Children’s books can do more to inspire the new generation of Earth warriors



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shutterstock.

Gary Haq, University of York

A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.

Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.

A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.

Environmental diversity

Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.

Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.

In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.

Connecting with nature.
Angelo lano/Shutterstock.com

Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.

Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.

Earth warriors

As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.

When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.

Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.

The ConversationWe need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Wicked witches and evil queens: why children’s books need more female villains



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Still from DIsney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Anna Cermakova, University of Birmingham and Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham

This year, women’s history month follows what seems an unprecented upsurge of events that revealed the widespread abuse of women in both professional and private life. So it is not surprising to also see an increased interest in the representation of gender in literature – or rather, as a recently published big data study shows, a significant under-representation of women in literature.

Both female writers as well as female protagonists have been lagging behind their male counterparts for centuries. Gender inequality has naturally become a contemporary topic that has also made it into schools. To mark World Book Day, which we celebrated on the first day of women’s history month, Votes For Schools, a voting platform for schools, in collaboration with Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign promoting gender equality in the toy and publishing industries, published a lesson plan for primary schools asking the question “Do bestselling books encourage sexism?”

Votes For Schools then put this question to primary school pupils and got an interesting result: 79% of students said “No” and only 21% said “Yes”. But another vote on “Do we need more female villains in books?” tells a bit of a different story: the result is 67.5% “Yes” and 32.5% “No”. The response further revealed that 80% of female pupils wanted more female villains in books compared to 54% of male voters.

Books for boys and books for girls

Stories in which male heroes go through all sorts of adventures before they come to the rescue of the beautiful, but passive, princesses are all too familiar. The Observer newspaper collaborated with Nielsen research on a large market study which found that lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female, and male villains were eight times more likely to appear compared to female villains. This kind of gender stereotyping is, however, just a continuation of a tradition established in children’s literature much earlier than that.

It was in the latter half of the 19th century that booksellers and book reviewers – “the cultural gate-keepers” as the American literary critic Anne Lundin calls them – started to distinguish between reading suitable for boys and that for girls. At the beginning of the 19th century, the book market was much more general, it did not even clearly delineate between adult and child readers.

From the 1880s, The Times newspaper started to devote separate review essays to literature for boys and for girls. Lundin notes it was rather critical particularly of the books addressed at girls – and it was not the quality of writing that was criticised so much as the subject matter: “Writing for girls … lacked the dynamism of boys’ books.”

Good girls and brave boys

Research at the University of Birmingham looks at gender in children’s literature with the help of corpus linguistic methods. As part of the GLARE project, which explores gender in children’s literature from a cognitive corpus stylistic perspective, a specialised corpus of 19th-century children’s books has been collected. This collection of 71 books was selected to represent what has been called the “Golden Age” of English children’s literature and contains classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Water Babies.

A quick look in the GLARE corpus confirms observations on bias of gender representation. Among the books written by female authors, there are only seven where the word “girl” is used much more frequently than “boy”. Among the books by male authors, there are only two where “girl” is used more frequently than “boy”.

The highest relative frequency of “girl” is in the 1886 book A World of Girls: The Story of a School by the female author L. T. Meade. The book was greeted by The Academy review journal on publication (November 20, 1886) as “light and pleasant reading” with “many a quiet, useful hint about the education and general training of young girls”. The highest relative frequency of the occurrence of “boy” can be found in the 1858 cautionary tale Eric, Or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School by Frederic William Farrar.

But women who wrote books for children also often dealt with male worlds – the relative frequency of “boy” is similarly high in the 1883 novel Jackanapes by the female writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. A review described it as: “The wistful tale of heroic sacrifice in which the orphaned son of a Waterloo cavalry officer … dies saving the life of his childhood friend on the field of battle.”

These books are good examples of reading expectations of boys and girls at the time – and the following selection from the corpus provides us with some insights.

Examples of ‘girl’ in the GLARE corpus retrieved with CLiC.
Birmingham University, Author provided

In these examples, girls are well behaved and beautiful – and they certainly appear inferior to boys. Boys are strong and brave and ready for the adventures ahead of them. But boys are also trouble sometimes. In many respects, this has not changed much.

Examples of ‘boy’ in the GLARE corpus retrieved with CLiC.
Birmingham University, Author provided

Wicked witches and evil queens

Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.
John Tenniel

Male villains in children’s books outnumber their female counterparts. In fact, not everyone might easily come up with a top ten list like that of the British author MG Leonard. Her list features the likes of Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials.

The female villain is usually represented as a witch – as the White Witch from Narnia – or a queen, as the wicked queen in Snow White or the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Witches embody an unattractive (often old), powerful female figure who is turned to for advice or help when everything else fails – as with the witch in the Little Mermaid fairy tale. Witches are feared and excluded from society, as illustrated in this example from The Book of Dragons (1899) by Edith Nesbit quoted from the GLARE corpus:

And besides a King he was an enchanter, and considered to be quite at the top of his profession, so he was very wise, and he knew that when Kings and Queens want children, the Queen always goes to see a witch. So he gave the Queen the witch’s address, and the Queen called on her, though she was very frightened and did not like it at all. The witch was sitting by a fire of sticks, stirring something bubbly in a shiny copper cauldron.

The ConversationChildren’s books are not only fiction. They provide vital opportunities for children to make sense of their own world. How many more women’s history months will it take to see a greater variety of fictional female characters, not just beautiful princesses, good girls and evil queens?

Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Centre for Corpus Research, University of Birmingham and Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Once upon a time: a brief history of children’s literature



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Children’s books were historically moralising and instructive. What’s changed?
Hillarie/Flickr

Susan Broomhall, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, University of Western Australia

April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today. The Conversation

Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.

A 1630 horn book.
Folger Digital Image 3304., CC BY-SA

Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”

These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.

Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.

Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.

In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.

Do children have a history?

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.

But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560.
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.

Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.

There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.

These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.

The moral of the story

By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.

18th century Battledore printed by Newbery which adds pictures and a verse on the rewards of industry to the elements of the hornbook.

More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.

Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-headed Peter’) in a 1917 edition.
Wikimedia commons

By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.

Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.

We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.

Susan Broomhall, Director, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, Researcher, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, Lecturer in medieval and early modern history, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s time to take children’s books seriously


Catherine Butler, Cardiff University

Both as an author and an academic I take children’s literature seriously – it’s my professional raison d’être. This doesn’t mean that I think it should be discussed in hushed tones, however, only that it shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial. Children’s authors are excellent writers – moreover, our earliest encounters with the written word colour all that follows, so anyone who takes books for adults seriously should take children’s literature seriously too.

I’m not the first to make this case. Once a generation, it seems, a cri de coeur goes out, in which a representative of the world of children’s literature speaks with revelatory authority to the literary establishment and makes it reassess the place of children’s books.

In 1968, the Times Literary Supplement invited Alan Garner, the author of The Owl Service to write about his approach. Garner argued that children are the most rewarding and demanding readers, pointedly saying of his next book: “If it is good enough, it will probably be for children”.

Likewise, in 1996, Philip Pullman began his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech by declaring: “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” Like Garner, Pullman had written books rich with literary reference and intellectual scope. Both men were self-confident, Oxford-educated and could not easily be patronised. Both men were in a field of literature numerically dominated by women. People listened.

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For a time, because of Pullman’s own novels and later those of J.K. Rowling, children’s books were everywhere. Some suggested that the distinction between children’s and adult literature was disappearing: titles appeared in child and adult editions – identical but for the jacket (and price). For the majority of mid-list children’s authors, however, things soon reverted to the status quo ante. Review space in national newspapers, briefly abundant, dried up, and advances reverted to pre-Potter levels.

Genre snobbery

When the former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson called for children’s books to be taken seriously in 2013, her plea formed part of a recognisable cycle in the world of children’s literature. First comes neglect, tinged with contempt, then a shock in the form of some literary event or articulate advocacy, then a slow backsliding.

Why does the literary world go through these spasms? Let’s look at a few unrelated snapshots, and see if we can build an identikit face:

Such instances aren’t just a matter of snobbery towards “genre fiction”. A man seen reading a thriller may be sneered at, but if he is seen reading “chicklit” his virility may be questioned too. Similarly, adults who read children’s literature are tainted with childishness. Does that decision to publish some books with adults’ and children’s jackets really show barriers being broken down? That some were prepared to pay an extra pound or two to avoid being seen reading a children’s book suggests otherwise.

Childhood ideals

Ultimately, disdain for children’s literature has less to do with the quality of the work than with the contradictory feelings adults have about children and childhood. These fall into two broad groups, the first of which can be summarised: “The more grown-up the better.” As St Paul put it: “When I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face” (I Cor 13.11).

The adult view is the real view; the child’s just an approximation. Applied to children’s literature, this leads to the belief that children’s books are literature with training wheels – and that those most nearly resembling adult books are the most worthwhile.

But this attitude coexists with its opposite too: think of Wordsworth’s vision of children trailing clouds of glory and dwindling into adulthood. Against St Paul we can recruit Jesus of Nazareth: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10.14).

John Tenniel’s original wood engraved illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Wikimedia/John Tenniel, CC BY

The idealisation of childhood is often held to have reached its zenith in children’s books of the early 20th century. But this view is actually tenacious – it lives on in the duty adults feel to shield children from adult knowledge, especially when it lurks between the covers of a book. Publishers and reviewers regularly let authors know that certain words and topics are out of bounds. Children must keep their innocence.

Despite opposition to these traditions, both continue to flourish – for both speak powerfully to adult fantasies. Children, and adults associated with children, are constantly buffeted in their cross-currents. If writers create a safe space sequestered from the wider world they are patronised for thumb sucking. But if they try not to be cosy, then they are corrupting the innocent youth who should be protected.

The battle to get children’s literature taken seriously will never be concluded, because so many adults are invested in not doing so. It would rob them of the comforting shibboleths they clutch like favourite toys: I am serious, you are trivial; I am adult, you are a child. I don’t say we should accept such opinions, but we should recognise that they will not go away. Taking children’s literature seriously is part of taking children seriously, and that is a lifetime’s work.

The Conversation

Catherine Butler, Senior lecturer, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

100 Great Children’s Picture Books


The link below is to an article that takes a look at 100 great children’s picture books.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/apr/06/100-great-childrens-picture-books-highlights-from-1922-2011

20 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss


Flavorwire

A wizard of the written word, today marks the 110th birthday of Theodor Geisel — better known as the dear Dr. Seuss. The beloved children’s author and illustrator created a menagerie of creatures that recited anapestic tetrameter, caused trouble, and captured our imaginations. The man behind beasties like the Grinch, Lorax, and Sneetches was a fascinating character in his own right. Here are 20 facts about the great Dr. you might have missed.

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