Feb 19, 2011

Challenged Picture Books, Part 1

I've been on a picture book kick lately, which doesn't surprise most people I know.  It started a few days ago when I helped a friend figure out what his favorite picture book from childhood was purely from his description of the cover art.  I'll take my library science degree now, please!

Picture books are stereotypically seen as cute, meaningless books for tiny tots who like to look at pretty pictures.  And for some, that's exactly what they are.  But many picture books have challenged this outlook with their "controversial" subject matters and risque artwork.  Some parents and teachers have gone so far as to try to get these books banned  from school and public libraries, proving that pictures are worth 1,000 words of complaints and criticisms.  

Challenged Picture Books, 10-8
 10.  The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
I don't think I know anyone who dislikes this book.  Kids who've experienced snow days enjoy it because it reminds them of the sheer amazingness that comes with a foot of snow and kids who live in sad, snowless lands enjoy it because it helps them envision what they're missing (or so I assume).  But back when this was first published, people were in a slight tizzy over the main character's race.  This was one of the first picture books to feature a black character as a hero.  While some welcomed this addition to children's literature, many were outraged.

Most were upset when they realized that the author, Ezra Jack Keats, was actually a white man.  Some believed that he was presenting a negative depiction of African Americans.  Others believed he did not have the right to create a black character because he himself was not black.  But do you have to be a part of the culture in order to portray it?  Did Keats set out to help give a voice to another culture or was the choice of skin color made to contrast the snow and make the illustrations more powerful?  Controversy grew again in 1963 when the picture book was awarded the Caldecott.  The argument then became that he created a "black" story in order to be a shoo-in for the award.
9. The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese (1938)
I had never actually read this book until just now, but the cover art alone makes it a huge "yikes!"  Those drawings are definitely not politically correct.  The content itself is actually pretty violent as well.  The plot involves a judge dreaming up ways to execute each of the five brothers.  He fails because they possess mystical abilities that keep them from harm and they live happily ever after with their mother.

The main critique of this picture book is, of course, the illustrations (the brothers look a lot more yellow in the physical copy).  However, some find that the comic-like approach adds to the humor of the story. Others find that the magical elements subscribe to cultural stereotypes about the Chinese.  In response to this criticism, some suggest that if you read the story as a traditional folk tale, the mysticism is expected and welcomed.

8. Baaa, by David Macaulay (1985)
Not all picture books are for toddlers, especially ones about sheep cannibalism.  Having to sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" after reading this book would probably leave a bad taste in your mouth.  That was a horrible joke.  Did I laugh hysterically at it? Yes. 

When I first heard about this book in school it sounded hilarious, so I made a point to run to the library to check it out (cue awkward stares...).  It starts off as a typical amusing picture book: the humans have disappeared and sheep take over the world. They raid the now empty houses, eat human food, watch TV, etc., etc.  But then the sheep begin to encounter "human" problems like overpopulation, food shortages, and whatnot.  The food problem is mysteriously taken care of and soon there are only two sheep left.  Dunn, dun dunnnnn...

I can see how some parents may not want their first graders stumbling upon this when looking for some light reading.  Then again, some people may want to teach their children about cannibalism via a fun picture book.  To those parents, I say all the power to you.  They gotta learn sometime.  But this book is definitely appropriate for older elementary school kids.  It all boils down to where it's shelved in the library.  Placing it with the Dr. Seuss books?  Probably not the wisest choice.  But there are enough picture books with "advanced" themes and more difficult historical concepts for an entire section to be devoted to these titles, allowing readers of the appropriate age to learn all about cannibalism and the like. 

Up next: People apparently have problems with homosexuality and families...even when it's depicted with cute penguins. 

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