International luminaries in the field of children’s picture books gathered at the New School’s Tishman auditorium in New York City on April 18 for a full day of presentations and discussions on the topic of foreign children’s books. The day’s speakers were Leonard S. Marcus, historian and critic; Betsy Bird, youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library; Denise von Stockar, Swiss children’s book critic; Christine Plu, professor of children’s literature and publishing at University of Cergy-Pontoise in Paris; Giorgia Grilli, professor of children’s literature at University of Bologna; and Junko Yokota, professor emeritus at National Louis University in Chicago and Asian picture book specialist. An end-of-day panel discussion featured Claudia Bedrick, publisher of Enchanted Lion; author-illustrator Etienne Delessert; author-illustrator David Macaulay; and artist Steven Guarnaccia, who also moderated throughout the day.
The event was the brain child of Delessert and was formulated in part as a response to a 2013 article written by Betsy Bird. Her essay approached the topic of American resistance to publishing foreign picture books and caught the attention of Delessert, who felt that the issue deserved a great deal more discussion.
First up was Marcus, who noted the “astonishment” he feels at the Bologna Book Fair when encountering the number of books published around the world that are never seen in the U.S.
By way of seeking an explanation for this, Marcus shared a brief history of children’s publishing in America. After WWI, he notes, it became “time for America to have its own children’s literature,” and this desire for an autonomous children’s canon was symbolized by the creation of the Caldecott and Newbery Awards. The post-war American paradigm was one that emphasized a shared American experience rather than that of multiculturalism: “the old culture was to take second place,” said Marcus. This paradigm began to shift in the 1970’s, with the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, which suggested to the literary world that to “think of cultural origins... is not inconsistent with being American.”
However, perhaps this early desire for autonomy accounts for why it remains a struggle to bring more international literature into an American readership. Marcus notes that, while some illustration styles “strip away cultural context” (such is the case with the work of Eric Carle, which sees particularly strong cross-cultural appeal), “pictures can have cultural associations” that prevent their appeal from being universal. At the risk of presenting stereotypes, Marcus said that there may be certain sensibilities consistent with children’s books published in America versus those published in Europe. There is a lingering notion that “we Americans are still so puritanical,” and as a result, unwilling to publish certain material – for example, a book with a breastfeeding mother. “I think that’s true,” Marcus said. However, he also pointed out that Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three (S&S), the true story of two male penguins who raise an adopted baby chick together, was released in America long before a comparable title came out in France, suggesting that making such claims about relative progressiveness can be problematic.
On the whole, Marcus agrees that American picture books tend to be “more character-focused,” while European books are “more design-focused.” Aesthetic differences aside, he believes that there is a great deal more sharing of literatures that can and should take place and that modifying the criteria for the Caldecott and Newbery awards to include non-American authors could result in more books from other countries finding their way to American shores.
Next up was Betsy Bird, who kicked off her talk by sharing her first experience of attending the Bologna Book Fair in 2011. Like Marcus, she reports being blown away by the vast numbers of children’s books being published around the world that never see the light of day in the States. This experience left her wondering why there continues to be resistance to foreign children’s books in America. The conclusion she has arrived at: “We just don’t care.” It’s a harsh realization for a librarian in one of the most thriving literary meccas in the world.
In addition to this American indifference toward foreign books, Bird perceives another problem: many of the gatekeepers of children’s literature in America “respond with degrees of discomfort” when it comes to looking at books with a multicultural or foreign bent and often cast them aside because of their perceived strangeness. And these types of reactions to foreign books aren’t happening in the nether-regions of rural America: “the call is coming from inside the house,” Bird said.
Bird herself is familiar with the discomfort that can arise when encountering a picture book that strays from more American sensibilities and has also witnessed this squeamishness coming from other New York City librarians. Emphasizing that these librarians are “amazing, brave, and remarkable” and that in no way does she mean to disparage them, Bird shared several examples of objections librarians have had to European picture books being considered for circulation in the NYPL system. One: “His head is not complete.” Another: “It’s psychedelic.” And: “Beautiful and depressing.” One librarian was troubled by Sebastian Meschenmoser’s Mr. Squirrel and the Moon (NorthSouth) because in the book, several successive black and white spreads depict Mr. Squirrel’s fearful imaginings of the jail cell that he believes he will come to inhabit if he does not successfully “return” the fallen moon to its proper place in the sky.
Another example of a picture book that evokes uneasiness, but which has met with surprising success in the U.S., is Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip (Gecko Press), which stars a duck being stalked by a skeletal death figure as she nears the end of her life. “We don’t quite know what to do with it in our heads,” Bird joked.
It’s one thing for a picture book to register as being different, and it’s another for it to include material that might be overtly objectionable to an American audience, thus preventing it from being widely circulated. Recently, a publisher asked Bird’s opinion about an image in a European picture book that was set to be published in the U.S. One spread in the book featured a rather gleeful, topless woman and it got Bird thinking about whether or not breasts in a picture book are still a no-no in the U.S. And her conclusion: probably, yes. But she wrestles with the thought that covering them up in the American edition really does a disservice to the book and maybe to the readers as well.
In conclusion, Bird emphasized how important it is for gatekeepers to acknowledge and deal with the discomfort they might experience when it comes to a book with foreign sensibilities, and to allow children to make their own decisions about them. Unlike the seasoned NYPL librarians, children do not yet have such internalized reactions to the foreign – maybe because everything is. “We have to be made to feel uncomfortable sometimes,” she said, adding: “We need diverse books. We need international books, too.”
The day’s presentations took a highly visual turn next, with children’s literature specialists Christine Plu, Denise von Stockar, Giorgia Grilli, and Junko Yokota (via video recording) showing images from picture books in their native and neighboring countries.
Stockar shared dozens of slides from Swiss and German picture books, beginning with images from Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter and Anti-Struwwelpeter, a parody of the classic book by Friedrich Karl Waechter. Yet, while the sometimes cringe-inducing misadventures of Shockheaded Peter may be familiar to Americans, many of the works Stockar presented are unknown in the U.S. They included the satirical fable The Animal’s Rebellion by Jorg Steiner, illustrated by Jorg Muller, about a group of cartoon animals who seek stardom by relocating to Disneyland; Warja Lavater’s wordless interpretation of Snow White, which uses abstract shapes, patterns, and coded use of color to tell the story; and Helme Heine’s minimalistic and existential The Secret of the Elephant’s Poops, about “the meaning of zero and death.” Swiss picture books, Stockar believes, possess a particular quality of creative autonomy, because “Switzerland was not deprived of its freedom of expression” as was Germany. Many Swiss books are markedly absent of moral lessons and demonstrate a type of realism that sometimes “reaches a surreal dimension.”
In conclusion, Stockar shared an anecdote about Swiss author Jörg Steiner’s Rabbit Island, illustrated by Jörg Müller, a sobering book in which two rabbits escape a “factory” and return to nature, only to find that freedom comes with its own challenges. Stockar recently read an adult reviewer’s online assessment of the book, which she believes speaks to the ways in which adults of all cultures sometimes restrict children’s reading. First, the reviewer shares how captivated and haunted he was by the book as a child. But, after rereading the book as an adult, he declares that the book should absolutely not be given to children. To Stockar, this highly ironic instance of an adult censoring the very book that so enchanted him as a child speaks to the ways in which adults routinely “underestimate children’s curiosity and desire for authenticity.”
Next, Christine Plu shared several French, Swiss, and Belgian picture books that have become well known in the U.S., as well as a great many that remain unpublished here. Etienne Delessert provided the translation. Plu began with Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books, which pioneered the use of break frames, multiple pictures on one page, and a large format, and have clearly found cross-cultural appeal. Other books that have traveled well include Monique Felix’s Mouse Book series, which has found an international audience partially because the books are wordless, have a playful format, and are tied less specifically to a single culture.
Among the other French authors and illustrators that have seen fairly limited attention in the U.S. include Olivier Douzou, Georges Lemoine, and Joelle Jolivet, whose 365 Penguins explores questions of order and disorder, and the author-illustrator team Germano Zullo and Albertine, who create “generous, funny, contemporary fables.”
Giorgia Grilli spoke next about Italian picture books, paying particular attention to the legacy of Pinocchio interpretations. Grilli shared that, for illustrators in Italy, creating a rendering of the classic story is a right of passage of sorts: “The story of Pinocchio is so deeply rooted, so deeply engrained, that you have to give your own version to deserve public recognition,” she explained. Grilli noted that one of the reasons why the story of the puppet boy has persevered, becoming such an invaluable cultural artifact is “its strangeness, its mystery.... Mystery and strangeness lead to creativity,” she said, as made evident in the range of stylistic Pinocchio interpretations that she showed the audience.
Shifting gears, Grilli next delved into the influence of Fascism and Catholicism in Italian children’s books. While these ideologies often resulted in narrow and dogmatic texts, the illustrations accompanying such books stood independently and often showed exceptional artistry. After all, Fascist books attempting to influence children had to be attractive and appealing in order to captivate readers. Among the artists Grilli introduced was Marina Battigelli, whose work was based in the bedrock of Catholicism. Yet, despite Battigelli’s piety, her art has a quality of wild and unorthodox beauty: her child Jesus frequently appears naked and, in one of Battigelli’s images, is cozied up with a tenderly rendered pride of lions, appearing more reminiscent of Mowgli than of Christ, Grilli suggested.
Grilli emphasized how Italian illustrators have traditionally worked in homage to their predecessors and to the country’s rich history of classic art. Modern illustration seeks a “balance between old and new.” Finally, she discussed a trend appearing in the 1960s, which valued the book both as something to read and as an artfully designed physical object, or “something to play with.”
Finally, Junko Yokota spoke briefly to the audience via video. She addressed the stereotypical representations of Asian people in children’s literature – a problem that is “not resolved” and lamented that, while Western books find their way to Asia, the opposite is not often true. She emphasized that, through international cooperation, Asian books can increasingly find their way into America. Rather than thinking purely about diverse representations of people in children’s books, Yokota also believes that readers and gatekeepers should look for “different ways of telling stories.... There are so many ways of telling stories.” And she also emphasized the importance of speaking with the dollar. Embracing a book means buying that book, she said.
After the audience viewed a video created by Tara Books, a publisher based in Chennai, South India, Claudia Bedrick, Etienne Delessert, David Macaulay, and Steven Guarnaccia sat down for a panel discussion about embracing foreign books. The panelists agreed that gatekeepers are largely responsible for actively seeking out foreign books, even if – or especially if – they are different. Guarnaccia concurred with Marcus’s assessment that, because of America’s early focus on children’s books that represented the nation as a melting pot, “our culture is lagging behind its own history.”
The panelists also spoke about books that contain degrees of “wildness,” whether from overseas or here at home. Guarnaccia asked the speakers to define specifically what qualities make a book “wild.”
For Bedrick, a “wild” book is “innovative and daring” both in construct and narrative. A wild book delivers an “image of the world that expands lives.” For Macaulay, “wild books are dangerous and begin life on the endangered species list. Some get off the list, but not enough of them,” he said.
In Delessert’s opinion, American books that he would consider wild include Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press), Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s The Old African (Dial), and J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley’s And the Soldiers Sang (Creative Editions). He expressed skepticism that books dealing with common occurrences or objects in a child’s world challenge and inspire readers sufficiently enough to be called “wild.” Guarnaccia addressed this idea, noting that it’s important to remember that books dealing with children’s daily experiences actually were considered radical at one point in America’s history.
In closing, Bedrick spoke about Enchanted Lion author Matthew Burgess’s recent school visit.
Burgess’s Enormous Smallness, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, is about the life of E.E. Cummings. The author reported that the students were deeply affected by the death of Cummings at the end of the book, responding to his death with utter denial and disbelief: how could the main character in the story die? This led Burgess to steer the discussion in an surprising direction, discussing with the group about what happens after death and about how death is one of life’s many “mysteries.” For Bedrick, “wild books don’t have to come from elsewhere or far away” or necessarily have to do with topics that are outside the realm of a child’s experience. “Whether about a truck, raindrop, or squirrel,” Bedrick said, a wild book is any book that supplies a child with a legitimate sense of mystery.