Betsy Bird, children’s librarian extraordinaire, can always be counted on for new and interesting leads (and ledes) when it comes to what’s going on in kidlitland. Yesterday (though I’m just catching it now) she opened with the arrival of a new picture book manifesto organized by Mac Barnett and signed by a collection of contemporary picture book authors and illustrators. You may choose to click on the image to enbiggen, or view it directly at its own piece of real estate on the internet at http://www.thepicturebook.co/
On the one hand, it’s always interesting when a group of like-minded people get together and make such a public proclamation because within their statements we find much, much deeper issues. On the other hand (or the back hand if you will) sometimes when like-minded people get together they don’t have enough distance or perspective to see their world as an outsider does. This dichotomy, partially represented in this manifesto, raises some interesting points about the picture book as it exists today.
As the opening salvo, being tired of hearing that the picture book is dying, and at the same time tired of pretending it isn’t, the manifesto acknowledges its own pushmi-pullyu stance. The undersigned are willing to admit to a certain amount of laziness among their ranks provided other guilty parties accept their share of the blame. But who, exactly, are the other parties in this affair? Picture book authors, naturally, but I don’t think they are entirely at fault here. Though not named, a closer reading hints that editors, parents and book reviewers might need to step up and take some responsibility as well.
Here are some points in the proclamation that caught my eye.
We need a more robust criticism to keep us original.
As a reviewer of books for children and young adults the attitude that bothers me most is this notion that we shouldn’t be critical of these books, that we should be positive. Better, I’ve been told, to say nothing at all than to give a book a negative review. After all, not every book is for every reader, and simply because the book doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it wouldn’t find a warm, loving home elsewhere. But the point of a negative review, done correctly, both expresses the reviewer’s opinion and suggests key points that failed that particular reviewer. Just yesterday I wrote two negative reviews for the other blog (to appear in coming days), one a novel in verse that just didn’t hold my attention enough for me to want to finish, and a picture book that felt both derivative and brought up, for me, a little-discussed troubling subject about the point and purpose of zoos. I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of reviewing (though if someone else wanted to I’d be flattered) but if, as the picture book manifesto states, we want to see more original works from the authors of books for children we need to keep the criticism robust, and that means it can’t all be sunshine and rainbow-excreting unicorns.
What this point touches on also is something perhaps not widely understood outside of art schools and MFA programs, and that’s the rigor of peer criticism that challenges and pushes writer and artist alike into new territory. As a student no one likes hearing that their story sounds exactly like that already published (yet unknown to the budding writer) or that their photographic subject has already been done, and more effectively, by another before them. But without these the apprentice does not push further, and this becomes more important once they have moved into journeyman and mastery where their work becomes more solitary. If the voices of criticism soften with time then so does the artist, to the point of repetition and safety.
The tidy ending is often dishonest.
This is interesting because often the tidiest endings are simply happy ones. And honest endings can be difficult to come by without either heavy moralizing or a heavy hand at message. The tidy ending exists because the tidy ending is easy. So here we hear a song of the messy ending, the honest ending that forces parents and other adults into the difficult position of actually having to have an open and direct conversation with their young charges. True, the adults can choose to tidy up the endings themselves and gloss over the unpleasantries, but doing so is equally beneficial as it teaches children who they can trust and when. Somewhere along the way a child’s BS sensor becomes activated through external forces – a toy that doesn’t perform as advertised, an adult who wiggles out of a promise through a technicality of language – and when it happens with books (and the adults that choose, or read to, them) the damage is done. I’ve seen enough anecdotal parent-child behavior to know that the adult who prefers to present a tidy world to children is surprised later to find a child who dislikes reading because it isn’t honest… or a child who distrusts and holds no respect for adults who don’t trust or respect them enough to be honest.
We should know our history.
This is true of all things, and I can’t help but feel this is a sideways swipe at editors and publishers, but I can see how this applies to picture book illustrators in particular. It was true thirty years ago (really? thirty?) when I was in art school and I’ve seen evidence of it recently; many an illustration major enters school without the slightest conception of working on picture books, discovers this new avenue of post-graduate revenue, and produces a book or two as final portfolio without having really studied the field. In the same way that a lot of contemporary film directors seem to not have seen any movies older than decade back, many picture books appear to be variations on a theme written by tone-deaf composers. It takes more than a cute, cartoony, or retro style to make a good picture book, but sadly there are far too many stories that either fall flat or cover well-trod territory. This is where more robust criticism comes in, and perhaps the challenge from editors to push for a more honest ending.
Finally, in the section “We Condemn” is this nugget.
The amnesiacs who treasure unruly classics while praising the bland today.
Well, now, just exactly who and what are we talking about here? To be an amnesiac is to forget, perhaps through no fault of their own. Treasuring a classic I get, but what constitutes and “unruly” classic, especially when it comes to picture books? This would suggest long and wordy picture books – the dread “picture story book” which many claim do not exist – and a certain blind fealty to said classics. Okay, I guess I can put that picture together in my head. But to have these same amnesiacs praising bland books today, I’m not sure I see how the two are connected. Are they suggesting that those who treasure unruly classics are a likely and large enough constituency that they also uniformly praise bland contemporary titles? If anything this reads like an insider jab at particular and pointed professionals in the industry, whether they be above-reproach Caldecott skaters or entrenched editorial professionals, or perhaps a winking broadside aimed at the last of the old guard, the Barbars and Madelines and Ferdinands and the occasional old man with Caps for Sale. Without definitions I find this condemnation to be the weakest element of the manifesto.
All in all, I find this sort of self-examination refreshing. I don’t know that a group of middle grade or young adult authors could pull off the same feat – in fact I think it might be the sort of thing that would divide any movement into camps faster than zombies and unicorns, or yeti and bigfoot, or whatever the mode of the day may be. Perhaps what this proclamation truly needs is a name for its self-identified group, something that can be both a form of marketing and a way of monitoring those who follow these tenants. They want to be held accountable, then they should identify themselves accordingly so that we can hold their feet to the fire.
Otherwise its all just words words words. We need pictures to make this revolution stick! Show us what you got, you undersigned, you.