Monday, 14 October 2019

The Little Island - Politics in Picture Books by Smriti Prasadam-Halls

I was recently surprised and pleased to be interviewed by the Sunday Times for a news piece about my latest picture book, The Little Island, illustrated by Robert Starling and published by Andersen Press. The book, which has been described as “Animal Farm for the Brexit generation”, tells the story of a group of animals on a farm who become disgruntled with their lot, living alongside the other animals, and decide to separate themselves from the rest of the farm.

When the article came out, I was fascinated to see that the angle focused on what was seen to be a “new” trend in “political” picture books, leading with the headline, “Brexit waddles into children’s books”.

To my mind, however, picture books have always dealt with the political – politics with both with a large and a small P. Some have directly reflected the immediate concerns of the day and some have immersed themselves in exploring the politics of freedom, relationship and society. Some show us a snapshot of our times, perhaps from an angle we might not expect, while others have raised big issues allegorically; both approaches grappling with thought provoking issues sometimes satirically, but always with sympathy and tenderness.

Sometimes the subject is very much of the moment. I’ll never forget seeing the devastating animation of When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs as a teenager – huddled in a wind battered marquee at a music festival with a group of friends. Wide-eyed, we watched this picture book brought to life on the screen, perplexed by what felt, at that time, a genuine shadow of nuclear war. Commended and criticised for its ‘anti-war’ message, the rendering of the chilling tale was all the more powerful – and poignant – in the way that Briggs captured the naivete, vulnerability and intimacy of his utterly trusting, utterly decent characters, who firmly believe, “Ours is not to reason why.”

Often political themes are age old and there are few examples more effortlessly effective for me than David McKee’s The Conquerors. It’s a fable that explores imperialism and multiculturalism in an allegory which suggests that nonviolence has a far greater impact than aggressive militarism. Here, a general leads his army against less powerful countries. “It’s for their own good,” he declares. “So they can be like us.” Yet at the end of the story, when the only customs and songs known to the General belong to the little country he has ‘conquered’ we are left with a smile on our lips, wondering precisely who in the story has been conquered by whom? Disarming in every way.

In The Little Island I’ve borrowed from both these storytelling traditions. The book combines the big issues of our global political landscape – Brexit, fear of ‘the other’, a hankering for the ‘glorious’ past – along with timeless themes of compassion and cooperation that are relevant in every age. In this allegory, the parallels with today’s political situation are clear to an adult reader, but for a child this is a story about solidarity and togetherness, where where friendship and hope prevail.

My own hope is that picture books – whether viewed as political or otherwise – will remain fearless in taking on controversial topics, challenging preconceptions and creating a space where children and adults question, discuss and explore together the big issues of our time. Here’s hoping we’ve got some answers…

Smriti Prasadam-Halls the best selling picture book author of Don't Make Me Cross, The World of the Whale, The Days of the Wolf, You Make ME Happy! and T-Veg the Story of a Carrot Crunching Dinosaur, amongst many. Visit Smriti's website here.

The Little Island is illustrated by Robert Starling and published by Andersen Press
Visit Robert Starling's website here


Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you for this great post, Smriti. I'm off to buy your book!

David McMullin said...

Great post. I can't wait to find this book. Picture books are definitely a place for politics if approached well.