Sunday, May 10, 2009

Picture Book Don'ts

Last week at work we were discussing taboo or risky content in picture books--subjects, words, or images that should raise a red flag and either be taken out, or dealt with carefully where appropriate. Some of the things that came up:

Content to be careful about including (unless the book is specifically about the subject):
-Sexual content
-Depicting parents/teachers in a negative light (silly is acceptable, but neglectful/abusive is not)
-Difficult concepts, like homelessness, that are tough to understand/grasp even as adults

taboo text:
-curse words
-"Oh my God" or similar
-"stupid," "idiot, " "retard,"etc.
-words concerning violence or death (for example, one sibling saying to the other in a fit of anger, "I'm going to kill you!")

Things to watch in the illustrations:
-potential racial indicators that could be interpreted negatively, even if unintentional. For example, a book we published a while ago featured a white chicken and a brown chicken, and one review criticized it for depicting the brown chicken as the "naughty" one.
-alcohol (we discussed whether or not it was okay to have adults or animals drinking alcohol--I would probably err on the side of caution, unless it felt absolutely necessary for some reason. What do you think?)
-safety issues--kids especially should be shown wearing helmet if on a bicycle, even if the "kid" is an animal. Where applicable, people should be wearing seat belts in cars. Watch for kids in dangerous/precarious positions, for example, a child standing on a chair on tiptoes reaching for something, etc.
-nudity (little kid "bottoms" seem to be acceptable on occasion)

This is by no means a complete list, and of course, these are not "rules"--just things that in our experience we've had some pushback from customers or accounts on. There are always exceptions.

One observation I had is that it seems that picture books have become much more careful than in the past. For example, one of my favorite picture books as a child, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, I think may be too scary/depressing to be published today. We also found that in some cases, these "rules" could be gotten around by using animals instead of people. For example, Are You My Mother? would probably be too sad and scary if it were a little human child instead of a bird.

So, what do you think? Anything to add? Anything you disagree with?


Peggy Collins said...

yes, it does seem a bit 'safe'. My last book I was asked to add some conflict - and so the boy 'loses' his dad for literally a split second, but his dad jumps out and they end up laughing and chasing each other in the snow - which is reality, kids DO like that build up, when it is resolved. But I was asked to take it out, and now my book is good and safe (out in november) but I really miss that part. I think it is a fine line - kids are not stupid and also know sometimes the world is a scary place. I would not be who I am today if I did not have monsters under my bed.

Anna Alter said...

Its so interesting how things have changed, so many of the books I read as a kid had elements on this list! I recently rediscovered a book I had nearly forgotten about that was published in the 70's- Benjamin & Tulip by Rosemary Wells. Tulip beats up Benjamin throughout the story, she is a mean bully and Benjamin's parents just blame him. The book was scary, there is no justice for Tulip, and it doesn't really resolve at the end. But I loved it, or rather was fascinated by it.

I do think that kids need art to look at sometimes that is not there to teach them a lesson, or show them an ideal world, but just reflect real life. But it is a fine line, you don't want to scare kids needlessly. I do wonder sometimes though if our very safe children's books create sheltered kids? Maybe this feeds into the self-esteem based child-rearing system we've created?

Its also interesting how different the European market for kids books is, they seem to leave in a lot of adult subject matter like death, sexuality, and nudity. I wonder how parents in those cultures treat those subjects with their kids.

Anonymous said...

And I remember when Rosemary Wells was criticized in the New York Times for using white bunny rabbits as Indians in her all animal MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE.

The woman is a menace.

yamster said...

Oh yeah, the chicken controversy. And what the reviewer failed to recognize was that BOTH chickens were naughty; it just happened that the brown chicken was the naughtier one.

Anonymous said...

Taboos like this break my heart. Maurice Sendak did wonderful stuff with the nightmarish side of childhood fantasy. The adults in Roald Dahl's stories had an over the top villainy that I always loved as a kid. I understand these constraints but I think artists of all types should be encouraged to push forward, explore different dimensions of childhood.

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation to anyone, Phyllis Root depicts a major car crash (whimsically!) in her new picture book Toot Toot Zoom! Yet no way can I imagine the scene with human characters. Interesting what you get away with when you have animals!

Still, it makes me sad to think that Sylvester might not get published today. Now THAT's depressing!

alvinaling said...

I know...I'd like to think that the great stuff would still be published regardless of content--and also, if you have the sales clout behind you, you have more freedom. And who knows, maybe things are turning around...after all, in other ways, we're taking a step forward and barriers are being broken (think AND TANGO MAKES THREE), so...we'll see.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I was amused to see that our library had colored pants on Mickey in the book In the Night Kitchen.

Anonymous said...

Are "The Stupids" the ultimate exception?

And is it OK to "hate" a thing ("I hate soup!") but not a person?

I'm always confused about when it's OK to send out a human kid alone somewhere. I thought it was fine as long as the world was not realistic, e.g., a more fanciful, fairytale setting like "Brave Irene," but recently had an editor tell that it was too scary. How do you feel about that?

Meghan McCarthy said...

A library colored the pants on Mickey? What???!!!! That's so freaking stupid. I loved that book and still do. Um... kids run around naked all the time. What is the big deal? We all have rear ends. That isn't going to change.

I'm so sick of everyone being so overly cautious in the world of children's books... meanwhile TV is getting completely out of control in the opposite direction. Sex, drugs, sex, drug, sex, drugs. Kids are exposed to all sorts of crap. And then there are the video games. But god forbid one chicken is brown and one is white or some kid floats through the air naked.


Christine Tripp said...

I agree that, for many of the adults in the position of purchasing books (Librarians, teachers, parents) all these "safe" rules exist, and more.
I do think it's very sad to underestimate children's ability to self censor, make their own smart choices and for adults to believe they MUST do it for them.
After reading "watch for kids in dangerous/precarious positions, example standing on a chair on tiptoes.." I thought of one of your own books Alvina, Peter Brown's "The Curious Garden" Liam, on the cover, is sitting at the top of a tree (granted not the highest tree in the world) but higher then a chair on tiptoe. He isn't even wearing mountain climbing gear:)
On the interiors, he is shown walking the streets of NYC, alone.
I wonder if the difference between standing on a chair and sitting on top of a tree is, one is a childs everyday life, the other something more fanciful?
I personally hate that book illustration is going toward preaching to the child (something warned against in writing) We should be allowing them to escape the adults in their lives and have some imaginary fun for at least a few minutes, by way of an outlandish, outrageous, breaking all the rules, picture book.
I do wonder if "Where the Wild Things Are" would be even published today, sigh!

erin e. kono said...

I’d like to hope the over cautiousness is a reaction to a confluence of unfortunate factors. In this economy, with these low margins, it’s understandable that publishers are afraid to take risks. The pressure institutional book buyers feel to purchase only ‘safe’ books is valid. But, what the proponents of over-careful books seem to ignore is that kids are smart. Real life is often scary, or sad, or imperfect and seeing characters experience trials or take risks they might not, can be comforting and instructional to a child. Books are meant to teach kids, not by preaching, but by example. I agree with Christine, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE would probably not be published today, nor would many other wonderful books. Thankfully they once were, and as a parent I can still buy them. The beauty, the bane of publishing is its cycles. I’m looking forward to the end of this particular episode.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I wouldn't blame the economy on this one. This cautiousness has been going on for a while now -- before the banks, etc., tanked.

I think WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE would be published today but IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN would not. It's not just the nudity in it, it's also because the book is "out there" and doesn't make a lot of sense. "Out there" books can't really be published.

Abigail said...

I find this all sad, as well. I think we underestimate what kids can handle. And perhaps librarians and teachers (understandably), and parents (less understandably) shy away from tackling the 'big' subjects, and fear books that might trigger questions from the kids. But I think books with characters whose experiences are bigger, broader, and yes, scarier, than the typical kids' experience help the kid understand the bigger world and see their own world in a new light.

Also, it seems ironic that we are so nervous about picture books, but kids are free to dive into violent and scary video games at earlier and earlier ages. And every animated movie seems to have at least one scene that causes nightmares. And even nature shows focus on the violent moments these days. So why are picture books required to be so soft and gentle?

alvinaling said...

Christine, it's interesting that you bring up CURIOUS GARDEN, because we actually did start overthinking ourselves, wondering if people would criticize it for depicting a young boy out alone in the city, and especially investigating an abandoned railway by himself. But in the end, we decided we were overthinking it all and to just go with it. And it's a somewhat fantastical world, so I think it's a little more acceptable than if it were specifically set in, say NYC.

Sometimes I feel like my hands are tied in terms of content, and it can be frustrating.

Unknown said...


I remember when we were discussing Liam on those train tracks in The Curious Garden. I think there were valid concerns on L,B's part. If you remember Peter did a few minor revisions to address the concerns. In one of those illustrations he changed an intact train track into one that had a rail missing to make it clear that the railways were no longer functioning. And as you mentioned Peter added a few small details to the art work to make the setting a sort of fantasy world which I think didn't exist in the original dummy Peter submitted to you.

I think the reality is good picture books will still continue to be published. The editor, the art director and the artist will find creative ways to avoid those taboos you mentioned if there is a marketable book at stake. I'm not convinced that a naked baby or a can of beer on a kitchen table would kill a book in an acquisition meeting if there was already a strong text on the table. As we both know those concerns usually can be addressed easily enough without compromising the artist or the story in a drastic way.


Peggy Collins said...

On another note though - an author/illustrator in our crit group just had a dummy accepted that is about a nude toddler, so things may be looking up. definitely more real than pants on mickey in the night kitchen!!

The books I remember the most were the ones that scared me... even just a little.

Christine Tripp said...

Just saw a new book all about "Tushies" and it's very cute, though I don't THINK there were any nude tushies in the mix:)

Children can't get out of the front door anymore without a parent, so probably not a lot of risk that they will end up on the railroad tracks as I used to (to see what would happen to a pennie when the train ran over it)
I think children may need escape via books more then even adults do.

Anonymous said...

"I think the reality is good picture books will still continue to be published. The editor, the art director and the artist will find creative ways to avoid those taboos you mentioned if there is a marketable book at stake."

I think these two sentences are in contradiction. One imagines a world in which books get made because they're good. The other imagines a world in which, if a book is sufficiently marketable, difficult topics can be avoided.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I"m just going on memory here but I think Peter's book works because, for example, the tree the boy is sitting on is a big puff - there aren't a bunch of individual branches and leaves to make one imagine that the boy had to climb his way to the top. that's why that works. His art lends itself to a safer world - it's not too realistic. If the art were done differently then there may have been reviewers complaining.

Christine Tripp said...

Meghan, that's true and the art itself so completely wins over the reviewers (and all adults). The tree is completely fancyful, not so much the bridges, underpasses but the art is so overwhelming at times that any taboo's or dangers could be completely unnoticed or ignored/forgiven.

Rebecca Gomez said...

We need to be considerate of our audience without being "too safe." Like another commenter mentioned, I love Roald Dahl--he really brought out some childish fears and made wonderful stories out of them. And I love the scary poems by Jack Prelutsky! Where would the literary world be (even for little ones) without the exploration of a scariness and danger?