An Academic’s Adventures in Children’s Publishing
For most people, I suspect, anything to do with the writing or distribution of texts for children is simply infantile, something pursued by inadequately socialized people who never got around to growing up. Millie Upton, the character played by Nancy Robertson in the CBC situation comedy Hiccups is a representative example.
Millie is, as Robertson suggests, childlike in an adorable but, finally, dismissible way. As a childish adult, she comes across as kind of wacky–fun to laugh at from a safe distance, maybe, but you wouldn’t want to actually have her waiting on your table or sitting in the seat next to you on a long airplane trip. Or representing you in a lawsuit. She is most essentially, childish, that is, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, not only, “1. Of, belonging, or proper to a child or to childhood; childlike; infantile, juvenile,” but also, “2. Exhibiting unduly the characteristics of childhood; not befitting mature age; puerile, silly.” Children’s literature is also, for most people, puerile and silly–as silly as Milly Upton’s own Grumpaloos,who engage in conflict with giant bananas and get lost in their own neighbourhood across the street from their house.
It’s hard for most of us to imagine that people in the business of producing texts like this for children might not be mere harmless wingnuts, that publishers for children might need to be possessed of some sort of business smarts or a few killer instincts, or that writers for children might necessarily need to be aware of the market for their writing.
And yet they do. In my experience, people who pursue careers in the children’s book biz aren’t childish. They are rarely silly. And while children’s writers and children’s book editors have traditionally claimed a kind of nobility for their work as a high-minded artistic and educational pursuit dedicated to addressing and protecting the best interests of young readers and the future of civilization, I have some suspicions about how genuinely or completely noble they ever actually are. At heart, the production of texts for children is a business, an economic activity pursued primarily in the hope of making money for the shareholders (and above all, of course, oneself) and, as I’ll describe in more detail later, an activity increasingly tied to the world economy and the fates of powerful multinational corporations–a site and source of corporate power. The corporate world isn’t generally a place in which childlike innocence triumphs, or in which nobility usually has much force or presence, or in which ethical principles or educational ideals are likely to inflate the bottom line. Children’s publishing is not necessarily an innocent or honourable activity.
That is important. Knowing the ways in which this business operates as a business can help us to understand a lot about the products it produces. In particular, knowledge of how the “children” imagined as readers both by people in the publishing business and by the consumers of their products help to shape both specific books and what gets published generally can offer valuable insights into currently powerfully ideas about what childhood is–maps for ways of being young that may well help to create the world they purport to describe in the process of describing it. That these versions of childhood emerge from a business environment focussed on enriching itself might particularly suggest the extent to which they represent and encourage young people to be happily self-interested consumers. For after all, how likely is it that a business inevitably focussed primarily on getting as many people as possible to buy its products would encourage self-denial or satisfaction with what one already has or concern for the social and environmental dangers of too much consumption in its potential customers? Once more, nobility doesn’t get you a bonus or buy you a Mercedes.
In what follows, I’m going to talk about my own experience as an already established academic specialist in children’s literature coming anew to the business of writing a book for children and then having it published–and specifically, about how my experience of becoming a published writer quite seriously changed my understanding of my academic speciality, and revealed aspects of the texts I was reading and studying I had until then been completely unaware of. This is a story of ignorance and the opening of eyes. I might not ever have been anywhere near as infantile as Millie Upton–but I was once almost as innocent.
I came to the study of children’s literature by a fairly unusual path. When I began it, I had never been a teacher or a children’s librarian–never even studied children’s literature as a course in an Education or Information Science program. Nor did I yet have any children of my own, or much access to the children of friends or relatives. When I agreed to teach my first course in children’s literature, then, my background for understanding it had far more to do with literature than it did with children. I read Peter Rabbit and Charlotte’s Web not in the context of changing diapers and saying no to another ice cream, not in the context of knowledge of Piaget’s stage of development or concerns about collection development and library circulation, but in terms of how these texts were like and unlike the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson. And in that context, I found myself being most interested in how much fun children’s literature could be.
As a result, my questions about these texts were about what literary qualities they possessed and what pleasure they offered.
And being incredibly ingenuous and more than a little self-centred–and being a professor of literature who liked his subject–I found myself thinking about child readers exclusively in terms of how they, too, might get something like the same kind of pleasure I was experiencing from the texts I enjoyed.
I was thinking about how young readers might laugh at funny poems, or be enthralled by the imaginativeness of fantastic events, or experience the aesthetic pleasure of beautiful or witty writing, or enjoy thinking about the situations in the stories in terms of what they might reveal of the lives of other people or the meanings of their own lives. In other words, I took it for granted that children might read literature for the same reasons adults like myself did.
Furthermore, I was beginning to have some experiences that seemed to confirm that. As I began to prepare to teach my first children’s literature course, my first child was born, and I seized on the opportunity to test my developing theories about children and books. I started telling fairy tales and reciting poems and reading stories and poems to Josh long before he could talk.
and I continued to do so through the rest of his childhood and those of his younger brother and sister.
And lo and behold: my children seemed to enjoy the same kind of careful looking at complex pictures as I did and the same kind of laughing at funny stories as I did. And they liked repeating intricate rhymes as I did.
But as I began to teach my first course, I learned how unusual my approach to children’s literature was. Almost all of my students–including but not exclusively the ones enrolled in the Faculty of Education and planning to be teachers– shared an entirely different way of thinking about it. Furthermore, I soon discovered that their way of thinking about it was shared by just about everyone else on the face of the globe outside of English departments–librarians and teachers I met, other parents I talked to, even a lot of children. This almost universally-held view of how to think about children’s literature had nothing to do with the potential pleasure the texts might offer. Or, to be more accurate, it did, sort of–my students and others were happy if a book seemed to be fun, but they tended to understood the pleasure as a sort of useful trick played on children to get them interested in other more important matters: matters like things to learn. Especially things about themselves. Especially about their behaviour and their positive self-images, which apparently just about always needed bolstering. For my students, most significantly, the pleasure offered by literature was the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down. And there was always medicine, in every story and poem, one hundred percent of the time. The purpose of children’s literature was not entertainment. It was propaganda.
Most people usually think it is just that: propaganda.
As two groups of sort-of-famous people on the TV show Celebrity Apprentice cope with the assignment of producing a children’s book, their first and really only concern is, what will its moral be? What will it teach? Will their book be about acceptance? Diversity, Tolerance? Some of them worry that those words and ideas are too big for four- and five-year-olds, some that maybe they should have an idea for a story before they establish a theme. Some campaign for teaching children sign language. But finally a commitment to preaching diversity wins the day.
As these sort-of celebrities, so my students. Upon coming upon any text for children, they found it almost impossible not to think primarily about what it might be teaching–and then, make judgments about its value on the basis of their own perception of the educational content. Thus, Dr. Seuss’s book about Horton, an elephant who hatches an egg, was not good because it had an imaginative situation and funny rhymes.
It was good because it encouraged children to believe in their potential–and have positive self-images.
But Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was bad because it taught children to disrespect their parents or, alternately, to accept their parents’ right to repress them–and thus damage their self-images.
And “Little Red Riding Hood” was good because it warned of the dangers of trusting strangers, or bad because it encouraged children to think of wolves as evil, and thus criminalized a relatively harmless and endangered species.
What the message was didn’t really matter: the important thing was that there was one, and the extent to which the adult finding it either approved or disapproved of it. Even children I discussed books with told me that the books were good because they taught them that it’s bad to bully other people,
or bad because they showed characters enjoying hamburgers and that’s eating too high on the food chain.
After I complained about all this in class one day, a student submitted a book review agreeing with me about how important it is for children to read for pleasure and have books that engage their sense of humour, and informed me that the book she was reviewing was an excellent book for children because it was funny, and so the humour in it would help young readers to develop their sense of humour. It wasn’t good because it made them laugh. It was good because making them laugh was apparently teaching them how to laugh.
Nor was that the only way students found ways of making everything educational. Above all, reading books was a good thing because it taught children how to read. On the other hand, nobody every seemed to think that learning how to read was a good thing because it allowed you to read books.
Perhaps that was because they didn’t seem to be all that sure that reading books was a good thing for children to be doing. They liked the idea of it, of course. In theory. Reading is educational. And noble. And good for your self-image, not to mention your future earning power. But when it came to any particular book, my students’ first concern was for looking for aspects of it that might make it a bad idea to share it with children. I soon came to realize that my students and all the other parent’s groups and librarians that soon began to ask me to talk with them about children’s books weren’t very interested in finding out what books might be pleasurable or interesting for children to read. Their main concern was the opposite of that: figuring out what books children should not Read. They were acting like police officers, for the good of the children in their care.
These adults had a large arsenal of reasons for deciding not to share a book with children. The language in it was too hard or too complicated–“diversity” is too long a word, right? Or the sentences were too long or the vocabulary too complicated. Or there were references to ideas or activities children did not know about, or perhaps, ought not to know about, like Nazis or sex. Or there was sexism or racism or ageism–or meat eating or gay parents or an absence of gay parents or nasty wolves or celebrations of Christmas or other faith-based events. Or there were scary villains, or scary violence, or the scariness of sick puppies and absent mothers, or a huge range of other things bound to give children nightmares. Adults with these sorts of concerns tended to approach any new children’s book with deep suspicion, something like a police dog sniffing around an airport baggage carrel for illegal substances. Only after carefully considering all the ways in which a book might be unacceptable would they then go on grudgingly to consider what might be good about it, and how it might affect its reader’s self-image.
In assuming that their main role as adults in relation to children’s reading was an act of policing, my students weren’t doing anything unusual. Children’s literature’s existence as a separate kind of writing is in itself a kind of policing. As Philippe Ariès suggests In Centuries of Childhood, children’s literature had its beginnings “towards the end of the sixteenth century” when “the idea originated of providing expurgated editions of the classics for the use of children” (109). Providing a safely expurgated space–keeping out what is un-childlike, keeping children’s minds in a safely bounded environment of limited access to knowledge—has been the major function of children’s literature ever since. It is fun, yes–but in being explicitly for children, the fun clearly announces itself as being less dangerous than the fun available in texts for adults. Even so, most of us tend to be suspicious of it anyway. There’s an excellent possibility that self-indulgent writers and publishers don’t share enough of our own keen sense of what’s dangerous and what needs to be taught. We have a duty to do more careful sniffing out of the dangers in existing texts on our own.
As I’ve said, to begin with, much of this surprised me. But I soon became used to it, and began to think of ways of addressing it. My first published articles about children’s literature simply focussed on providing the kind of close readings of texts I’d learned to perform in my graduate studies on texts of adult literature.
I wrote about “what makes a fairy tale good” without once referring to what it taught or its effect on anyone’s self-image; indeed, I concluded that fairy tales were good for children exactly because they mirrored a childlike lack of knowledge and invited children to enjoy not being educated: “If a child’s view of the world is always shifting in response to new, strange things,” I said, “then he will find the world described in fairy tales very satisfying indeed; particularly when fairy tales insist by their very lack of astonishment that acceptance is possible, and that being shocked by experience and not understanding it can be enjoyable” (107).
But as I learned more about how eccentric my interest in the literary pleasures of children’s literature was, the focus of my writing shifted, and I began to address what I was now seeing as the main problem preventing adults from coming to understand, enjoy and pass on good writing for children. I needed to persuade them to stop worrying so much about the propaganda before I could get them to think about the fun.
So in an article called “How Typical Children Read Typical Books,” I explored the possibility that assuming children’s books should act primarily as propaganda might have a negative and limiting effect on how children read and respond:
When Fuzzy Fred or Fuzzy Harold or Fuzzy Matilda learns, through bitter and comical experience, that good little animals should trust their mothers and stay safely at home, the children who read about them have no choice but to put themselves in the position of Fuzzy Fred or Fuzzy Harold or Fuzzy Matilda. Given my personal experience of children, I doubt that such stories actually teach good behaviour; but they do seem to persuade children that all stories actually are or ought to be about themselves, and that reading is primarily a matter of self-recognition.
And in “Teaching Children’s Literature: An Intellectual Snob Confronts Some Generalizers,” I tried to understand how my enjoyment of reading and discussing literature might have led one of my students to conclude in her course evaluation that “The professor’s attitude was one of an ‘intellectual snob,” and described how I had begun to confront head-on my students’ assumptions about how children read or ought to read and the ways in which those assumptions were limiting their perceptions of the texts of children’s literature they interacted with.
I described how “I spend much of my time as a teacher of children’s literature trying to get my students past their generalizations about children and into a real engagement with the literature we study.” When my friend Jill May and I began to think about writing a textbook for children’s literature courses, we decided on the title The Pleasures of Children’s Literature as part of the same endeavour of emphasizing pleasure over propaganda, and after Jill had to leave the project, the first edition of the book I produced significantly featured a discussion about generalized assumptions about children and how they read, and why such assumptions are counter-productive.
And then I wrote a children’s novel.
I did it because I thought it would be fun–and it was. I didn’t start with a moral. I didn’t have a single thought about diversity or American Sign Language. I didn’t even consider in any conscious way the age of the young people I might be writing for. For professional reasons, I had been reading Katharine Briggs’s descriptions in her Encyclopedia of Fairies of a wide range of fascinatingly weird creatures who appear in British folklore, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to think about what would happen if a contemporary child in my own city of Winnipeg had to deal with these creatures–that it might lead to a book like the children’s novels I enjoyed reading myself and that I knew gave pleasure to many young people.
And perhaps it did. At least the good people at Groundwood seemed to think it might, and after a lot of editing and rewriting, agreed to publish the book. The Same Place but Differentfirst came out in 1993.
Until a few weeks before its publication date, my new experience as a writer had no effect on my thinking about writing or children. It seemed that the assumptions I already had in place about what made for good writing for young people had been sound, and that my process of trying to write a book, not for the real children i knew or the generalized children I might imagine, but in terms of trying to capture in my own way the qualities of books by others that I admired, had been a wise choice.
But then I had a phone call from my editor at Groundwood.
The marketing people had been talking about my book, she told me, and it seemed I had a choice to make–the editor was leaving it up to me. I could leave the book as it was–but as it was, it had too much bad language to be published as a book for younger children; it would have to be identified as being for the young adult market. Or I could get rid of some of the offensive “damns”–for that was the problem, too many damns and my character saying at one point that he was pissed off about something. Without the “damns” and the “pissing off,” the book could be published as a novel for younger children—and, the editor, assured me, have a chance of selling at least five times as many copies. If the “damns” and being p.o’d were essential to my conception of the character, however, then so be it; if not, I might be thinking about which particular Mercedes I would choose. She gave me a day to think about it.
Well, I was astonished–and more than a little P.O.d. My character was definitely not the kind of boy who never used bad language. And the children I knew, even the younger ones, lived in a world where words far more offensive were to be heard everywhere–including their school playgrounds, and out of the mouths of babes and of parents in the company of babes. Had I no obligation to provide a realistic picture of the place I was describing?
No, my friend the children’s novelist Carol Matas assured me when I consulted with her, I definitely did not. As Carol understood it, you might sneak one or two contentious words into a children’s novel, but more than two “damns” over the course of an entire novel made it Young Adult. And being pissed off was simply out of the question.
So I thought about it, and I made my choice–a choice that might well have led to the decidedly unspectacular financial course of my career as a novelist for young people ever since, and my current and ongoing lack of a Mercedes. The “damns” and “pissed offs” stayed in. And the sales stayed small.
What I was beginning to learn has since become key to my understanding of and approach to children’s literature in my academic work concerning it. No matter what other claims editors and publishers may make (and even actually believe in), children’s books are not produced with questions of literary excellence or entertainment value as key operative concerns. Publishers and editors might prefer to publish books they see as having literary merit, and might even occasionally still do so–but a book’s literary merit is more or less incidental to the real reasons for publishing it. Nor, far too often, are the books produced in terms of their author’s and editor’s own personal understanding of what does work for children, what does engage them and give them pleasure. There’s a simple reason for that, I was beginning to realize: children’s don’t buy books. Adults–parents, teachers, librarians–buy their books for them. So what really matters is not what children really are or what professionals in the children’s book biz think they are. What matters is what those adult purchasers think children are–or ought to be. Writers and editors and publishers who achieve success do so because they consciously (or sometimes, unconsciously) produce books that play into the assumptions about children and what they ought to read that are held most commonly and most powerfully by the adults who buy children’s books. In other words: if children’s books are to be successful, they need to satisfy the childhood police. They need to conform to the same ideas about safety and propaganda my students and so many others take for granted Meatloaf and the other celebrities are right: we need to start with a moral and celebrate diversity.
And a little instruction in American Sign Language can’t hurt.
And we can’t be pissed off. The parents and teachers of the children who use the children’s sections of school and public libraries take it for granted that the books they find there will not contain bad language, or a range of other things these adults personally do not approve of. So even librarians and teachers aware of the extent to which children already use such language and hear it from adults, including their own parents, will be upset to discover them in books they plan to include in their collections. Children’s book collections are not meant to mirror the reality of children’s lives: they exist in order to represent more sanitized versions of reality, and to teach children how to be better than they already are and become appropriate residents of that clean and safe and supposedly more utopian world.
Back in the early nineties, Groundwood could take a chance on The Same Place But Different simply because the editors liked it themselves, and hoped they might find a market for it; indeed, Groundwood, a publisher devoted to producing distinctive and unusual texts of literary fiction for children, could prosper or even exist at all. And a little later, an editor at Simon and Schuster could purchase my novel for the American market mostly because he liked it, too–although I learned later that he’d first considered it because he recognized my name and thought, incorrectly, that I had powerful connections in some large organization of potential purchasers like the International Reading Association or the American Library Association; unfortunately, the actual organization I’d been president of was the infinitely tinier Children’s Literature Association, a connection not likely to create the hoped-for tidal wave of sales.
But the situation soon changed. Within a few years, Simon and Schuster had become part of a large conglomerate. Having bought up a number of other previously independent publishers–Scribner’s and Macmillan among them–Simon & Schuster itself became part of the Paramount Group, which also made movies and owned various amusement parks and the MTV cable network. In 1993, the Paramount Group was purchased by the cable company Viacom, whose other holdings included the CBS television network and the Blockbuster chain of video stores. After the company was divided in two in 2006–although both companies still have the same chairman of the board and major shareholder, Sumner Redstone–Simon & Shuster became part of CBS.
The main result of all this for Simon & Schuster was an amplified emphasis on the bottom line. Editors who once chose books they admired but knew would not sell wildly, or nurtured writing careers by publishing less successful first novels they hoped would lead to better later ones and long writing careers, could do so no longer. My own editor’s freedom of choice about what books to publish became increasingly circumscribed. First he was told that he had to publish significantly fewer books each season, but with the expectation of returning the same profit; the obvious result was the publication of fewer obviously chancy books. Every single one chosen for publication had to look like it had the potential to be a best seller. Then, to ensure that might happen, the structure of decision-making changed: the editors were no longer free to choose what books they went ahead with, but had to run all their choices by the sales people, who now made the final decisions–all of which, then, had to do with nothing but immediate and obvious saleability.
The same thing was happening across the book business, and the results were inevitable. The books published became less distinct, and more like each other. And fewer writers were writing them: by the end of the nineties, the major American houses publishing books for children had rid themselves of all but their best-selling writers. Those identified as mid-list writers, that is, ones whose books sold steadily but not hugely, were all dropped–including me. In the decade or more since then, children’s writing has been far more homogenous, and the few relatively distinctive books that do get published always seem to have made it onto book shelves on the basis that they might have a chance to win a major award and so become solid sellers. If these books don’t immediately get the right kind of enthusiastic reviews and award buzz, they very quickly go out of print.
Indeed, books generally now go out of print very quickly, partially in response to changes in warehousing taxes in the US that made it more expensive for publishers to maintain copies of books from their back lists, a practice that had traditionally allowed older books for young people to be available decades after they were first published–but mainly, I think, because the emphasis has been placed increasingly on what can sell a lot right now, today–on books as a form of fashion. Each season brings a few new blockbusters that are meant to so completely absorb everyone’s attention and buying dollars that there’s no point in keeping a wide variety of older books around.
That happens, incidentally, in libraries as well as in bookstores. To satisfy an immediate demand, public libraries increasingly buy increasingly larger quantities of the same few titles that appear on best-seller lists. To take an extreme example, when, Mockingjay, the last of Suzanne Collins’s ‘s Hunger Games trilogy came out in the summer of 2010, a librarian in the Salt Lake County system reported on a listserv for Young Adult librarians that they were ordering 1001 copies.
They already owned 332 copies of The Hunger Games, the first book in the series.
Much more modestly but still rather astonishing, the Lethbridge Public Library has 26 Mockingjays and 25 Hunger Games, as well as various copies of both in audiobooks and other formats.
But they might not have them for long. For a long-term academic project on novels for young people, I’ve been ordering recent books from an online dealer who specializes in library discards. I’ve often been able to buy such books just a year after their publication dates–many of them from the Brooklyn Public Library (which, incidentally, holds 150 copies of Mockingjay). Why have libraries bought and then discarded these books so quickly? I can only assume that they ordered multiple copies to fill an immediate need upon publication, and no longer need quite so many even a few months later.
A library that feels it has to have 1001 copies of the same title has spent on that title that part of its budget that might have allowed it to purchase 1000 different books with a thousand different personalities–if, indeed, a thousand actually different books for young people are available at the time. And think of the 1000 less immediately popular books that had to be discarded in order to shelve the 1001 Mockingjays.
In this environment of book-selling as a sort of literary branch office of the fashion industry, books sometimes don’t even make it to their publication dates. In a business culture that demands immediate substantial success for survival, the fate of new books now depends greatly on how they fare in galleys and ARCs–advance reader copies. Publishers used to distribute a few of these to reviewing organs; now they distribute hundreds to a range of bloggers and Twitterers who just might choose to mention the book positively and boost its sales.
All of this might represent the desperate acts of an industry in peril. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the publishing of books generally and for young people in particular, on paper or otherwise, might soon cease to be a viable business. In February, Borders, one of the largest book-selling chains in the world, filed for bankruptcy protection and announced plans to close 200 stores. Here in Canada, Key Porter, the publishers of the recent Ghosthunters trilogy by me and Carol Matas, first laid off two-thirds of its staff cuts last September, then suspended publishing operation in January.
A month later, H.B. Fenn, Canada’s largest book distributor and the owner of Key Porter, initiated bankruptcy proceedings. There were a variety of reasons for these events, including competition for Borders from online bookstores and H.B. Fenn’s loss two years ago of much of the business of its major client, the Hachette Book Group (publishers of Little, Brown books and various imprints formerly published by Time Warner until it was purchased by Hachette). But in fact, sales of books generally are declining. While Red Orbit, an online news service focused on technology, reported in March, “Figures show that e-book net sales totalled $32.4 million in January 2010, and jumped to $69.9 million in the same time period this year, continuing a rising demand for electronic books while conventional hardcover and paperback books continue to decline,” nevertheless, “Overall US book sales have continued to decline.” Fewer books are being sold. Fewer books are being read.
Fewer children’s book are being sold in part because library budgets have become smaller, because of larger problems with the economy but also because of the growing power of political ideologies that want to slash government spending on community-based activities like schools and public libraries. There’s also a widespread belief that children generally have less time for books than they once did–and more other ways to spend their time, like video games and text messaging and the internet.
At any rate, traditional publishing is in peril—and while the internet makes e-publication by writers themselves easy, it also offers the kinds of distractions and experiences that seem for many people to make book reading in any form less desirable. Perhaps we are coming to the end of the book as we know it as viable form of communication and entertainment—I find it instructive that as children’s picture books become available as e-books, they become less and less like traditional books, their text and pictures supported by soundtracks and animations and games you can click on.
Children accustomed to a “book” like this might well have trouble paying attention to more traditional books on paper or on screen. The book may be dying.
In the meantime, however, publishers and writers are fighting hard to find readers–and that brings me to the crux of my argument. My own experience, and all the evidence I’ve gathered from others, makes it clear that they have all decided to fight in the same way: by going for what they hope will be the big sales, by making the books they publish more conventional, more normal–or perhaps more accurately, more normative, that is, more keyed to descriptions of supposedly normal children and childlike behaviour that are too perfectly “normal” to be realistic–the normal in its ideal form, and as an ideal, inevitably operating as a goal for readers to aspire towards and hope to be.
Thus, for instance, a story that presents the behaviour of a young girl who wears nothing but pink and thinks of nothing but cute boys and makeup as normal operates as a role model for supposed normalcy for young readers learning to be appropriately girlish.
In other words, publishers are producing books exclusively for the childhood police–and meanwhile, the childhood police seem to be getting more demanding, more censorious of anything unusual or complicated or potentially threatening, more certain that normative assumptions about who children of certain ages always are or what always defines feminine or masculine behaviour are or ought to be the absolute and only truth. Children in our time are increasingly worried over, cosseted, insulated, constantly protected from real or imaginary threats. As I walk the dogs in my neighbourhood park, I almost never see children on their own without adult supervision, playing in the places where my own children and their friends were free to go and be on their own. And when I tell people that my children took the public transit bus to their primary school by themselves, a trip to another neighbourhood that involved some walking and a transfer and before the invention of cell phones to keep them in contact with their parents, people either look at me as if I were a thoughtless monster whose unfortunate children made it to adulthood only through sheer luck, or else inform me that the world is a lot more dangerous now than it was in the eighties. It isn’t, of course. If anything, as crime rates go down, it’s less dangerous.
But the idea that children are above all and most essentially vulnerable potential victims to mysterious but omnipresent wicked strangers is a normative assumption in our time—perhaps because of parental fears about their own frequent lack of involvement in the lives of their children. And producing books that satisfying the needs of adult purchasers with those sorts of normative assumptions had made children’s writing and publishing increasingly restrictive. Let me give you some examples.
My first two novels were fantasies. But then my agent informed me that, while my editor at Simon and Schuster claimed to like my writing, he wasn’t going to take any more of my books. Fantasy wasn’t selling anymore. It was over. Children didn’t have time to be imaginative any more. This was in the mid-nineties, just prior to the beginning of the Harry Potter phenomenon.
In a similar vein, a writer I know who’d had a successful career writing historical fiction for young people came upon a great story that took place in Italy during the Renaissance–a nice change from the constant flow of fiction for young people about the American Revolutionary War and Civil War and the Holocaust. Her editor told her it was unpublishable. No state had the study of the Renaissance on its curriculum–as they did the American wars and the Holocaust. So there was no market for it. The childhood police don’t like sharing currently unpopular information with children. The great story remained untold.
My writing partner Carol Matas and I submitted a picture book text to an editor, and got this response:
I read Oh Yes I Will over the weekend, and to be perfectly honest, I did not love it. What I did love was your writing style–playful, sweet, and very much suited to picture books. It just happens that I’m not a huge fan of book in which children behave badly without consequences. I do understand what you were going for–the gleeful romp in which the child comes out on top, a la Robert Munsch. However, my experience lately has been that a lot of parents and editors are reticent about any story that encourages children to misbehave, however fun the story may be.
The childhood police are against children getting away with too much fun, so the book is unpublishable.
In all of these cases, books were never written, or written but never published despite an editor’s perception of their worth, because they didn’t meet a set of constraints imposed by assumptions about what be most widely sellable. They weren’t enough like the books already available, enough like the kinds of books that clearly satisfied the needs of the childhood police.
But books that do manage to pass through the obstacle course of the editorial process and do actually get published have not necessarily been made normative enough to suit the police. Consider these examples.
In 2007, the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children was awarded to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky.
On the first page of the book, the book’s heroine hears another character say that a rattlesnake bit his dog on the scrotum: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.” To many adults, however, it merely sounded bad. Children, apparently, are not supposed to be aware of the existence of scrotums or anything in their vicinity, or indeed, of anything that might imply that humans—or dogs—are sexual beings or otherwise make the adults in their lives uncomfortable: “’I think it’s a good case of an author not realizing her audience,’ said Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, N.J. ‘If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.'” (Julie Busman, “With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar,” New York Times, February 18, 2007). What adults don’t want to have to explain–would prefer to pretend that children aren’t aware of–must be policed out of existence, then. Many school librarians banned the book. I am not aware of another book for young readers published since them that refers even vaguely to scrotums.
A more recent controversy over a single word turning up in the wrong place developed in relation to Lane Smith’s It’s a Book, in which a gorilla tries to read a book while an ignorant donkey pesters him about it: “Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?”
At the end, a mouse sums up the answer: “It’s a book, jackass.”
Well, he is in fact a jackass. It’s a kind of animal, right? And he is that kind. But according to one Amazon reader, “I’m not a prude or anything but in a children’s picture book that is read to 3-5 year olds, do you really want to explain the word ‘jackass’?
Obviously the character is named Jackass and he is one (a donkey, mule, take your pick) but the fact that the author is using the word Jackass to mean a stupid person (and from the context of the story, he is), I’m not sure parents want their kids to know that word or think it’s okay to use that word when they are that young.” It’s a Book has been rejected by at least two school districts in Massachusetts.
I could go on multiplying stories of censorship attempts, just about all of them about relieving teachers and other adults of their responsibility of providing young people with accurate knowledge of the world they live in. But my recent favourite is the case of a librarian in Illinois who reports that after looking for “a ‘happy’ book because I have a parent at school who does not want her children to read anything with death, tragedy, violence, divorce, or “bad” things happening to children,” her principal responded to the parent’s request by “demanding that we find better books to use in the 5th and 6th grade advanced language arts classes.” Here are the parent and principal’s criteria:
parents should be together
children are well behaved
no sex or suggestion of
it must be a novel and hopefully appeal to both girls and boys.
The only possible book that could qualify is one in which nothing like the real lives of children happens at all–exactly the kind of thing bound to appeal to both girls and boys, right? But this principle is not alone in his quest for what a lot of people identify as “clean” books–ones blissfully low on violence, sexual content, and profanity–thus clearly establishing that much of human existence can rightly be labelled as “dirty” and that being dirty or, just as bad, having a dirty mind, being aware of and having knowledge of supposedly dirty things–like aspects of their own biology–is unsanitary enough to need strict policing.
If you ask me, anyone who believes that is, well, a jackass.
If literary cleanliness represents the normative as a peculiarly dehumanizing ideal, another recently controversial practice identifies it as inherently racist. In the publishing world, apparently, it is normal to be white. Books about characters with what then come to be abnormal skin colours and ethnicities then clearly announce themselves as for specific sub-markets of people who share the colour and the ethnicity: normal white people can’t identify with them. But because being white is being normal, books with white protagonists have a universal audience, including people of colour who have learned to see themselves in or more likely, imagine themself as, ideally normal people, i.e., white ones. One result of this is a habit of publishers sometimes identified as “whitewashing”: depicting characters identified as African American or Asian American as white on the covers of the books in order to increase sales.
The novelist Justine Larbalestier was herself offendedby the orginal US cover for her novel Liar.
Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. . . . How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?
After a lot of public controversy, the cover was eventually changed—but not before it offered yet one more ugly instance of how the normative practices of publishers focused purely on pleasing the childhood police narrow the range of depictions of childhood available in books for young people.
One specific area of policing has become particularly zealous in recent years: gender. It’s only in the last hundred or so years that children have been colour-coded: According to Jo B. Paoletti, “Sexual ‘color coding’ in the form of pink or blue clothing for infants was not common in this country [the US] until the 1920s; before that time male and female infants were dressed in identical white dresses (“Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions,1890-1920,”( Signs13.1 : 136-143).
Paoletti adds, “Ongoing research on gender-specific clothing in the twentieth century suggests that by the 1920s the modern ‘tradition’ of dressing infant boys in blue and girls in pink had just begun to be popular” (143). Indeed, “a Ladies’ Home Journalarticle in June 1918 said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.
As for children beyond infancy, their clothing and toys—and books–have been increasinglyand repressively colour coded in the last two or three decades.
Perhaps as a counterattack on the feminist movement, the multinationals that run the toy and clothing business have aggressively campaigned to encourage young girls to believe that they need to display their gender at all times in easily recognizable ways, and boys to believe that certain “girly” colours and styles are signs of an absent masculinity: the categories “masculine” and “feminine” have became far more restrictive and far more rigidly enforced, resulting in the possibility of an art project like Jeong Yee Moon’s Pink & Blue Project, consisting of photographs of children surrounded by their colour-coded possessions. (Incidentally, these photos also offer startling evidence of the extent to which buying into the importance of color-coding is related to acceptance of one’s primary role as a self-indulgent consumer of stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.)
But while the intensification of this sort of gender display is a recent development, more and more people happily accept the popular idea that both the urge to colour-coding and the traits and attitudes that accompany it, are, as they say, “hard-wired”: in trying to be what has become a conventional idea of typical girlhood or boyhood only very recently, children are merely expressing a biological inevitability—each one supposedly acting as either all girls or all boys have always been doomed to act throughout the history of our race–and those who haven’t acted that way are obviously abnormal. This is, of course, nonsense—as Cordelia Fine points out in her recent book, Delusions of Gender: “Contrast, for a moment, the confidence of claims that boys and girls arrive with differently prewired interests, against the flimsiness of the evidence. There’s something a little shocking about the discrepancy between the weakness of the scientific data on the one hand and the strength of the popular claims on the other” (117). Instead, as Fine argues in relation to the supposed inborn difference in degrees of empathy in men and women, “we find that what is being chalked up to hardwiring on closer inspection starts turns out to look more like the sensitive tuning of the self to the expectations of the social context” (13). The same is true of a wide range of supposed hard-wired differences between the sexes. Gender stereotypes are far more cultural than based in biological necessity. But enough people buy into the idea of biological hard-wiring that it becomes a serious form of policing, and as Fine says, “It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in a reputable newspaper, changing a school’s educational policy, or becoming a best seller” (174.
Furthermore, when the proponents of hard wiring confront examples of individuals who defy their theories, they tend to get very confused. Consider the response of resident Fox News psychiatrist and Glen Beck collaborator Dr. Keith Ablow to a photo on the J. Crew website showing a designer enjoying a playful moment with her son and saying, “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favourite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
For Ablow that represents a serious breach of hard-wired sex differences: “These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.” On the other hand, however, Ablow worries that “encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts,” and adds, “Girls beat up other girls on YouTube. Young men primp and preen until their abdomens are washboards and their hair is perfect. And while that may seem like no big deal, it will be a very big deal if it turns out that neither gender . . . is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives.” Apparently, generic hardwiring isn’t so hard after al, if it and the American military-industrial complex can be so easily subverted by a few coats of pink polish.
My own encounter with this particular branch of normative thinking involves my attempt to produce a book for a new series now being published by Scholastic Canada. Having had huge success with their Dear Canada series of fictional diaries written by young girls at important moments in Canadian history, Scholastic have embarked on a male equivalent: stories of boys taking part in important moments of Canadian history in a series called I Am Canada.
The names of the series are themselves distressingly telling: while the girls merely address Dear Canada, the boys arrogantly claim to actually be it: I Am Canada. Boys who might make that kind of cocky assertion are the traditional boy’s boys of stereotypeland: aggressive, brave, simple-minded, body- and sports-oriented, uninterested in or unaware of the subtleties of their own emotional life or those of others. Since I have managed, despite my gender, to write a successful Dear Canada about a supposedly typically sensitive girl—my book, Not a Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, is based on my mother’s memories of her childhood—Scholastic allowed me to propose a book about a boy for the new series.
But as I tried to write the story of Nick Symmes, a cabin boy on Henry Hudson’s final expedition, in which Hudson’s crew marooned him and left him to die in the middle of the bay now named after him, I found myself in serious trouble.
The problem had to do with the publisher’s undoubtedly shrewd understanding of their market. One of our firmest current cultural convictions is that boys don’t read. Result: there’s not much point in producing books for them: that’s why there are so many more books about girls than boys, on the perhaps flawed theory that girls are more interested in themselves than in boys. That’s why the Dear Canada series was all about girls, and why it took so long for Scholastic to get around to an equivalent series for boys. And any books you do publish with boy readers in mind has to have very special qualities if they can even hope to attract even a few young male readers: they have to be written, essentially, for the non-readers of popular wisdom. They have to be short, simple, and direct—not much like books at all—morel like video games. Their main characters can’t be too bookish or thoughtful or sensitive or otherwise girly. And they have to focus almost entirely on fast action involving physical danger: it’s no accident that two of the three I Am Canadas that have come out so far are centrally about wartime battlefield action.
The audience, in other words, is boys completely unlike me, now or in my boyhood.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, as I worked on telling Nick Symme’s story, he kept doing the wrong things. He began to have thoughts. Deep thoughts. Some of them were doubts about the wisdom of his own actions. And even worse, he began to have feelings—feelings of empathy for others, no less. And considering that the major action of the book was a winter frozen in on the shore of Hudson’s Bay, he spent little time involved in or observing strenuous physical actions like men fighting with weapons, and lots of time freezing and starving in the dark and thinking about stuff. In other words, at least as I see it: he kept wanting to turn into a real boy, not a normative and exceedingly limited stereotype of brute masculinity.
For a shrewd publisher with knowledge of its market and its market’s unshakeable conviction that the audience for the series would be boy’s boys if anybody at all, that meant my character and my book were becoming increasingly undesirable. I finally realized that Nick and I had to withdraw from the project. (It’s still unpublished, and still available to an insightful and financially adventurous publisher who might want to consider it.)
I’m not, of course, trying to suggest that there are no boy’s boys out there. There might be—although I doubt that more than a very tiny percentage of them are so completely and exclusively normative, and without any other distinguishing characteristics or interests or individuality. But I have no doubt that whether the norms exist or not, a lot of boys have learned or are in the process of learning the wisdom of at least pretending to be them, to display nothing but normative boyishness, and always behave exactly like the childhood police think boys inevitably do behave. Doing anything else is likely to raise suspicions in everyone around you that you might be gay—and in the childhood of the police, that is not ever a good thing. These days, I’m afraid, it gets you bullied or ostracized or agonized over by both children and adults, as if it were a horrible germ that might be catching.
As Fine suggests in talking about our ability to tune ourselves to the social context, the main trouble with policing the normative is that it works. There are few distinctive Nick Symmes in the books currently available for boys—and there are few real-life Nick Symmes who have not learned to be wise enough to hide their sensitivity and intelligence and pretend to like roughhousing even if they actually don’t. In a sad story in a blog on the online community Chicago Now, Carrie Goldman reports her kindergarten-age daughter’s explanation of why, after happily selecting a Star Wars water bottle at the beginning of her first year of school, she soon became desperate to replace it: “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle. They say it’s only for boys. Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it. I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.”
eventually, Goldman talked her daughter into sticking with Star Wars. But with or without a pink bottle, the daughter has learned the value of the normative, and the social wisdom of pretending to be a more typical child than she actually is. She has been policed, and has needed to learn the necessity of resistance to policing. Children generally need to learn to resist policing—and that includes the policing of children’s literature. For children’s literature has always been a policing activity—and never more so than right now. Research into it without knowledge of how and why the policing happens will not be telling the whole story.