COOL not CUTE
How picture books can compete effectively with other children’s media
I’m going to set aside the gender element of the argument today and focus on the differences in content between picture books and other children’s media. I think these differences are helping to drive children of both sexes away from books and towards TV, films and video games at a very early age.
I’m a children’s author and most of my books are picture books. I’ve been working in the publishing industry for 19 years. During that time I’ve had picture books published by 11 different publishers, so I’ve a fairly broad experience in picture book publishing.
I try to write picture books that appeal to a wide range of tastes. There’s no question that we publish a great many picture books in this country that a great many children find appealing. But there are also a lot of children that don’t find picture books appealing. And it’s those children I want to talk about today.
Research shows that a growing number of children regard reading as as “uncool”. Here's a couple of quotes from the Literacy Trust web site.
First impressions are important – and the first books most children encounter are picture books. I think the picture book industry’s current standards of age-appropriateness are a lot more conservative than those of children’s films, TV and video games. As a consequence a lot of the content that children regard as “cool” that’s found in these other media is missing from picture books. I’m going to highlight some of this missing content and offer an explanation for these differing standards of age appropriateness.
Picture books are read by a wide age range; they are read TO children who are only a few months old and read BY children up to the age of seven or eight.
Four is the age that most children start school in the UK. I think we need to recognise four as a watershed age for picture book content and I'm going to be focussing on the sort of content that's age appropriate for four years and over.
Four years and over is also the age range that the BBFC has in mind when assessing the age-appropriateness of U certificate media. As well as films, the BBFC certify children’s TV shows when they’re released as DVDs or downloads. There’s now a separate certification body, PEGI, for video games, that operates on similar lines.
While I think it would be unreasonable to compare picture books with anything other than U certificate media, it’s worth pointing out that many picture-book-age children are watching PG and even 12 certificate media.
There are many differences between the content of picture books and other children’s media, but I’m going to focus on four elements today – COMBAT, PERIL, VILLAINY and TECHNOLOGY.
All four of these elements are abundant in films, TV shows and video games watched or played by many four-year-olds, but are comparatively rare in picture books. I’ll illustrate this missing content with examples from four U certificate films.
All 4 of these films were the most popular U certificates in the year they were released. 3 of them were THE most popular film of any certificate in the year they were released. So they are all very mainstream examples. The last 3 films we'll look at were all released in the last 10 years, but I’m going to start with a film that was released 36 years ago.
Between the ages of 4 and 7 my son and most of his friends were obsessed with Star Wars. The original Star Wars film contains an abundance of peril, villainy & technology, but I’m going to use it to remind you of the sort of combat the BBFC deems age-appropriate for a four-year-old viewer.
There are about 20 minutes of combat in the film. I’m going to show you just 60 seconds taken from various scenes. This sort of content would be considered “cool” by many young children. As you watch this I want you to think about how often those children are likely to find similar content in picture books.
That film is 36 years old, but I could have shown you similar clips from U certificate films and TV TV shows that are showing in cinemas and on children’s television this weekend.
When I saw how enthusiastic my 4 year-old son was about these films I thought I’d try to channel some of that enthusiasm into reading by finding picture books that contained similar content – but there weren’t any. That was 14 years ago and there are still very few. And yet Star Wars is as popular as ever with young children and Disney have just begun making a new series of Star Wars films.
I mentioned this disparity to a picture book publisher last year and she told me that – despite it’s U certificate – she would not let a 4-year-old child watch a film like Star Wars. This attitude is not uncommon within children’s publishing. I think that one of the assumptions underlying it is that “depictions of combat in children’s media could make children more aggressive.” I’ll come back and address that assumption later.
The poster describes this film as a comedy and it is very funny in places, but it also contains scenes of peril that are played absolutely straight. I’m going to show you a particularly intense example. To put this clip in context: it comes at the end of a 20 minute sequence which starts with the toys breaking out of a kindergarten that’s run like a prison camp. Throughout the sequence the characters narrowly escape from a series of increasingly perilous situations. As the clip starts, they’re in a rubbish dump and have just avoided being torn apart by a mechanical shredder.
I think you can see that that’s a genuinely scary moment. Young viewers are left in no doubt that the characters are facing what seems like certain destruction.
There’s a very fine line between what’s thrilling and what's upsetting for a four-year-old. Filmmakers like Pixar are very adept at judging exactly where that line lies, so that they can thrill young viewers by taking them very close to it without crossing over. In my experience, most picture book publishers prefer to play safe and to keep well away from that line. Scary scenes like the one we’ve just watched are relatively rare in picture books and I think that’s one of the things that gives many young children the impression that books are less cool than other children's media.
The Incredibles is another film that has all four of the content elements I'm highlighting today. The villain in The Incredibles is called Syndrome. I’m going to show you two short clips. The first illustrates that not only is Syndrome a deadly villain, but that he has no qualms about killing children – something which is very rare in picture book villains. And the second shows him meeting a sticky end.
Again, as you’re watching this, I want you to think about how often a young child that thinks this sort of content is cool would come across scenes like these in a picture book.
I think one reason a lot of publishers are averse to including intense irredeemable villainy in picture books is that they are worried that “depictions of villainy in children’s media could make children more immoral.” That’s another assumption that I’m going to address a little later.
The final content element I want to look at is technology. This is a bit different from the other 3 elements we’ve looked at in that there’s no ethical aspect. But technology has a high cool factor for a lot of children and there’s a big difference between the way technology is commonly depicted in picture books and in other children’s media. I think that difference also reflects differing standards of age appropriateness.
Technology has a prominent role in many popular children’s films, TV shows and video games. Star Wars is brimming with sophisticated technology — spacecraft, vehicles, robots, weaponry — but I thought I’d bring things right up to date and looked at some of the technology from Despicable Me 2, which was THE most popular film at UK cinemas last year.
There are picture books that feature technology, but they tend to represent technology in a simplified way. You rarely see the attention to technical detail that you see in a Star Wars spacecraft or a Despicable Me gadget and technology tends to be less prominently presented in picture books. And it’s not just about visual detail, technical language, even simple words like “piston” are often deemed age-inappropriate for picture book texts.
So why are these four content elements, which are abundant in children films and TV shows, rare in picture books? The first reason is very straightforward – rejection. Many publishers don’t regard this content as appealing or age-appropriate for picture book readers.
The other thing that happens is “Bunnification”. This is a phrase I’ve borrowed from an illustrator who used it to describe how the scary, dangerous, technologically-sophisticated content found in children’s films and TV is often made safer, simpler, cuter or more whimsical for inclusion in picture books. While the cute, whimsical aliens and spacecraft found in books like Aliens Love Underpants are very popular with many young readers, they may seem tame and babyish to a child that prefers the more sophisticated aliens and spacecraft found in films like Star Wars.
If we want to create picture books that can match the mainstream appeal of the films we've looked at today, we have to be prepared to “cut out the cute”. While many publishers see cuteness as adding to a picture book’s appeal, many children see cuteness as making a book more babyish and uncool. We have to stop using “cute” as a default setting for picture books.
Before we go any further I’m going to address those two assumptions I mentioned that explain why many people are averse to including combat and irredeemable villainy in picture books. I’ve combined them into this statement:
“Depictions of combat and villainy in children’s media will make children more aggressive and immoral!”So how does the BBFC justify the inclusion of combat and villainy in U certificate children's films and TV shows? This quote from the BBFC’s web site explains their approach:
“‘U’ films should be set within a positive moral framework and should offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror”.Essentially what they’re saying is that this sort of content is OK for four-year-olds, providing it’s carefully framed. Is that true? Or is this content likely to have a detrimental effect no matter how carefully it’s presented? I’m a picture book author - I’m not qualified to answer that question, but I have a friend who is …
Claire Laurence is a psychologist at the University of Nottingham who specialises in the study of aggression and specifically in the factors that trigger aggression. When I first started looking at this content issue a couple of years ago, Claire helped me to write an essay called NATURE and NURTURE. The first two thirds of that essay is about sex differences in children’s preferences. But the last third deals with this question of whether or not depictions of combat and villainy in children’s media are likely to encourage aggressive, immoral behaviour in children.
On the other hand, depictions of aggression that encourage the individual to identify with the victim, where aggressive behaviour is penalised or depicted in a negative way can have an inhibiting effect. And that’s why Claire felt that the BBFC approach to depictions of combat and violence in U certificate media was not only reasonable, but could be beneficial. While this distinction is widely recognised in other media, it’s not widely recognised in picture books which tend to avoid depictions of aggression altogether.
So why do picture books have differing standards of age-appropriateness to films and television? Age-appropriateness is a subjective judgement and I think these differences reflect who is making that judgement.
In the case of films and television, age appropriateness is determined by the BBFC who carry out public consultations every five years to ensure that their judgement reflects the view of the UK population as a whole. As well as consulting existing filmgoers, they carry out a "General Public Sample". As a statutory body, the BBFC is obliged to ensure that these consultations are demographically representative of gender, race, age, social class and regional differences in the UK population.
The age appropriateness of picture book content is largely determined by publishers. And while publishers' judgements are also informed by market research, that research tends to be based on the existing picture book market which is not demographically representative of the population as a whole.
If we want every child in every home to engage with books from an early age, picture books need to follow the BBFC's example and adopt standards of age appropriateness that reflect the judgement of the population as a whole.
I started this seminar with these quotes about how children are increasingly embarrassed to be seen reading. As I said then, first impressions are important. I think picture books are giving many children the impression that books are a safe, tame, uncool alternative to other media.
Obviously one size does not fit all. Every child is different and there are many children that won’t find the sort of content I’ve highlighted appealing.
I’m not arguing that we need this sort of content in ALL picture books! I am arguing that we need this sort of content in some picture books, if we want picture books to appeal to ALL children.
If we want all children to recognise that reading can be cool, we need many more picture books that are COOL and NOT CUTE!