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April 21, 2008

Horrible non-fiction

I think the Horrible books might be illegal.

The Horrible approach, if you don't know it, is a sort of irreverent antithesis of a school textbook, and makes up one of the key trends in British children's non-fiction in recent years (it's also what I'm writing my thesis on).

Martin Barker, in his great book A Haunt of Fears (about campaigns in 1950s Britian against so-called American horror comics) mentions a bill that banned the dissemination to children of publications consisting 'mainly or wholly of stories told in pictures' portraying the commission of crimes, actions of violence and, importantly for the Horribles, 'incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature'. Punishment is four months in prison, or a fine of £100. You can see an image of it reproduced by Barker through googlebooks (it's page 16). According to Barker, it was passed in 1955, renewed in 1965 and remained in force when he was writing in 1984. I checked with a comics expert, and apparently it still applies today.

OK, I'm not serious about this, I'm only really applying it to the Horribles to point out how silly the law is. Crucially, the law notes that the publications would incite young readers to commit a crime, or enact violence or cruelty. For all the vagueness of 'cruelty' (or violence for that matter), it would be hard to apply it to the Horribles. But then, arguably it's hard to apply it to anything much. Media effects isn't exactly a precise science.

I suppose the Horribles, like the Beano or Bugs Bunny before them, get away with being so happily horrible by way of treating the whole thing as a joke. That said, as Barker emphasises, there is an intimate link between humour and the Horror comics this bill was set up in reaction to. I don't think that humour automatically excuses it, and it's not as if Bugs Bunny et al haven't been criticised for violence (think about Marge Simpson's campaign against Itchy and Scratcy). You could also argue that the law doesn't apply to the Horribles simply because they aren't 'stories', but non-fiction, facts, instead - though again, that's pretty slippery.

What this 1955 law really shows us is how much things have changed. Horrible Histories author Terry Deary (in this book, in the late 90s), argues that the whole approach wouldn't have been possible if Roald Dahl hadn't already brought about an acceptability of groteque and dark humour in British children's literature. I guess it's a truism to say people have relaxed since the 1950s, especially in respects to imagery presented to children. Plus, I think Barker's point is partly that the huge fuss made over the horror comics in the 50s, which led to the passing of that bill, was a bit of a crazy moment in British history anyway. Although with the usual suspects of Daily Mail readers, the campaign was fought by communists, worried by the influence of American propaganda.

Still, Mary Whitehouse et al have had an on-going (and surprisingly large) influence on British media (just read this book on Dr Who). Maybe there really are people who object quite strongly to the Horrible books. And maybe they have a point. I don't know, it's an interesting one.

April 16, 2008

Non-fiction picture books ignored again

A recent article in the Economist (April 5-11 2008) bemoans the decline of the picture book and the status of illustration generally in Britain, after the author's visit Bologna children's book fair. But the piece is concerned solely with fiction…

True, the international market is tough and publishers have to compete with the internet, put up with big bookselling conglomerates and a myriad other pressures, but the author's assertion that 'most picture books cannot be published for British readers alone' has been true to some extent since the 1970s.

And there is such maddening tunnel vision with respect to storybooks in children's publishing that seems to exclude the validity of all other forms. Non-fiction and information books for children have long been heavily illustrated with drawing, diagrams and photography of all sorts (witness this random spread from an Usborne NatureTrail book or either of these Aventis Prize winners (2007) from DK.)

If anything, illustrated books are expanding and developing! And don't tell me that photographs and diagrams aren't pictures. The enormous value (both communicative and artistic) of all of these forms is ultimately realised much more often in non-fiction than in children's storybooks.

April 10, 2008

Green books for kids

I saw an announcement for a kids 'green' book award, and it reminded me of an issue I've been thinking about for a while; namely a recent mini boom in kids eco-crit publishing.

There are some really interesting examples out there. Perhaps the most high-profile is the junior book version of An Inconvenient Truth. How's that for crossing media? Lecture to film to book, and adult to kid. There are also a growing range of guides to saving the world today, and don't get me started on the cultural politics of How To Turn Your Parents Green. There's a basic review of such literature published in Nature last December, and a run down of US equivalents can be found here.

There are tonnes of really interesting questions we could ask about these books and I could be all day writing this post. To start with a single point though, I wonder whether it is useful to class them as 'science' books?

There is a long tradition of children's nature guides, which I guess the non-fiction books could fit into. But there is both an analytical tone, and normative force, to these books which the more traditional 'spot the birdie' publications (rooted in Nature Study or similar) would shy away from. Are they politics then? Maybe. But they suggest themselves as factual information, as much as opinion; so are they science? In terms of the fiction and the fictionally-inclined (a lot are purposely in-between fact/ fiction boundaries), children's literature scholars have long argued pro-nature stories in kids SF generally paints science in a bad light, as if nature and science were somehow opposed. Personally, I think that axis is changing slightly, especially within steam-punkish forms of (tech)nostalgia and in some of the fantasy/science fiction genre fusions from writers like Eoin Colfer. Still, Noga might disagree!

Maybe the business of eco-crit for kids is its own small genre (or section of cross-genres). And I don't think we should get carried away assuming this is especially new - just looking back as far as the early 1990s, who remembers Captain Planet? Not to mention Nature Study (again), the Really Wild Show, David Bellamy...

April 1, 2008

NYC toy fair @ Make: a good scroll

Just a bit of eye candy to bridge the posting gap! It is Make's visit to the NYC Toy Fair 2008; follow the link for a great overview with emphasis on DIY/kits/make-it-yourself toy variety! Got this shot of the Tinkertoy from their post. It was hard to choose.