Thursday 30 April 2015

Ten children's picture book story types and tropes that need a well earned, and very long 'rest'

"This book is sending me to...zzzzzzzzzzzz"

Poor Charlotte. As she gets older, she's becoming a past master in perfecting that withering look that children give you when presented with more maths homework, more spinach (or other food that is 'good for you') or - rather alarmingly lately - another book that treads a worn, very well worn path.

The wonders of the publishing industry are quite something to behold from the outside. Most folk have no notion that a book can take years to turn from a seed of an idea into a submitted manuscript then perhaps a fleshed-out illustration board and eventually a mock book before it gets the green light and will be turned into the next children's best seller. Sometimes the timing can cause so many of the same sort of books to hit the market at the same time, that you can understand Charlotte's eye-rolling at times. So with that in mind, we dug through recent submissions and came up with another one of those irritating "top ten" lists - this time for stories we'd love to see a little less of in favour of newer, more original and tastier book fare. Please understand, this is a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek thing, no offence intended and no specific books were mentioned (or harmed) in the compilation of this list.

In no particular order then...

1) "I'm your friend, I'm not your friend, I'm your friend again because I realise how great friends are" books. Friendships are important as soon as children's social circles start expanding, through school and clubs and all the other things kids get into. But does the world really need another children's book where this is bluntly mapped out and described, as if this is something that needs a manual? Books like these often feature cute and cuddly animals (we resisted the temptation to add that as one of our top ten bugbears, because cute and cuddly can still work beautifully in books without being too sickly). We would love to see a children's picture book that accurately maps out a real childhood friendship - that peaks and troughs like an oscilloscope listening to rave music!

2) Pirates. This is a tough one for us to add to the list because we do rather like a nautical tale, but I think we approached peak blackbeard quite some time ago. Perhaps it's as we described in the lead-in to this post, that so many hit the market at the same time despite all being proposed, requisitioned and published completely separately, but sometimes we only have to get a whiff of a skull and crossbones on a cover, and another angry-looking one-eyed pirate captain with a wooden leg and a hook hand to make us run for the nearest desert island clutching our booties. Now, more girl pirates (says Charlotte) - That's something worth working on. (Please note though: Certain folk who write and illustrate pirate tales get a free pass because they always make us giggle and always come up with a good dose of originality for their stuff. You know who you are!)

3) Princesses. The flip-side of the "pirate" doubloon. Princesses show absolutely no signs of losing popularity, and though Charlotte has moved on a tad from the usual Disney-inspired CinderellaBelleBriarRoseFrogPrincessMeridaSnowWhite stuff, tales of gutsy princesses who flip the usual wishy washy princess tropes on their head can still win her over. It's the others though, those books where Princess Mimsy-Poo lives a decadent life of eating jam tarts, wearing incredible dresses and obsessing about pink that we'd love to see take a well earned break.

4) Flatulence Fiction. It's a whole new genre, didn't you know? Farts, botty burps, trouser trumps, rip-snorters, pantaloon polluters are big business in the children's book market and we've seen many a story wear out its welcome by pivoting around the central theme of letting one off. Humans are at it, animals are at it, we're just surprised that we haven't (yet) seen a story about a friend who is a pirate princess who really likes a damned good trump first thing in the morning to set them up for a quirky adventure!

5) Similar to the above, you could add in the rest of the toilet repertoire. Poos, wees, the odd honking incident. Bodily functions in all their squirty, dirty glory are staple fare for kids from the moment they laugh at their own messes, to the moment they become irrationally obsessed with personal hygiene (ie the minute they start feeling a need to impress the opposite sex). What happens in the toilet (or sometimes, disastrously, as far away from the toilet as possible) should really stay in the toilet. Some of us are trying to eat while reviewing this stuff! (To redress the grumble, it's fair to say that children's illustrators really are pulling out all the stops in depicting the subject matter at hand here so a doff of the cap to them for their efforts!)

6) Bears. Hmm, we're in two minds about including bears in the list as we do rather like a lot of books with bears in them, but it takes a rather amazing, spectacular and astonishingly original bear book to sneak in under our radar and make us sit up and take notice. Bears have been some of the best-loved children's characters for aeons and if we do a quick head count on the blog for bear-based books we'd probably say around 20% of our children's book intake revolves around a bear of some description. How many other animal species on the planet never get a look in because Bruin is hogging the limelight though? Pass on the panda, get rid of the grizzly, wave bye bye to the brown bear, where are all the kids books about wolverines, capybaras, Okapis, Tasmanian Devils eh?

7) Dumb dads. Oh we could really go to town on this subject and I'm sure a lot of other book-loving blogger dads will nod in agreement. The dad has long been used as a comical device in children's stories. They're often shown as the ones being a bit lazy, quite often greedy, absolutely always a bit rubbish in comparison to mums - and here's something that's slightly more serious - dads are often the 'missing' partner in children's stories where only a single parent is shown. There have been some great stories showing dads on their own (and there have also been some fairly irritating stories where dads are irrepressibly smug and brilliant at everything they do so we can understand why they're often relegated to being there for comic value only). Give dads their day though, we're not all completely useless (alright, don't ask Charlotte's mum whether this is true, she'll probably tell you that 'dumb dads' are quite an accurate portrayal really!)

8) Mining old and well-worn out-of-copyright stories to produce "a new and exciting and vibrant version for a modern age". Some authors and illustrators are amazing at successfully doing this, and doing it well. Some authors and illustrators absolutely nail producing a version of a classic tale that is stuffed with originality and delight. But we still see an awful lot of children's picture books where a 'classic' is given the thinnest veneer of gilding, bringing nothing really new to the tale itself. Certain tales have been respun and rewoven so many times, they remind us of the poor princess working at the spinning wheel trying to turn straw into gold before Rumplestiltskin shows up!

9) Revolting rhymes and poorly poetry. The majority of rhyming stories we encounter are a delicious delight, tripping off the tongue when read aloud, and causing an internal chuckle or two when read to ourselves. Sometimes though we read rhyming stories that cause us to ask ourselves "Hey, would this be a really great book if it didn't rhyme like a train crashing down the side of a mountain on fire, and that mountain happens to be a Volcano, and that Volcano is sitting on a gigantic earthquake and the whole thing explodes in a huge chaotic mess of lava, train bits and steam?" (Alright, I'll admit it, as analogies go that's a pretty terrible one). Rhymes should feel like having your tongue wrapped in the most delicious wordy silken sylph-like textures. Some just feel like getting a bit of apple or crisp stuck down between your teeth and your gums. Owch.

10) Boy / Girl books and comics. Wait, wait, we're not going to make the same point that has been made over and over and over again (and quite rightly so) about gender bias in books - but we would really love to underline a point we brought up recently in an editorial about how Marvel and DC just don't "get" kids. It's not just about outwardly labelling a book as a "boy" book or a "girl" book, nor is it about the justified outrage that in certain children's stories the gender bias is more subtle but still there - dad goes off to work, mum looks after the kids and the house. It's more about the fact that no one needs to explicitly tell children what to like and what not to like, no one can really say they've expertly designed a character range that from a glance will instantly have massive girl appeal or boy appeal (girls - you get the cheesy clean-cut teen dreams like the new DC superhero and supervillain stuff that's been specifically designed for you. Boys, you get the usual weaponised violent pithy superhero stuff that is so far removed from its original source material that you'll probably never recognise the original comics those products are based on!) Books and comics for children shouldn't need to shout from the rooftops that they've been tailored in any way for a target audience. Let the audience make up their own minds, boy or girl and if your stories and characters are strong enough, you won't need to lead people by the nose!

And there you have it. 10 things that we'd love to see put on hold (for a while, or in the case of number 10 - permanently). We look forward to seeing what you come up with to prove us wrong on each of these points :)