Thursday 12 March 2020

"Modern children's books are ugly" apparently - are you !*Y@£*&@ kidding me? This week's #ReadItTorial

"Ugly?" - What planet are you on?
Ugh, snobs. I hate snobs and always have. I hate elitism but from time to time it creeps into things I like - and this week it crept into kidlit like an unwelcome fart in a broken-down elevator packed with people.

As ironic as it probably sounds from someone who has a mere peripheral involvement in children's literature through blogging about kids books with my daughter, I cannot stand articles from sites that profess to cover kidlit 'professionally', but serve no purpose other than to get everyone's backs up.

With sweepingly inaccurate statements from the outset, designed to serve as nothing more than anger-inducing clickbait (I don't know what makes me more angry, the fact I clicked on the damned site, or the fact I read through the whole article, right through to its contradictory non-event of a conclusion), there's really no place for stuff like that in kidlit - but it seems even our hallowed favourite place to hang out is not without its trolls.

Like many others who were equally outraged and took to Twitter to vent about the particular article in question, I won't bother linking to the site or the article (and in fact I'm never going to make the mistake of going there again for children's book news or opinions, pretty sure they won't miss me) but if you missed it and want to read some drivel (delivered by someone whose mouth was probably in this shape while typing it up), go google for "modern children's books are ugly".

Here's the thing though. Kidlit folk are, in general, absolutely lovely so when you find a jarringly critical article that tries to pass itself off as a deep thinkpiece on children's abilities to decode illustrations, it throws you a curveball, and you're left wondering what the original intention of the piece really was other than the aforementioned trolling / clicks for kicks aim.

Initially, two things rolled through my mind once I got to the bitter end...

1) Of course modern children's books aren't ugly. That's probably one of the most inaccurate statements about kidlit I've ever heard, and what the hell does 'ugly' mean anyway?

2) Making a huge sweeping judgement of particular art styles based on your own (seemingly extremely limited and narrow) taste, then assuming that your views should be shoved up everyone's nose is, quite frankly, breathtakingly conceited. Apparently the article took two years to see the light of day. What a shame it ever did.

One of the artists in the firing line was Ella Okstad whose work we've always enjoyed (particularly in the fantastic "Squishy McFluff" books - which are just huge amounts of fun). Hailing from Norway, Ella's work is full of energy, often full of colour, and really is quite beautiful (the header pic above is from Morag Hood's excellent "Sophie Johnson: Unicorn Expert" - a book the article piled into like an angry rhinoceros).

Others were mentioned, before the article started to contradict itself by describing several examples of what the author considered 'beautiful modern classics' - works by some of the industry's most celebrated authors who do indeed turn out beautiful books - but are probably horribly embarrassed to be name-checked in a piece of tosh like this (in fact one of them very quickly took to Twitter to make a solid point about the richness and diversity of art styles present in modern children's books - Well done Benji, you're the man, and you phrased a response with a far more level head than I can manage!)

The more I thought about it (read: ranted about it to anyone who would listen), the more problems I found with the article.

In fact in 10 years of writing this blog, seeing many, many amazing children's books and a huge diverse variety of different art styles, quite often I'm amazed at how children are not only one of the toughest audiences to write / illustrate for, they are quite capable of making up their own minds about particular art styles that some adults might turn their nose up (or make that stupid upturned trapezoid mouth shape about).

It's all about context. Sometimes a story works just as effectively with sparse, energetic, sometimes even monochrome or pure line art. Sometimes stories work beautifully with highly rendered art that has quite obviously been laboured over. The key message is that the many different styles (of illustration AND writing) that exist in kidlit are the very thing that have kept us writing about children's books in our spare time for ten years.

I remember this sort of knee-jerk stuff being commonplace when I was a lowly art student, on the sharp end of criticism during my two years of formal training. With every project came a critique session, and with every critique session, usually came a stream of very personal (and sometimes quite cruel) "reviews" of particular art styles or finished pieces that didn't fit with that critic's own preferred styles.

Such is the nature of any creative endeavour that you will encounter negative criticism as well as positive, but there's a huge difference between constructive criticism or outright nastiness, or a lazy-pass crit just trotted out to massage the person's own ego (and by gad, I bet the author of that article is enjoying all those angry clicks, grrrr!)

Children are very tough, truthful and yet also constructive critics - yet the "boss" of this blog (my daughter) has never once levelled the insult "ugly" at a children's book (in fact again, after ten years of this, I can't actually recall a single commercially published children's title that has passed through our hands that you'd class as ugly). Sometimes C objects to books and we don't review them because of this - but I can honestly state that it's very unusual for the issue she has with a book to have anything do to with the artwork or an illustrator's particular chosen style. Quite the opposite in fact, it's usually the author who gets both barrels - and even that is such a rare occurrence that I can count the number of books on the fingers of one hand (after ten years and many thousands of reviews).

The article's core insult isn't just levelled at the book illustrator, it's levelled at the designers, the layout artists and the hard working art teams who can sometimes take an illustrator's work and turn it into something magical, within the severe confines imposed by the current favoured picture book "standards". It's also levelled at those who work hard to ensure that their catalogue of books represents the rich diversity currently present in the industry. Where would we be if all books looked the same just to fit a narrow view of 'beauty'?

Probably in the same place the beauty industry is currently.

Commercial art is not a breeze to produce (as anyone with meagre art skills will tell you - turning out professional commercially viable art is ridiculously hard, ever wondered why you rarely see celebrity book ARTISTS rather than authors?) - so we have nothing but admiration for children's book illustrators who define their own style, and use it to lift a story from something mundane into something magical.

I could list many, many gorgeous books - even books published this year in just two short months - that are absolutely stunning works of art in their own right. Both Fiction and non-fiction, living testament to the talented folk who didn't listen to twerps like the article author, and continue to hone their craft with each and every piece of work they put out there.

One of those cases where my own curiosity at what several disgusted twitterites were talking about actually bit me on the bum. Really wish I'd never seen it, though a week on at least it seems to have disappeared into a black hole so, ahem, sorry to bring it all up again.