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.


  1. THANK YOU for this, K-Fai Steele and everyone who contributed! I loved this thoughtful and well-written reflection on so many relevant questions. It's a topic I haven't seen publicly addressed too much, probably for the reasons you discussed, but I know it's on so many minds. I hope the conversation continues!

  2. There is so much thought-provoking wisdom here. My conversation with K-Fai was incredibly helpful to me as I realized where I needed to clarify my own thoughts and focus new learning efforts.

  3. Great post K-Fai. I've been floundering with all that is going on. I absolutely needed to read this.

  4. There's a lot to think about here. I believe an "Us vs. Them" mentality is not helpful at all -- in deciding on immigration, in deciding on who voted for whom and therefore who more righteous, and in pulling our country back together.
    I think we should emphasize what we agree on: Love your neighbor as yourself; Write what you know or research thoroughly and get it vetted by experts; Protect our constitution and the freedoms it affords us.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I'm struggling with the “dilemma.” Also I'm struggling to balance reading political articles, reading picture books and writing.

  6. FABULOUS post - and so thoroughly done. Thank you for your hard work putting this together.

  7. Thanks -- belatedly -- for taking so much time to pull this post together. Lots of great food for thought...