This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on December 2, 2016
Aiden Chambers, in his immensely influential critique of children’s reading, The Reluctant Reader, was able to write convincingly about “the commercial impotence of the publisher and bookseller” (Chambers, 1969, p. 19). Although Chambers goes on to discuss the popularity of teen magazines, he remains convinced that when it comes to marketing fiction to teen readers, booksellers are at a loss to know how to make books appealing and desirable.
That was in 1969. In 2002, Jack Zipes made an equally foreboding but almost diametrically opposed claim: far from being impotent, booksellers and publishers, he suggests, are so skilled at making books desirable that they are using these products as a means of “socializing” and “homogenizing” American children into ideal consumers and Capitalist machine-cogs (Zipes, 2002, pp. 1-13). Zipes argues convincingly that the publishing industry has become simply one more facet of a multi-industry leviathan in which food, entertainment, education, politics, and every other aspect of life, are carefully controlled and interrelated commodities. This post builds on the perspectives of both Chambers and Zipes to suggest that much of what is popularly available to the teen reader represents a deliberate acculturation of young people as consumers and dependents of social media culture.
To illustrate this idea, I want to discuss a particular young adult novel which I chose not to review for The Children’s Book Review this month: Double Eclipse, the second book in the Summer on East End series by Melissa de la Cruz. The series is predicated on the idea that Norse Gods became accidentally trapped on Earth when the pathway to Valhalla was destroyed; the heroines of the series are Mardi and Molly, goddesses born on earth to the tempestuous god of thunder, Thor. This is fantastic material – the Norse legends are full of rousing stories, complex characters, and fantastical creatures and settings. Sadly, the book does little with this wonderful source material, and after reading only thirty pages or so, I was forced to make a choice between putting it down or throwing it out of the window.
The theme of this blog at the moment is multiculturalism, and this post is very much a diatribe against its opposite: acculturation. This case, that acculturation stemmed from the interweaving within Double Eclipse of consumer culture and digital technology. Early on in the novel (it had to be early on because I did, in the end, throw the book out of the window), joint protagonists Mardi and Molly learn that their long-lost mother is also Molly’s favorite sport’s hero. This should have been a moment filled with Pathos and deep character exploration. Instead, it sees the two girls glued alternatively to the television set and their smart phones, filtering the emotions and complexity of this key plot event through layers of trite ‘text-speak’ as the girls alternate between fending off the conventionally-surprised responses of friends and family via Twitter and Facebook, and attempting to discuss this life-altering moment via text-message. Not even the imminent arrival of the girls’ father, Thor, and his attack by a giant supernatural whale manages to prise the girls from the screens where they dilute the exploration of familial tensions by worrying about clothing, boys, and hairstyles Googled on their smart-phones as they wait.
The message is as insidious as it is nauseating: not only does this depiction equate technology with success, beauty, wealth, and popularity, selling a ‘brand’ of lifestyle to the targeted teenaged female audience; it also suggests more subtly that even the most complex and challenging situations can be rendered ‘safe’ through the distancing of social media. After all, these scenes suggest, why feel alone and afraid when your huge circle of friends and followers can reduce your dilemma to an emoticon and a shopping spree?
Of course, the situation is more complex than this for most readers: it is unlikely that every reader is a girl, nor is it likely that every reader invests wholesale in this pretty commodity package. There are always readers who read against the text, but the danger with this type of fictional marketing is that it targets those reluctant readers who are most vulnerable: the readers who are at the cusp of giving up on reading altogether, and who desperately need to be shown the value of meaningful engagement. With this in mind, what is troubling is the barely-disguised intent to use one commodity as a means of selling another, packing the whole lot together in a one-size-fits-all brand of literature which exploits the vulnerability of this type of reader. Teen books such as these flood the market and crowd both the online and in-store shelves. They offer a monotonous depiction of what it is to be young, female, and even human. What they do not offer is a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the creative and expansive ways in which young people can build a multiplicity of cultures using digital and social media. Both Chambers and Zipes were right: by succumbing to the allure of these easy-to-produce and easy-to-swallow novels, publishers are showing themselves powerless to sell a more realist message as they choose the easy option of acculturating rather than educating young people.
So, how does this relate to multiculturalism? Well, the thing about acculturation is that it takes the whole gamut of wonderfully rich and diverse culture available to young people – such as the Norse history and culture that underpins the mythology on which Double Eclipse is built – and waters it down into a mere vehicle for a standardized culture of American consumerism. I, for one, find this depressing at best.
Luckily, this is not the whole literary picture. There are plenty of books available by talented new writers who do engage critically and creatively with the possibilities provided by social and digital media culture. However, unless parents, educators, and other informed readers bring them to the forefront of desirability and popularity, it is unlikely that their message will win out against the drive to turn young women into screen-junkie, attention-seeking, fashion-addict consumers. Let’s not let this happen, hey?
Chambers, Aiden (1969). The Reluctant Reader. New York: Pergamon Press Ltd.
De la Cruz, Melissa (2016). Summer on East End: Double Eclipse. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Zipes, Jack (2002). Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on November 18, 2016
This blog appeared simultaneously on Karen Sands-O’Connor’s blog, https://theracetoread.wordpress.com/. Professor Sands-O’Connor teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and just completed a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book and Newcastle University. Her book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2017.
When my London philosopher friend, Darren Chetty, asked me to write an article for the Times Educational Supplement with him, I didn’t hesitate to do it. First, because I admire Darren’s work; he gets into the schools and talks to kids about issues of ‘race’ and racism, providing not only a venue for their discussions but a model for their teachers (you can find discussions of his work in “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism” as well as in “‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,’” his chapter in Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant). Second, I wanted to do it because the TES is putting out really thoughtful pieces right now about education in an increasingly restrictive world (restricted by testing and assessment, worries over immigration, lack of funding, among other things). But mostly, I wanted to help because when people find out I research Black British literature for children, their first question is, “Oh, is there much of that out there?”
One of the elements that the TES wanted in the article was a “diverse” book list, and they were willing to let me do it my way. That meant, for me, a list of books with main characters who were British and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic—I’m not hugely fond of acronyms that “other” but it is the one that it is currently in greatest use in Britain), written and/or illustrated (at least one or the other, and preferably both) by BAME authors and artists. The reason for this is simple: if Britons know any book with a BAME main character, it is likely to have been written or drawn by a white author or illustrator. The most popular “diverse” books over the past half-century, and the ones that have stayed in print, have been written by people outside of the community that they are writing about. In some cases, such as Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft or Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, the Black British main character is actually based on a real white child. Publishers want books that will appeal to white readers—because, as in the United States, white readers are in the majority. But making the white reader comfortable with a BAME character often means erasing much of what the white reader would find unfamiliar or strange. It often means leaving institutional racism and the status quo unchallenged, giving preference to assimilation, making happy endings that reassure white readers. It also sets up a problematic cycle, particularly in children’s literature, where most of the books are purchased by adults rather than the intended child readers. Book buyers purchase books that make them comfortable; child readers never see the books that might challenge the status quo or better represent BAME communities; these challenging books then go out of print because publishers say that they aren’t viable and/or that BAME children “don’t read” or don’t want BAME books. I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians will find Amazing Grace, if they haven’t already. But I wanted, with my list, to give them something they might not find.
But it wasn’t necessarily easy for me to find those books either. I’m fairly familiar with children’s authors who write about Afro-Caribbean characters; it’s my main field of research. The TES, however, wanted books that represented multiple BAME communities. I had to read a lot, look at multiple blogs and websites, find out about the authors and illustrators—and then find books of theirs that were still in print. Although I double-checked books against more than one bookstore/website, including the fantastic Letterbox Library and independent publishers’ websites such as Firetree Books and Hope Road Publishing, my friends at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book have already (less than two months after the appearance of the list) tried ordering the books and have found some unavailable. And so far, none of the publishers who let really good classic BAME texts go out of print have contacted me to say that they made a mistake in doing so and have set up a print run for any of the “Bring Back into Print” texts I recommended (okay, maybe this was just a fantasy of mine—but the TES was willing to endorse it!). I hope that this does not put off people—teachers, librarians, parents—who truly want to represent the world through books for their children. Because to be fair, my list is just one of many that have been written over the years. It is up to all of us to keep the pressure on the publishing and book industry to ensure that these books stay in print and that more books are published. That means buying them, promoting them, reading them ourselves. It is an effort, but we who care about books and children must make the effort. As Darren and I say in our article, “when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play—in the classroom, in books and in Britain’s literary heritage.”
You can read our article, “Why Diversity Should Start at Story Time,” in the TES from September 30, 2016. You can download a free poster with my list of 50 diverse titles from the TES at their website, https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on November 4, 2016.
I recently picked up a copy of The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, in the $1 sale bin at my local library. It was in pristine condition, and looked like it had never been read. It was only after several happy weeks of reading it to my toddler, that I remembered why it might have found its way into that discard pile, in that condition. The answer can be found in Herbert Kohl’s seminal critique of children’s literature entitled Should We Burn Babar?
When considering questions of multiculturalism, it is always problematic evaluating the so-called “classics” of children’s literature: beloved they may be by many generations of parents and grandparents, but there is no escaping the fact that many of them reflect attitudes towards race, culture, and power that are no longer considered acceptable in contemporary society. Even more problematic is the fact that these attitudes are rarely stated baldly in such texts; instead, they are insinuated or lie just beneath the surface in the assumptions and implicit meanings constructed by the author and imposed upon the unwary reader. Babar is no exception.
The picture book, first published in 1933, tells the story of a young elephant who drifts into Paris after his mother is unceremoniously killed by a nameless and faceless hunter. In the city, Babar meets a “very Rich Old Lady” (de Brunhoff 11) who gives him everything he wants, including fancy clothes, education, and a car. Richer, better-educated, and more civilized, Babar eventually returns to the jungle to become King of the Elephants.
Ostensibly a simple story about loss, recovery, and adventure, Kohl identifies troubling undercurrents within the text of Babar: “In Babar the reader learns that there are different classes of people and the Rich Lady is of the better (that is richer) class and that elephants are not as good as people, but might be if they imitate people” (Kohl 7). This view coincides with Beverley Naidoo’s assertion that “power is clearly also a function of features such as class, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness, as well as ‘race’” (Naidoo 14): in other words, Babar’s markers of sophistication describe a hierarchy of imperialist values. That contemporary readers and critics of these popular children’s picture books are increasingly uncomfortable about the images of imperialism they contain is evident: in an article written for the New Yorker in 2008, for example, Adam Gopnik discusses the way that the books have become the center of “a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda” (Gopnik, 2008, n.p.). He also cannot resist the temptation to defend Babar from the accusation of inappropriateness, however, writing that “Part of the joke is in the way the obvious animalness of the protagonist makes evident the absurdity of the human behavior depicted” (Gopkik, 2008, n.p.). For Gopnik, therefore, the tale is not merely a straightforward representation of power relations, but instead a complex critique of the human impulse to create hierarchies of behavior and status.
Do children really think like this? How harmful, really, can these themes be when buried within a simple narrative? The search for the answer to this complicated question about textual interpretation raises another question: how do children, with no theoretical understanding of race, culture, and power, understand and respond to these themes and ideas? Reader-response theory is complex, and has yet to unravel a definitive answer to this question. An indication, however, can be found in cognitive science. Published in 2012, the New York Times article “Your Brain on Fiction” describes how researchers in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto have discovered that “The brain … does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life” (Paul, 2012, n.p.), leading them to speculate that “novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” (Paul, 2012, n.p.). Even more troubling is their conclusion that “the brain … treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters” (Paul, 2012, n.p.). Particularly for children, then, Babar – whether it does so deliberately or not – involves readers in the negotiation of power, status, wealth, and relationship that Babar himself experiences.
So, is the presentation of colonialism which is so implicitly present in Barbar unethical or merely distasteful? Looking back at the text, my gut feeling is that this simple dichotomy is inappropriate. While troubling themes are clearly present, it should also be acknowledged that those same themes are a part of the continuing reality of racism and imperialism in American culture. In other words, Barbar does represent the truth of many children’s experiences with racial inequality in modern society, including their need to negotiate the often unfair and unacknowledged inequalities of power and status that remain a feature of contemporary society. What it comes down to, in my opinion, is therefore perspective: from what viewpoint do children enter into this story? As reader response critic Stanley Fish so famously theorized, that perspective is not inherent in the text, but is built by the reader and – in this case – the teacher/parent who mediates the text with the child. In discussing the important role that children’s literature can play in developing multicultural awareness, critics have ascribed to texts the “power to expand [children’s] worldviews, creating opportunities for understanding” (Gopalakrishnan and Persiani-Becker, 2011, p. 10) and the promotion of “basic values such as: honesty, respect, care for others, responsibility, and respecting the rights of others” (Suh and Samuel, 2011, p. 2). In view of these powers, it is ultimately the responsibility of those who mediate such texts to children to ensure that they occupy the most beneficial reader perspective available, experiencing the text not from the viewpoint of privileged power, but instead empathizing with Barbar’s struggles and compromises. When I next sit down to read Barbar with my son, we are going to have a long talk about violence and power. And probably, because he’s three, cookies.
De Brunhoff, Jean (1961). The Story of Barbar, the Little Elephant. Trans. Merle S. Haas. New York: Random House.
Gopalakrishnan, A., and Persiani-Becker, K. (2011). Multicultural Children’s Literature: A Critical Issues Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Gopnik, A. (2008). “Freeing the Elephants: What Barbar Brought.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/22/freeing-the-elephants.
Kohl, Herbert R. (1995). Should we Burn Barbar?: Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories. New York: The New Press.
Naidoo, Beverley. (1992). Through Whose Eyes? Exploring Racism: Reader, Text and Context. London: Trentham Books.
Paul, Annie Murphy. "Your Brain on Fiction." The New York Times. 17 Mar. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=0.
Suh, B. K., & Samuel, F. A. (2011). “The value of multiculturalism in a global village: In the context of teaching children's literature.” New England Reading Association Journal, 47(1), 1-10.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.