Wednesday, February 15, 2017

When Picture Book People Get Political


Life has changed for a lot of people since Donald Trump was elected, regardless of political leaning. I noticed that my Twitter feed, typically dominated with picture book culture, shifted almost entirely to politics. A colleague mentioned that it feels like there is no roadmap; no way to know where we are, or how we get from one point to another. For many in the field, it’s a deeply existential time.


I began to have conversations with people in the field about the role for children’s literature in this new political climate and what that might mean for us as creators and as a community. Picture books, like other creative artifacts that include art, music, fashion, and films, tend to reflect their times. We all hope and assume that they have the potential to shape culture and society, but is that true? And can we look to picture books to construct a roadmap of how to get where we want to go?


It’s more important now than ever for authors and illustrators to use their platforms to communicate to children that truth matters and that being a bully isn’t the way to gain power or contribute to society. Our wheelhouse is our words and drawings, and we need to be responsible.


The more people I talked to, the more I realized this was something that a lot of people were thinking about. Nine people from across the industry including illustrators, academics, agents, and historians agreed to speak with me. I emphasized that I didn’t need them to tell me any personal or organizational stance; I was more interested in what they were observing in order to collect multiple perspectives and search for common understanding.


Authors and illustrators previously not as engaged in politics began to engage on social media. Author and illustrator Dan Santat says that previously, “authors would stay out of politics in order not to offend any of their right-leaning followers. (I was not in that camp.) Once Trump won, you noticed the floodgates had opened and almost everyone voiced their opinions about this administration.”


Yet some people I spoke to noted a lack of engagement from the picture book community. Siân Gaetano, Editorial Assistant at The Horn Book writes, “there have been some illustrators who have sketched little subtweets or things to bring joy--there was that whole safety pin illustration movement on Instagram for about 15 hours--and there are certainly outspoken authors/illustrators of picture books but I would say that, on average, the picture book crowd seems to be staying out of political debate.” The picture community is seeking ways to participate in the conversation from their perspective as experts in creating content for children, but it tends to collapse in on itself before it sticks, typically inciting social media backlash. The lack of participation, or slacktivism from the community could be largely a desire to avoid being called out as insensitive.


This leads to more general ways of community engagement, crafting messages of kindness without getting overtly political or risking your readership. Roger Sutton, Editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, says, “the values expressed in picture books tend to be liberal values, in sort of love-thy-neighbor, love thy community, love thy planet kind of ways.” This was a much safer place for members of the picture book community to put their flag in the ground without offending readers.


Julie Danielson of the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and a former children’s librarian, engages in resource gathering. “I find myself wanting to write more about children's literature that speaks to resistance (here's an example) and speaks to political issues (such as, this).” Leonard Marcus, children's book historian, author, and critic observes, “Most of what I see is people putting out lists of recommended books for children to read, or to read to children. There’s validity in doing that. I think it’s important for children to know that there is a thing as fact and truth, and that adults care about their interests. All of that can be communicated through children’s books.”


Education and books for children has always been hotly contested. In 1600s England, John Locke described the child’s mind as a tabula rasa or blank slate. That concept unfolded in a long tradition of educators, authors, and illustrators who aim to fill children’s minds with lessons on “virtue, wisdom, breeding, and learning.” This could be interpreted as top-down, giving permission to gatekeepers and people who believe in the hierarchy of teaching as a one-way flow of information. But Locke also suggests that this gives power to the child to build upon her experiences and develop her own understanding. That’s when things like picture books with different stories and perspectives can be useful tools for building experience and empathy. They are powerful tools that play a part in drawing on that tabula rasa.


Christopher Brown, the Special Collections Curator at the Children's Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, spoke with me about the books that are remembered 50 or 100 years after they’ve been published, by authors like Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, and William Steig. They speak to people across time and simultaneously reflect a culture and a set of beliefs. I asked Brown, will we begin to see books by authors and illustrators that address President Trump and his cabinet?


Don’t hold your breath. Books often reflect politics in an allegorical or sly way, like The Butter Battle Book. Marcus observed that books don’t need to be didactic or obvious to a communicate a message. “Rather than to have a political agenda what you really want to do is show children that words are flexible, powerful tools to think with in a playful and thoughtful way, and in a way that stretches our awareness of the world… The important thing is to give kids books that encourage them to use their minds.”


Rivka Galchen wrote an article about Mo Willems in the February 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker reflecting on the impulse and drive of authors and illustrators. Perhaps they write and draw not because they love children or are similar to children, but because children’s books offer a way to question authority in an indirect, playful way. “Tove Jansson began her Moomin series during the Nazi occupation of Finland; Paddington Bear was modeled on the Jewish refugee children turning up alone in London train stations. Arnold Lobel, the creator of the Frog and Toad books, came out to his children as gay and died relatively young, from AIDS. I wonder if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world. If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children.”


Picture books can be a powerful tool, and can also be a double-edged sword. Picture books face great scrutiny, as with the “torrent of criticism” that surrounded A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Andrea Davis Pinkney, author and publisher, was also the editor for A Birthday Cake for George Washington. “She’s done a lot in this field,” said Marcus. “One of the major themes of her career has been that people of color should not be written about primarily as victims.” But despite good intentions, it was lambasted and pulled off of shelves. Sutton remarked, “most books that are published for children are not done cynically, they’re done because someone thinks they have a positive message to share. But then people come back and say, ‘well you might have meant well here, but you fucked up.’”


So how do we engage in creating books that ask big questions but not get construed as insensitive, racist, sexist, ableist, etc.? Lisa Brown, illustrator and author who teaches a picture book class at the California College of the Arts, suggests that books that are challenged should still be used to create a dialogue. She emphasizes that students are hungry for these conversations, and she uses copies of A Birthday Cake for George Washington and A Fine Dessert as part of her curriculum.


“I can have difficult conversations with my students and let them make up their own minds with seeing the content,” says Brown, “I talk about trigger warnings, and I say you don’t have to be in on the conversations, this might be difficult for you.” The result has been more engagement. “I had students come up to me and say, ‘no one’s talking about this in school, in our illustration class they're talking about art and technique and they’re not talking about social justice or voice.’ Pedagogically we have workshops all the time about voice and listening to kids and intersectionality and no one’s bringing it inside the classroom as a lesson plan. I thought: I’m interested in this, they're interested in this, this is going to make their work better and more personal.”


Not all the fallout has been so positive. The criticism around these two books is described by one interviewee as a “disaster” whose reverberations are still felt across the industry. “I’m hearing that authors don’t want to risk writing a book about a (fill in the blank; gender, race, class) because they’re terrified they’ll get it wrong,” said Christopher Brown. The implications of this fear could potentially lead to silence and self-censorship. A Birthday Cake for George Washington created a new conversation in the children’s book world. It taught us that picture books wield a lot of power. They can change and influence culture, but it might be a risk many authors and illustrators decide to not take.


The impact of the diverse book movement continues to influence the industry. Sutton describes Vicky Smith at Kirkus’ decision to identify the race of all characters in children's and teen’s books. Ultimately, The Horn Book did not follow suit, but it had an influence on their writing. “in a review if there’s one character who is Korean-American and one who’s… “white” american, [previously] we would say ‘Jane and her Korean-American friend Kathy.’ And I thought that’s not fair either, if I’m going to say what Kathy is, I’m going to say what Jane is,” says Sutton.


By acknowledging a “white” default in writing about children’s books, we open ourselves up to a greater diversity of stories and storytellers. Books that are not “a part of cis, white, heteronormative, ableist history… help to spread ideas and inform and influence children and adults who may not be members of those underrepresented or oppressed groups or who may be members of those groups and are, as stated, underrepresented,” says Gaetano. “They're giving voice to previously voiceless communities which will, hopefully, have a snowball effect.” There is power in being a creator of content for children.


Then there is the other question of how creators make books that are impactful and enjoyable for children to read, without being tedious or didactic. “I want to be a participant in making meaningful children’s books for our time. I’m grateful to my clients who are doing just that. I am equally grateful to my clients who are making books full of beauty, joy and laughter just for the sake of beauty, joy and laughter. I have never felt such an intense need for these books as well,” says Erica Rand Silverman of Stimola Literary Studio (and full disclosure, my agent).


These past few months have been stressful for picture book creators. For many, it’s been challenging to make art. Santat says, “The other night I shouted at myself in the car and verbally lectured myself for being so down. I’ve been working at about a 60% pace of what I’m used to.” This has been affecting a lot of people across many industries, not just authors and illustrators. You can feel people desperately trying to keep their heads above water.


There’s also increased scrutiny in the ways we communicate online. I noticed a thorny issue of sharing versus not sharing. When an author or illustrator posts something political, there is a risk of alienating readers, particularly when the same Facebook account communicates with readers as well as family, friends, and people from grade school. When there is only one place to vent, how do you vent if it might be bad for business?


Santat describes this as a “dilemma.” You’re potentially hurting yourself by participating, but you don’t know the damage that you’re contributing to if you don’t. With the deep division in the United States, this applies to people across the political spectrum. Should picture book creators engage in a form of resistance? Is this part of their métier? “There is a lot of debate about the artist's place in society--should an artist ‘focus on making their art’ and shut up about politics?” wonders Gaetano. For authors and illustrators, with increased power comes increased scrutiny.


So where do we, as children’s book authors and illustrators, take a stand? Erin Murphy references the recent statement that was released by SCBWI “...We stand for freedom of expression, for inclusion, for absence of hate, and for equality of opportunity for all. These are not political ideologies, but expressions of our shared human values…” She comments that “sticking to those points like free speech and no hate is safe” and that “authenticity is so incredibly important to connecting with readers that it can be difficult for authors and illustrators to water down their messages in real life, especially when stakes appear to be very high." Is there a responsibility in writing about characters who are activists, without being an activist yourself?


Lisa Brown comments that the fear of failing shouldn’t mean that people should limit what they write. “Books are good and there’s a lot of them and there should be more of them. I don't want people to be afraid of trying, even if they fail, and that’s what scares me.” Change is uncomfortable, but does it have to be painful, and does it have to involve being skewered on social media? “We shouldn't vilify one another when mistakes are made or different views are shared,” says Silverman, who calls for a paradigm shift. “I think the time is ripe to all work together to grow the industry discourse. We all have something different to contribute to it.”


So what did I surface through this blog post as an author and illustrator? There’s a lot of agony in the publishing world right now. But I understand it. No one, on the right or left, wants to be called racist, ableist, sexist, or otherwise. The election of Donald Trump has added another complex facet to the crisis of equity and access in children’s publishing, and no one knows the longstanding impact he and his cabinet will have on the growth and normalization of racism, ableism, sexism, etc. in the hearts and minds of book-buying, book-reading Americans.

Since I began this article a few weeks ago, I’ve had many conversations with people both in and outside the industry. One was with a friend, about why we found it uncomfortable that a “white” person might, hypothetically, write a book about a Syrian child refugee. We identified that our discomfort was not stemming from it not being that “white” person’s story to tell (which could be problematic for different reasons of cultural appropriation), but that we wish we lived in a world where the diversity of story creators wasn't so hideously imbalanced, and where you didn’t fear risking your career over what you choose to be vocal about. These are the hopes for my career in children’s book literature, and for people who come after me. Our power as creators of content for children is in our willingness to create stories that ask big questions about the world and offer different perspectives on the world. And that involves using our platform, our words, and our drawings to communicate in a responsible way.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Finding a Way Forward

If you’re anything like me, you may have been struggling a bit with being creative as of late. Many days I find myself feeling uninspired. I start to ask myself if what I am doing is worthwhile when much bigger struggles are happening in the world. Here are some thoughts to keep you (and me) going.



1. Don’t read the news and don’t check social media, at least, not yet!

By all means, stay informed, but carve out some time for creativity first, before you hop online. (This also ties into Shahrzad’s previous post about staying focused.) I’m finding that social media is bogging me down with the larger issues of the world, and by the time I finish reading the news, I’m no longer interested in creating anything. Make a rule that you have to draw something first before you read the news.

2. Take a break.

Honestly, it’s okay to take a break. Sometimes I feel we have a constant pressure to keep producing, but I’ve noticed that my creativity ebbs and flows. Give yourself a break, but when your break is stretching on for months, even years, well, you need a little kick in the pants.

3. Deadlines are amazing motivators.

I don’t know about you guys, but what works to jump start my creativity is deadlines. If you don’t have any paying jobs at the moment, never fear, there are all sorts of ways to create deadlines. I’m in a hotel room in New York at the moment, a few days in advance of the SCBWI conference, and there’s nothing like a portfolio show to make me churn out new work. Critique groups can also be great (until you get too comfortable with your crit group and then just start showing up for the snacks - how about a crit group where you only get to have the snacks if you bring work to show?). And of course, there are always challenges like Inktober, Illustration Friday, Colour Collective, and the SCBWI art prompt to get you going.

4.  What we are doing is important.

It feels silly to be making children’s books right now, but aren’t we engaged in a pursuit that is more important than ever before? Kids will always need stories, and they will need great books that will delight, entertain, educate and inspire them. They need silly, funny books as much as they need serious, weighty books. They need books that engage them, make them feel, that help them understand the world and turn them into passionate readers. And guess what? We are the people who have a hand in making those books. The world won’t benefit from any of us giving up illustration. But out there is a child who will pick up your book and that book will make a difference for them. And that, my friends, is important.

Monday, January 30, 2017

My 3 tips on focus

Disclaimer: I have a two year old and am about 8 months pregnant as I write this post. So if it comes off as a little snarky, blame the children.

1)   You are what you consume.




        How many of you can relate to this? You wake up and BAM instagram has now informed you that so and so went to a café (insert mandatory coffee picture here), that one person has made their living room identical to a Pinterest post, and last someone went out to dun dun dun…. brunch. I don’t know about you, but with all that in my head before I’ve even had a chance to drink my morning tea, I end up spending the rest of my day bogged down with thoughts like “ Maybe I should go to a café today…do something different!” or “ This living room looks NOTHING like Pinterest!” (commence frantic trolling of vintage stores and maybe later on a disastrous stint at Ikea); worst of all…."I need to go and stand in line for two hours so I can have BRUNCH!”. Rant aside, my point here is that the images you consume, frivolous or not, are heavily weighted. Without ever realizing it you might end up at Ikea, instead of at your desk working. So my first tip is to be mindful of what you allow into your mind cave.


2)   Brunch can wait!




So I’m just going to say it.  That omelet that took about two hours to get into my belly, I could have made it at home. And here’s the kicker, while I’m making small talk with the folks that convinced me to join them in the torture of waiting in line for brunch, I could have been sitting at my desk drawing. I don’t mean to say that it’s not important to spend time with friends or family, not at all.  However, how you choose to spend your time greatly changes how long it will take you to reach your goal.  So fellow makers my point is this, brunch can wait. Go and draw. 


3)   Time spent in pursuit of my goal, is always time perfectly spent.



It can be frustrating as an illustrator to find that your work isn’t quite at the level that you want it to be.  Rather than losing steam when you’ve spent hours creating something hideous (we’ve all been there), try to view that time as time perfectly spent. Look at that piece, the one that screams “ YOU FAILED! You’ll never be good at this!” and instead give yourself a pat on the back for spending your time with purpose.  Go ahead and have a good breakdown if you must, chocolate might be involved, and then get back to spending your hours purposefully.  Repaint that nightmare piece, rework that awful story, because time spent in pursuit of your goal is always time perfectly spent.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Busy Books

by Alison Farrell


The moment I introduced my son Finn to the world of Richard Scarry, we commenced a 3 year immersion into the goings-on of Busytown.  From potty training to plane rides, Scarry’s books have traveled with us through milestones and continents.  The hours we steeped in Busytown allowed me to consider why this category is special.   

Image: from Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever

The first thing I can identify is the amount of detail on each page.  Detail asks us to take time and look, and then converse about what we are seeing. While looking, we learn new words, search for repeating characters, and chuckle at the myriad of follies and vehicular misconducts that plague the town. The back and forth discussion about what we see creates a delightfully rich experience between caregiver, child, and book.

A selection of my personal Richard Scarry collection

The next thing I love is that my son can visually read these books on his own.  I believe that the ability to be independently engrossed in a book at such a young age is empowering.   Finn was able to claim ownership over his own reading, which has eventually spilled over to other books.  

Finn getting into Busytown

Last, I love that there are multiple layers to the stories.  The reader can choose to focus on the main story arc, seek-and-find characters, or labeled categories.  One can easily open to any page and dive into the book.

Over the years, Finn’s interests have expanded, but his love of this busy, slow-reading, immersive-style book has stayed the same.  The group is not clear cut and fairly reader dependent, but one thing that ties it together is detailed drawings.  This is most often found in books with elements of:


  • seek-and-find
  • categories and labels
  • step by step directions (how things are made, where things come from, etc.)
  • books about ways of life (cities, farms etc.)


Some busy books I love that exist outside of Busytown:


A few of my favorite busy books!
Bus Stops, by Taro Gomi

Mamoko, a series by Alessandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizielińska

Town and Country, by Alice and Martin Provensen

The Lost House, by B.B. Cronín

The Bear’s Song, series by Benjamin Chaud

Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, by Marianne Dubuc

In the Town All Year Round, by Rotraut Susanne Berner

Anno’s Journey, and Anno’s Counting Book, and others by Mitsumasa Anno

The Airport Book, by Lisa Brown

At the Same Moment Around the World, by Clotilde Perrin

Le Coulis Rouge, by Clotilde Perrin

Have You Seen My Dragon?  by Steve Light

The Ultimate Book of Vehicles from Around the World, by Anne-Sophie Baumann and Didier
Balicevic

Where Everyday Things Come From, by Aldren Watson

Look!  A Book!  A Zany Seek and Find Adventure series by Bob Staake

The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy, by Beatrice Alemagna

Who Needs Donuts?  By Mark Alan Stamaty

People by Peter Spier

People by Blexbolex


Do you have a favorite busy book?