Before you read this post, listen to this Hidden Brain podcast.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the visual representations in picture books lately. I think this began for me with Dr. Leslie Bow’s presentation,” Race as Species: Animals and other Asian Americans in Multicultural Children’s Literature” and it was really brought home with the Bad Mood Stick Debacle. I submit that anamorphic images are the quintessential dilemma of representation in children’s books.
I thought I’d completed this post yesterday, but ventured a conversation about one of the books I mentioned in the post on Twitter. The thread begins here
There, KT Horning recommended I pick up a copy of Apes and Angels by L. Perry Curtis Jr. that provides a historical perspective on the use of animal images in comics.
As for the convention of using animal images in caricature, Giambattista dell Porta’s De Humana Physiognomia (1586) deserves much credit for spurring artists to metaphorize individual men, nations, class, and races as animals. By the seventeenth century artists were using animals systematically as “emblems of both institutions and persons” or as tropes for such states of mind and morality as intelligence (the owl), lust (the goat), stupidity (the ass or donkey), vanity and folly ( the monkey), and cunning or sin (the snake.) … A century later theriomorphism, or the allegorical use of animals, had reached the point in English caricature where Frenchmen were regularly portrayed as foxes, roosters or donkeys; the Dutch as frogs; Russians as bears; Turks as elephants or turkeys; and Spaniards as wolves. (p. xviii)
The author goes on to trace the historical development of physiognomy beginning with Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) and includes the work of Johann Briedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), the originator of the division of the races of man. Originating from Curtis’ emphasis on the portrayal of the Irish in comics, one can view the globalization of physiognomy in its use of facial features, voice, hair texture, skin pigment and complexion not only from the Irish to Chinese Americans, but also from comics to most branches of physical and social science, criminology and even into children’s picture books.
Think about the fables and fairytales we’ve learned as children and reconsider their messages in terms of the animals in the story, their characteristics and physical attributes. Consider the implications to how we perceive Others, how movies are typecast and how it’s said we assess others in twenty seconds. What informs that assessment?
I’d asked a few people on Twitter if they’d heard of Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne (DK Publishing, 1998). Several people were familiar with this award-winning book and mentioned how useful it is in teaching social justice concepts. However, I’d just found out about the book through an article by Kelley, Stair and Price. This is the first image in the book.
Stair was student in Kelley’s class when Kelley read the book aloud to her graduate level students. Stair writes
“When first experiencing Voices in the Park, I was shocked and angry. From a course in African American literature, I came to understand the history and ongoing abuse of racist stereotypes, such as Black/ape and mammy metaphors. While looking at the book’s first page, I thought there’s a black woman. Then, I turned the page and thought, oh, she’s a gorilla. When I realized the book’s characters were anthropomorphic apes appearing about 90% human, a century of scientific racism and thoughts of countless lives destroyed by it, came to my mind.”
Dr. Laura Jimenez described how she teachers the book as well as how elementary educators use it to address racism and classism in their teaching. Even with the highly problematic images, the book addresses social issues in ways others do not and because of this, it’s often used in classrooms across the country.
This begins to take me back to where I was with my original post, a quandary about these anthropomorphic images.
To me, the racial overtones of this image are undeniable.
While reaction was growing over that cover, someone sent me this cover.
(The Bad Seed by Jory John and illustrated by Pete Oswald; Harper Collins. August 2017)
My reaction at the time was “But, sunflower seeds are black.” Yet, here we have black once again equated with bad.
Of course, in cases of both Bad Mood Stick and The Bad Seed there is a need to read the complete story in order to contextualize the image. Yet, the book’s covers do provide imagery of the story’s characters while the titles address the plot and/or themes.
Next, while looking through Little, Brown Kids online catalog I became aware of this series.
I don’t know anything about any of the authors or illustrators involved in these projects and this isn’t a witch hunt about them. I don’t specifically know the culture at Little, Brown Kids, but I do know they all exist in an industry that thrives on systematic racism. Those in power hire like-minded people who share a similar worldview and that perception, that privileged perception of Whiteness, is played out in the books our children read. The embarrassingly small number of books published each year by Native Americans and Authors of Color is the first indication of a problem and the fact that the same numbers are repeated year after year with no attempt to change them would be the second.
Obviously, the images in picture books are another indicator of a problem. While data can indicate a clear discrepancy in the amount of representation, the qualitative misrepresentation can be less obvious.
Kelley, Stari and Price’s article delivers a critical analysis of Voices in the Park. The article, written in 2013 has only two citations. (I’d like to go down a rabbit hole and consider the limited audience provided to scholarly articles, the greater possibility for being change agents using social media but… next time…)
After constructing a thorough critical analysis of the book, the article closes with the reminder that stories are read through the lens of the reader’s experience, a cautionary reminder as books, indeed as this country, becomes more diverse. We cannot expect all readers, all illustrators or all editors to bring the same awareness to a book. Not now we can’t. But, shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t there be a baseline of understanding in what instance someone has abused their power and has offended, debilitated or appropriated another person or group of people? Activists are becoming less patient, more persistent and more insistent on information sources that do not perpetuate oppression yet we’re fighting a universal system that has become embedded throughout cultural practices over the last few centuries.
In the 21st century can we not be sophisticated enough to overcome colonization of our minds?
In calling out these instances, I know there was a problem with the anthropomorphic black cloud and also with the gorilla. But what about the seed? And the nuts? And what about SkippyJohn? When am I sensible and when am I sensitive? When am I giving into my own colonized thinking (not seeing things), when am waking people up and when am I crying wolf? And what do others think? Publishers have to be able to trust marginalized people when we say ‘this is wrong’. Yet, when do we really know whether an image is being used to exoticize human diversity (and reinforces age old stereotypes) or simply to express creativity? I do think this deserves a robust discussion, yes of course on this blog, but even more so in publishing houses where images are created and taken to our children. There should be a peer review of sorts prior to publication to critique and analyze what is created, not a public hanging of authors and illustrators after the fact. Publishing houses should be diverse spaces that nurture and respect multiple perspectives and I believe this will only enrich what is produced in those houses.
I wish we lived in a society where a brown nut is just a brown nut, but we’re not there yet, my friends. To paraphrase the article, critically analyzing the veneers in books with respect to racist, homophobic or misogynistic attitudes is necessary. As books become more diverse, as we read and write more about The Other, it becomes the responsibility of reviewers to critically evaluate all books, to question who is empowered, whose voice is heard and for whom the story is being told. And, they must think about what that black, brown, disabled or LGBT+ young person will see when they look at that book because when all the history is researched, all the analysis is done and when all the paint dries it’s all about the children.
I had a lot of help on this one! Thanks to Elisa Gall, KT Horning, Dr. Laura Jimenez, Tracey Baptiste, Sujei Lugo, Dr. Rob Bittner, Angie Manfredi, Megan Dowd Lambert and others for joining in on this and informing my thoughts. Please, let’s continue the conversation.