Hastily the committee decided to split the ceremony into several sections, with the children’s books at a breakfast entirely separate from the Academy Awards-style main evening presentations. Children’s publishers returning from Bologna Book Fair were furious to find their books and authors relegated to what they viewed as a patronizing “kiddies’ corner” divorced from the main “grown-up” ceremony. Last-ditch efforts to reverse the plan failed while sharp words flew around the table and angry letters were exchanged. Next year, we’re assured, things will be better managed. Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that Christopher Reeve is as clean-living in real life as he is as Superman – he didn’t even drink coffee at breakfast, and ate only fresh melon!
At a talk in New York recently on “English vs. American Children’s Book Criticism”, Brian Alderson, children’s book reviewer of The Times, castigated most children’s book reviewing as “superficial and incompetent, bland and insipid”. Not enough space is devoted to children’s books in major newspapers, he said – The Times itself included – so that thoughtful, in-depth reviews rarely see the light of day. In addition, most reviewers themselves, claimed Alderson, don’t treat children’s books seriously or read them carefully. For example, in a comparison of reviews of Alan Garner’s The Aimer Gate, Alderson found that several well-known, highly regarded British critics – and I’d better not mention any names here! – had made fundamental errors of fact in their reviews. (The novel is set in 1916; one reviewer placed it in the Boer War, another in the 1920s.) Even publishers are not immune, sometimes making errors in the blurbs on their own books. Alderson was no kinder to American critics, alleging that their professional scholarly reference works, which they study so seriously, are riddled with inaccuracies.
Where does selection end and censorship begin? The distinction was blurred in a recent article in The New York Times with the provocative heading: “When Librarians Ban Books”. The article described how several major library systems had decided not to stock copies of a book called Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, by Margot Zemach. The brightly illustrated picture book, which has caused a raging controversy here, depicts a happy-go-lucky black man and his mule who die and subsequently have a wild time settling into their new life in Heaven – where God, St Peter and all the angels are black, too. Critics have deplored Zemach’s depiction of the black Heaven with its “Glory Road”, “Pearly Gates” and “Heavenly Green Pastures”, and its very down-to-earth angels in everyday clothes playing jazz and cooking chicken-and-ribs dinners, as racial stereotypes. The publishers, Farrar Strauss & Giroux, counter that the book is firmly based on black American folklore.
Folklore reduced to such a simplistic level is clearly offensive to some, though as a work of art the book is exuberant, splashy and a lot of fun. The unresolved question is whether librarians can be expected to select books on their individual merits or whether they are inevitably – perhaps rightfully – influenced against a book which they feel will be offensive to some of their patrons, even if this involves denying others the opportunity to have access to it. It’s an area of judgement where there can be no definitive guidelines – conflicting pressures in society lead to conflicting library selection policies.
What happens when a major toy company goes into children’s book publishing? Well, they go about it in an entirely different way from traditional publishers. Parker Brothers, the Massachussetts-based toy company that also manufactures Monopoly and other board games, recently acquired the publishing licence for the Care Bears, a new set of characters brought to life by General Mills and American Greetings, joint creators of the phenomenally successful Strawberry Shortcake. The new character merchandising effort features a family of ten cuddly-cute bears with symbols representing personality traits on their protruding bellies – Tenderheart Bear, for instance, has a red heart on its tummy – designed to help children deal with changing emotions. Parker Brothers spent many months doing market research with teachers, psychologists, parents and kids themselves to pin down the most popular story lines – or, as their ad in the industry magazine Toy and Hobby World puts it, “kid-tested for sure sales”.
Now that the “product” has been “developed”, Parker is gearing up for a one-million dollar TV advertising blitz – over one-third the total sum spent in advertising last year by the entire children’s book industry – focused on just six titles. Parker plans to sell the books mainly through toy shops and supermarkets rather than bookshops. “We’re going to revolutionize the kids’ book industry,” states their marketing director James Buchanan. Publishers watch out!