Betsy Doesn’t Have Time for Your Nostalgia Today
I like Squirrel Nutkin. Do not get me wrong. Sure I do. I do not want to hate on your Nutkin parade. Everyone is allowed to love the children’s books they love. If Nutkin’s your thing, then wave that little wacky red squirreled tail of yours proudly. I honestly do not care.
But when you come around to my house, crapping on the state of children’s books today, that’s when the blood begins to boil. And I’m not just talking about this commenter alone. I’m talking about any adult who starts publicly mourning the current state of children’s literature in 2019.
So what, precisely, is it that you wish was still around?
Is it the quality of the language? Or the quality of the art?
Are you seriously under the impression that picture books today cannot match Beatrix Potter’s artistic and literary prowess? Perhaps you are drawn to her use of watercolors. If so, may I be so bold as to introduce you to the Fan brothers? The Antlered Ship, released in 2017 taps into that woodland feel. Or you might like The Tea Party in the Woods by Akiko Miyakoshi or this year’s King Mouse by Cary Fagan. All of these, and many others, channel that specific feel of woodland creatures wearing the trappings of humans, making very human mistakes.
But let’s get beyond this specific complaint. I’ve heard lots of adults make similar comments over the years, from a variety of different backgrounds. So allow me now to address their concerns. What, I ask, makes you think children’s books today don’t cut it?
Is it the “safe” factor, where issues of the day didn’t make it onto the page?
You’ll get this one whenever a children’s book speaks to a specific topical issue. People will say that children’s books are getting too messagey. And granted, there are a LOT of didactic children’s books out there that are boring as all get out and will whap you over the head with their morals. But guess what? That has ALWAYS been the case, baby. Little Goody Two-Shoes isn’t just a phrase, y’know. What’s extraordinary is when an author of a picture book has something they want to convey and creates a truly amazing work of art, alongside the message. 2019 examples include, but are by no means limited to:
- When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff –
- You Are Light by Aaron Becker
- Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour, ill. Daniel Egnéus
- Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell, ill. Ana Ramírez González
- My Footprints by Bao Phi, ill. Basia Tran
- Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen
- Rocket Says Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, ill. Dapo Adeola
Shall I go on? Because you know that I could.
Is it that children’s books today don’t have enough positive messages?
Is it that they just don’t produce long picture books that exceed 32 pages anymore?
Sure they do. Mind you, they don’t make as many of them these days, that I will grant. But that’s why the good Lord created independent publishers and translations. Take this year’s The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam, illustrated by Victoria Semykina. Clocking in at a whopping 64 pages, this takes a little child’s tale of different kinds of boats and turns it into a quest narrative. There are other books like this out there. Stories with extended plots and storylines (like Wild Honey from the Moon by Kenneth Kraegel, perhaps?). You may just have to ask your local children’s librarian what they are.
Is it the fact that picture books just don’t take “risks” anymore?
This is a complaint that Maurice Sendak apparently used to bring up. That children’s literature had gotten too “safe” somehow. And sure, when you have five gigantic publishers that just want to make a buck, they’re going to try to iron out all the wrinkles that make a story interesting. But remember what I said just a second ago about independent publishers and imports from other countries? Some of the books I’ve read recently aren’t afraid to upset expectations. There’s the end of the new Helen Oxenbury illustrated edition of Beatrix Potter’s Little Red Riding Hood (you seriously won’t see it coming). There was also the devastating The Last Leopard by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated Rong Li. Do you like it when the protagonist gets eaten? Take a gander at Hungry Jim by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, or Duckworth the Difficult Child by Michael Sussman, illustrated by Júlia Sardà. Maybe you mean stories that don’t always end happily, like Mango Moon by Diane de Anda, illustrated Sue Cornelison. Or if it’s just something weird you seek, try The Ear by Piret Raud.
And hey, even a big publisher will give something a chance if it does a good enough job. Have you seen Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe? Just saying . . .
Is it all the comics? Are you worried that that’s not “real reading”?
I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. If you can sit down and read The New Kid by Jerry Craft, Queen of the Sea by Dylan Merconis, and, say, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang and then look me in the eye and tell me that those three are not classic works of literature then maybe there’s something more here at work than a mere aversion to the form.
Is it the fact that not everyone’s white anymore?
Admit it. When people get all gaga over “classic” children’s books, sometimes that’s just code for “white” children’s books. When I do my podcast with my sister (Fuse 8 n’ Kate) I work long and hard trying to find a variety of “classic” picture books that aren’t just white white white. And remember that in the past there were books like Perez Y Martina, The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, Tell Me a Mitzi, Stevie, Big Red Lollipop, and more. The books were out there. They just didn’t get a lot of press help from their publishers.
Plus, it’s not like we don’t have a lot further to go in the representation department these days. But pining for less representation, even if you won’t admit that that’s what you’re doing, is pitiful.
Because in the end, folks, here is what you need to do when you don’t see the kind of children’s book you want to. You find an expert. Someone who knows the new books coming out very well. Say, a children’s librarian. And you tell them what it is you want. And they will help you. They will find you those books. Lots of them. And you will be surprised. And you will want to know why they aren’t better known. And the answer is that there are SO MANY books for kids out today that there is no efficient way of keeping track of them all. And just because a Barnes & Noble is selling certain kinds of books, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole BUNCH out there that you’re not seeing.
So no. I’ve no patience with your nostalgia today. You are more than welcome to enjoy the past. Just don’t go about talking trash about the present in comparison.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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