think sometimes we as authors, educators, parents or whoever get told (in various unspoken ways) that to "Get Real" that we leave ZERO room for fun or reflection.

It has to all be in service of something bigger.

I'm exaggerating some, but only to make a REAL point.

While I agree it's easier to sometimes use non-human characters versus humans when taking on certain subjects or stories, we still do need stories about actual humans, warts and all, but I also feel animal stories in general get a bad rap at times.

A lot of people told me animal stories are "Hard Sells" and I was better off writing nonfiction for the educational market, something I just don't want to do.

To be continued...

Taurean Watkins said...

Okay, so animal stories (that aren't 100% naturalistic) are hard to sell, it took me nearly ten years to sell just ONE of my own, but it's what I want/have to write, and what I'm frankly GOOD at, I can't change that anymore than I can change my shoe size.

I'm certainly all for like Katherine Applegate's "Ivan" where the novel gave us a freer fictional tale (based partially on true events) worthy of a Newbury medal, but used the picture book biography that came a couple years later to tell the REAL story, there's merit to both ways, I'm just trying to bump up the respect for taking the fantastical route.

Just because we make it up doesn't mean we take it any less seriously than if it actually happened to us or someone we know, admire or learn about from history.

To be continued...

Taurean Watkins said...

My upcoming debut novel "GABRIEL" is about a toymaking rat, but he's not any less real to me than my beloved dog Pepper who died last summer.

Could he talk or pretend he was "The Red Baron" like Snoopy? No. But was he dumb?
Absolutely not, and you better come near me and say that! (LOL)

I love stories that fly in the face of reality as we know it, and aren't afraid to leave it behind.

I always will.

That said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to one day see a book about a HUMAN african-american boy who's not sitcom caricature, or always depicted some hoodlum, but smart without being a Type-A snob, sensitive without being pushover, and assertive without being a pervy demon! Is that so much to ask!?

I'm not yet ready to write my take on that book.

But it needs to exist, and even I wrote it and it was published, it can't nor should it be the only book that exists. We need variety in our reading. Just because I didn't get into "Twilight" doesn't mean I'd never read a book about vampire period. I just haven't found the vampire book that would do it for me yet.

But yes, some people can really look down on animal characters, even though the best of them are inclusive as Pippa's said above.

I think that's one of under the radar side-effecta of U.S. education's current focus in the few decades, putting emphasis on academic "mastery" and pushing the message of being college-ready by 3rd grade, is inadvertently creating readers are growing up being unable to access and embrace the use of their imaginations.

If it's not something that can 100% happen in real life, the reader can't relate, I've seen this in both kids and adults and it's really sad.

It's why I get particularly mad when I hear statistic that say "Boys on average prefer nonfiction being grounded in the facts of reality."

Hello!? I was not that boy. Nor am I that man now. I prefer fiction over nonfiction, Soul over science. Cartoons over Calculus, but that said, I've got a keen mind, I just can't live and breathe hardcore academia the way some people can and legitimately LOVE period!

I didn't get into comics until I was WAY older because I wasn't in love with superheroes, and the first comics I read (apart from occasion For Better or Worse, Garfield, or Peanuts strips) weren't superheroes, but stories with action, thirlls, and heart.

That said, I've found some things in the DC/Marvel lexicon I do lik, but it wasn't where I started, and I want to see more paths into comics beyond the obvious.

I RESPECT science. I've learned post high school that nonfiction doesn't have to be boring. I've found some nonfiction I enjoy. Let me just say that now.

But if I wanted to know for certain about the mating habits of baboons, I'd research it on my own time, but if I want to write a crazy fun story about a baboon, yes I may weave in some traits of real baboons, but if I want to make him talk, have blue fur, and do stand-up comedy, I can, because this isn't a "National Geographic" article.

Okay, rant over, but great post Pippa. Glad I came upon your blog in the last couple months.

Take Care,
Taurean W. (@Taurean_Watkins)