Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Incredible Whiteness of Children's Picture Books

It’s a primary complaint I’ve heard from parents that children’s books are too simple. Parents want picture books to have greater depth of meaning and more excitement with clever and imaginative vocabulary. Children want those qualities even more. Parents sense that picture books are being dumbed-down for the masses.
     Unlike picture books, middle readers and young adult novels have taken on big issues and flown off into otherworldly fantasies with exciting story lines, interesting characters and creative language. The result is an explosion of popular and worthy books with adults becoming their primary fans while rejecting violent and over-sexualized adult fiction or abstruse contemporary literary work. 
    It is a very different scene for children. And it's been that way for decades in Canada. It's something I noticed early on.
    It wasn’t long after our librarian at Agnew H. Johnston, Mr. Woodruff, read to our grade 3 or 4 class a story about a man who made his own plane and flew it around his farmland that I turned to comic books; Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat, Spiderman and Weird Tales. Mr. Woodruff pointed out that the book he read had a gold award sticker on its cover. He said that books with gold stickers were the best children’s books in the library.
    I dutifully headed to the cubby hole shelves with all the picture books and collected a stack of gold emblemed books. One by one I read the books expectantly and soon became disillusioned. When a classmate, Allison, sat next to me and asked me what I was doing I replied with some anger and guilt, “Don’t read the books with the gold stickers. They’re no good.” 
     I had reasoned that what adults wanted us to like was different from what we actually wanted from books. I wanted books that could match the mystery and excitement of Where the Wild Things Are or the strange worlds created by Dr. Seuss. I realized years later that I hadn’t outgrown picture books: any really good children’s picture book can be equally enjoyed by an adult. And the real test of any book is longevity. Those books that I loved were also the ones that millions of other children felt were their favourites. Many books have lasted for generations while hundreds of thousands of other books continue to vanish into the ether. We kids weren’t wrong. There were commonalities in the books we liked that made them great.
    Children are smarter than we give them credit for. Often they sense what’s going on when we think they shouldn’t and do so without the words to express themselves and the ability to contrast or compare what they see with other experiences in order to describe something fully to us adults. But they know what they like. 
     And masses of amounts of white space wasn’t one of them. As a child I wanted to be a little older than I was and a little smarter than I actually was. And white space to me symbolized baby books, Dick and Jane books, books that I really disliked as a child. Books with lots of white space aren’t bad books, some are great, but as a child lots of white space on the cover told me that they were lazy books.  
    Sadly children have no one to represent them in the book industry. There are agents and promoters who work for the publishing industry who talk up the value of books. And there are “critics” who love every single damn picture book that gets published, which makes them self-appointed shills for the industry, totally unconcerned that a child and her parent has to wade through continuous stacks of lacklustre books before they can find something they truly love. 
    Why produce so many books with so much white space? Maybe the white space is a result of the illustrators choosing to avoid depth of meaning and depth of perspective in detailed backgrounds with extra characters and animals because it takes too long to create that kind of added value. And in Canada most illustrators are simply not getting paid enough to develop their work further beyond the main characters.  
     Or it might be fashion. White is in vogue. White space makes the illustrations look modern, like a gallery’s walls or a lab in a hospital. Yet lots of white also makes the books antiseptic and middle class where no one is wealthy or poor. Life as you might see it in the street or allegorized in a fantastic tale doesn’t exist. White backgrounds represent the ultimate in generic taste - a kind of egalitarian space, a left-wing utopia. Or conversely it’s a conservative place, a safer place where nothing can jump out from behind trees in the background or from around a corner of a distant pathway. Added levels of meaning might suspiciously harbour left-wing activism like environmentalism or diversity. Some people are afraid of depth and diversity or even the subjective qualities or real world allegories that spring from it.
    But why so much white space in contemporary children’s books? Backgrounds and added characters make picture books much more interesting allowing the story to have multiple meanings, greater depth, or the kind of detail that causes children and adults to return to the book again and again without getting tired of it.
     I don’t know the answer and maybe it’s not a real problem, but parents will tell you, when there’s lots of white space in a picture book… some children love to fill it in. 

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