Thursday, 20 June 2019

Can picture books just STOP ALREADY with the "You can only succeeed if you have / make / get the help of friends" books? A ReadItTorial

"I'll be there for you...for a hundred grand a showwwwwwww"
I've finally lost count.

I have, I've honestly lost count of the number of books we've seen for review over the last few years of blogging that have had one core moral at their heart.

Sometimes that moral is delivered with all the subtlety of a breezeblock to the face. Sometimes it's intricately woven within the story and may fool you into seeing the worth in promoting the message, sure. But for us at least, most of them just make us wish picture books would move on and fixate on something else.

The subject of friends seems to be a rich fertile patch of soil that has been worked over, and worked over, and worked over again until now, for us at least, it's now a dry and dusty desert, incapable of sustaining the seed of an original idea.

There are so many ways to show how awesome it can be to be a social gadfly, popular and well loved, cared about, supported. But for kids who struggle to make friends, and for folk who are naturally anxious and a bit socially awkward (HELLO SIR!) these books can end up having the exact opposite effect to the one they intend.

For kids like C, making friends can be pretty tricky. Sometimes kids lack the confidence, the belief in themselves, and perhaps even the communications skills to instantly strike up a rapport with other kids.

Sometimes if they are only children it can be doubly tough as they do not have the experience of having an older / younger sibling at home, and thus do not learn some of the valuable life lessons that come from having a sib who either dotes on you or (in my case at least) is likely to swipe you around the head with a length of hot wheels track for a giggle.

It's easy to cast a critical eye over picture book texts that feel like they're still raking over that dusty patch of desert mentioned above, claiming that they bring absolutely nothing new to the party, but within the (sometimes horrifically predictable) picture book pattern (that I believe will end up being the death of the children's picture book industry if publishers and agents don't do something about it - and fast) these books often follow the same pattern and by GAD if I never see another while we're still running this blog, it'll be too soon.

Let's take a look at that formula. Does this sound like the premise for an exciting original book to you?

1) Central character is either happy or miserable. But could they be happier?
2) Something happens - central character is completely stuck, lost, trapped, lonely etc (cut and paste to suit)
3) They get a friend, make a friend, build a friend, stick batteries into a friend, trap a friend in a gigantic bubble machine accidentally...
4) THEY BECOME AMAZING! They achieve all their goals. All because they made a friend who shows them the true path to enlightenment

Actually I've probably made this formula sound more exciting than it inevitably ends up. In most cases the story pattern is so formulaic you could literally swap in / swap out any animal / human / robot / alien / sentient sea cucumber character and still end up with the same result.

BUT DO THESE BOOKS WORK? Do they really? Do kids read them and instantly have it dawn on them that making friends is great, and they absolutely must do that thing, otherwise they're doomed to failure? I sincerely doubt it, but I would love to hear from folk who talk from the other end of the table and can think of instances where 'friends' books have actually worked, been a positive boon to a child's well being. I do want that, I just don't want so much of it, if that makes sense.

From this year's picture book submissions (lower than most years for us, hovering around the 300 book mark) we've seen roughly 60-70 picture books that contain some or all of the elements above.

The problem is they're so interchangeable, so samey, and so immemorable that it's becoming very difficult to review them - and in fact we've dropped an awful lot of unsolicited review submissions, leaving us with a fairly skeletal schedule for 2019 - something that we're really not used to on the blog (that sounds horribly needy, but usually we're drowning in picture books, and though we do turn a fair few down that are just too young to appeal to C, we seem to be seeing fewer books in general right across the board).

So what to do? I still don't understand why picture books absolutely HAVE TO HAVE A MORAL LESSON IN THERE SOMEWHERE and reading a book creative's recent tweet about wanting to just do a book that had 'a load of meaningless but entertaining chat in it' I really do think we've got a problem that's beginning to eat the entire industry inside out, that publishers and agents really are against taking any form of risk, so play it safe with fairly formulaic and samey old themes.

I don't understand why we don't see more picture books that just want to convey a story without feeling they have to lecture you, or try to fix you, or manipulate you into being a different person than you actually are. It's possible to write those stories, but whether it's possible to sell them for a profit is the real issue I guess.

If kids need anything at the moment, they need picture books and stories that take them away from the pressures they're under in virtually all other aspects of their lives (particularly the pressure to be more sociable, friendly, and have more pals).

Ugh, totally aware that this is one of those horribly cynical groany old ReadItTorials, so apologies if you've stuck through to the bitter end and think I got out of bed the wrong side this morning, but it really is getting to the point where the market is getting flooded with this stuff.

Kids either naturally make friends or they don't - but why should their worth be measured by this?