Reviews 2016

Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts

Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts. Ed. Janet Evans. London and New York: Routledge, 2015. 293 pages. $53.95 (paperback).

Picturebooks have become popular all over the world not only among readers but also among researchers. They deserve to be called the genre of 21st century. Janet Evans is one of the world experts on such books, exploring them both from theoretical and practical points of view (she has worked with children in eight countries!). In Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks, she gathered ten other scholars involved in picturebook research and asked them to write about these "challenging and controversial" works of art. The contributors come from six countries (Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Norway), which provides diverse perspectives.

The editor divided the volume into four parts, but there are actually three parts containing academic papers and a kind of a "frame": "Children’s thoughts on challenging and controversial picturebooks," reported and classified by Evans, followed by "Adults’ thoughts..."" at the beginning (pages XXV-XLV), and "Thoughts from a children’s book publisher" in the form an interview with Klaus Flugge at the end (part IV, pages 261-284). It is clear that the ambition of the editor was as exhaustive a presentation of the subject as possible. However, the subtitle of the book (Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts) suggests mainly reader-response research. The first part consists of essays discussing the problem of challenging and controversial picturebooks theoretically with different methodological tools.

There are four articles in every part and one of them is an essay by Evans herself. At first she discusses the terms used in the title of the book, analyzing them carefully. She sketches briefly all problems that are going to be developed by the other contributors, naming the main picturebook artists, listing the titles and asking questions. She stresses the open character of the research: "Many of the questions I started with remain" (28). In this first essay, the author and editor reveals her emotional attitude to the subject and strong personal opinions that are easy to find in the whole book. She is against any censorship: "Many children who are not allowed access to these kinds of challenging picturebooks, on the grounds that they are too young or immature, are being patronised. Their everyday lives are often filled with far greater personal worries and challenges that those they may find in books" (6). This reflection appears several times all over the book. Evans presents a long list of "disturbing and often intensely thought-provoking subjects" that picturebooks deal with: "death and dying; love, sex and violence; depression, sadness and loneliness; intolerance; murder; suicide; drugs; bullying; racism; the holocaust; domestic abuse; abortion and even child burial!" (11).

Perry Nodelman’s essay reverts the problem in a very interesting way as it focuses on best-sellers that are not seen as "controversial." Nodelman proves "the surprising oddity of the books we most take for granted" (33). He also shows the common features of popular picturebooks and "mainstream ideologies" they convey (47). He focuses on depicting animals as humans in books and the consequences of this personification. While Evans and Nodelman discuss the issue of what challenging and controversial picturebooks are like, Sandra L. Beckett and Åse Marie Ommundsen try to answer the question who they are for. Beckett presents and analyses modern picturebooks based on traditional fairy tales, emphasising the role of adult mediators. She encourages them not to be afraid of books "presenting potentially disturbing images and ideas" (68). Ommundsen focuses on a detailed analysis of two Scandinavian picturebooks on abortion and divorce: De skæve smil [The Crooked Smiles] by Oskar K and Lilian Brøgger (2008) and Krigen [The War] by Gro Dahle and Kaia Dahle Nyhus (2013). She classifies them as crossover fiction aimed at both children and adults. She reveals and exposes its "polyphonic multilayered narrative structures" (73). As she concludes,"[i]t is not the book’s content that decides whether a child reader is addressed or not, but rather the ways of writing: Who does the narrator’s voice address?" (91)

Part II opens with Evans’s theoretical reflections on a new kind of a book, i.e. a mixture of comics, graphic novels and picturebooks that "blurs the boundaries" (97) and uses many different techniques. The author calls it a "fusion text," giving as an example The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKeen (2003). She also discusses other works of this team and mentions books by other artists. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer undertake a detailed analysis and interpretation of Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks (2000), showing the ways in which it challenges a reader. They claim that the book "helps children to learn how emotions can be verbally expressed" (157) and teaches empathy. Interestingly, most texts are marked by a strong conviction that it is usually adults that are not ready for challenging picturebooks, and not children. It is validated by the findings of the observational research conducted by Marnie Campagnaro (with the help of Alessandra Carraro, a sociologist), presented in the article subtitled "How visual explorations shape the young readers’ taste." The author applies theories of Barthes, Gombrich and Gadamer to "the picturebook reading process of a child attending primary school" in Italy (124). One of the conclusions is especially interesting and inspiring: "...during the primary school years [children] gradually give up the habit of using symbolic and figurative languages to read and interpret external and inner reality" (141). The younger a child is, the more eager it is to discuss challenging visual texts! Then the school education teaches children to use schemes to which they stick. Campagnaro thus concludes her discussion: "The main question is whether teachers are well enough 'equipped' to share with children challenging controversial picturebooks because children surely are" (141-142). Elizabeth Marshall’s contribution also deals with future teachers’ skills and opinions on controversial visual books. The author formulates the following conclusions, which actually could be a motto of the whole volume: "The use of any children’s literature in the classroom underscores a particular politics, whether intentional or not, and it is important for educators to critically examine the stories they share (or are mandated to teach) in schools" (170). The reception and interpretation of controversial picturebooks is much related to one’s worldview.

Part III presents children’s responses to picturebooks. Sandie Mourao discusses reactions of Portuguese primary school students to a wordless picturebook Loup Noir [Black Wolf] by Antione Guilloppé (2004). The wolf as a literary character is also discussed by Kerenza Ghosh, who reports her reading experiment with children challenged by two controversial picturebooks and reflects on the their reading process (negotiating meanings, changing opinions and presuppositions, playing with words, discovering meaningful details in pictures). Two last chapters—by Sylvia Pantaleo and Janet Evans—deal with children’s responses to such issues as "childhood despair and depression" (in Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, 2001) and migration (in Home and Away by John Marsdena and Matt Ottley, 2008). Young readers’ thoughts and conclusions are sometimes incredibly deep and mature.

Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts leaves the readers with many inspiring and provocative ideas, as well with the most accurate remark of "the legendary Klaus Flugge," a children’s book publisher: adults "very often don’t give enough credit to young children" (270).

Krystyna Zabawa
Jesuit University Ignatianum, Poland