I love picture books and I am infuriated by them. That is, I love what they can be and I am infuriated by what they often are.
For years now I have taught degree students about the impact of stories on learning. I’m not just talking about the books we buy, I’m talking about TV, films, adverts, pop-up ads, narratives that develop on social media, videogames… There is a tendency to dismiss the impact that these things have upon us. And, most worryingly of all, there is a tendency to dismiss the power of the picture book.
Picture books are not easy things to write. A great picture book is a highly crafted and brilliantly executed thing. They are often trying to teach children key concepts like counting, or how to emotionally regulate the loss of a loved one. And they do this within engaging and dramatic narratives. Just because the words are basic and the sentences short, does not mean that they lack sophistication.
The words and the pictures combine not just to tell the story, but to form an idea in the child about society and how it works.
So, when confronted with picture books that echo unhelpful stereotypes I find myself spluttering uncontrollably.
One such book recently came to my attention. The Snow Storm:
My 20-month old picked it from her bookshelf and presented it to me to be read (I hasten to add that this is one of those books that someone else bought for her). After the first page I was quietly seething. A little perspective before I eviscerate it completely: it is a beautifully illustrated book. It’s aim also appears to be to help early readers acquire language and learn to read. Unfortunately, it also reinforces ridiculous notions about gender.
On the first page we are introduced to Poppy and Sam and their mother, Mrs Boot. Mrs Boot is the farmer so you might expect her to leave the house and start, oh I don’t know, farming. But no. No. She is, after all, a woman and remains in the house – presumably in the kitchen – I don’t know, we don’t see her again. Instead we are introduced to Ted. Ted is a man. Ted works on the farm. And Ted gets the children to help him find the sheep after a terrible snow storm. Good old Ted.
I don’t know why the character of Ted exists at all. Mrs Boot could have done all of this. I suppose one might argue that children benefit from seeing both male and female role models. but if that’s the case why is Mrs Boot given the boot after the first page?
Anyway, the children and Ted find the sheep and a lamb that was born in the night. Hurray! And in the end, they head back to the farm with the lamb and its mother in tow.
This is where I get cross again.
At the beginning of the book, Poppy is introduced before Sam and is also drawn a little taller. These elements combine to indicate that Poppy is probably older than Sam. So why, why oh why, in the final page, is Poppy the one being pulled along on the sledge whilst she holds the lamb?
What exactly are we saying here? Boys can walk because they’re strong but girls needs help? Girls are the nurturing ones, not boys, so only girls can hold baby animals? Boys can’t be trusted?
I have other issues with the way dialogue is formatted, which actually makes it more difficult to read, but hey – enough for now. As long as we’re all clear that the important messages have come through. Moms stay inside. Surrogate dads do all the work. Girls need help and are the only ones that can possible be trusted to look after others.
If you want a good picture book, don’t buy this. This one sucks. This one sucks big time.
Be seeing you.