Picture Books for Coping with the Pandemic

An obvious advantage of self-publication is a quick turnaround time: a writer can respond to rapidly shifting social currents faster than with a trade publisher, who may be reluctant to move quickly on a subject whose relevance may wilt within weeks or months.  A full-service self-publishing outfit like Zuri Book Pros, for example, offers an author plenty of options for the book’s look and feel.  Depending upon the desired illustration style, the $40-60 per page charge includes layout, unlimited changes, and no royalty fees.   A flurry of picture books explaining the concept and practice of social distancing, the necessity of wearing masks, and the challenges of on-line learning entered the marketplace of ideas in May via self-publication and they can be identified on the final page with the colophon “Made in the U.S.A.” with the date of printing in Middletown, Delaware (most often), which may indicate printing on demand at an Amazon facility.

Another reason many authors like self-publication is greater control of self-promotion on an Amazon store,  YouTube channel, and social media accounts, on top of the more traditional methods of an illustrated series list or author bio prominently placed within the book.  Several of these timely titles are the latest additions to well-established series featuring signature characters like  Little Spot, who helpfully reminds little distance learners about one of the most important things to do before an on-line class in the pamphlet on dos and don’ts of distance learning. The early childhood educator, Shondra M. Quarles (@eyeheartteaching), lists her award from the National Celebrity Educators and being selected as a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Indie Author Award competition.  Artist and proud mom of two, Diane Albers tries to increase the instructional value of her “Inspire to Create a Better You” series by offering free “printables” and worksheets on her website on the final page of advertisements.  The slickest of the three is the MyDragonBooks.com. The creator Steve Herman reveals nothing about himself beyond a self-characterization as  “passionate about teaching children valuable social and emotional life lessons through his cute, fun, and relatable dragon children’s books.”   The merch has been thought through carefully: stickers, soft toys, audio and activity books, and art prints (no artists credited) plus bulk shipping for orders over $25.  Any visitor to the site can download for free a high-res coloring sheet, which the author encourages customers to return to him filled in with crayons.

The two most successful of this group of pandemic picture books—and by “successful” I mean are good reads and have a fair chance of  influencing children’s behavior for the better–are the most lively and life-affirming. Shondra M. Quarles’ No, Calvin! could only have been written by a teacher.  The twenty-five word text is brought to life by the Turkish illustrator Hatice Bayramogul ‘s pictures of Calvin forgetting all the rules his teacher is trying to drill into him.  He’s an energetic, exasperating little sweetie and when the mask finally goes on the right way, Calvin and his teacher flash heart-hands and she tells him that she loves him. Katie Sedmak recognizes the difficulty of teaching children to push down their natural desire to express affection by squeezing, kissing, and bouncing.  Her If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug! is an adorable illustrated poem that models how to communicate friendship through laughter, listening, gift-giving, and smiling acted out by jolly,  even boisterous, animals.  The lion recommends, “If you can’t share snoring / Share roars,/ Chests puffed, manes fluffed, / We see who growls the loudest.”   The tough reality of social distancing is acknowledged with a light touch, while presenting the alternatives as proof of people’s capacity to adapt and to enjoy  it. 

School is Different this Year and That’s Okay co-authored by Susan Leininger and Julie Bair tries hard to normalize the extraordinary with reassurances that different solutions for different families and different reactions by different kids to the same circumstances is perfectly normal, which is true.  The happy  community of  birds and beasts are quick to see the upside of a year that promises to be anything but business-as-usual.  On-line shopping sure beats dragging the kids from store to the store for non-existent packs of toilet paper.   The mice mask, the giraffes do not, and it’s all cool.   Unfortunately, the authors’ depiction of a complete and easy-going tolerance within the community hits a false note when over the summer we have all learned how quickly the act of mask-wearing could be politicized and used as a divisive symbol of political affiliation.   

Steve Herman, the creator of the My Dragon Books series, takes a stricter approach to training children the way they should go, as demonstrated by his young dragon whisperer Drew.  His hapless pet Diggory Doo looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and some species of dinosaur, not a miniature menacing Smaug sleeping on a mountain of glittering ill-gotten gains.  Diggory is a creature to whom Drew can quite sharply order not to torch his mask accidentally, finger sternly raised.. (Herman failed to take it into consideration that Diggory’s compliance with Drew’s prohibition would require the fire-breathing pet to hold its breath the entire time it was masked.) Poor old Diggory gets in more trouble for coveting his friend’s  smart face-covering so much that he suggests a swop (a complete non-starter) and for giving Drew a mighty snap in the face with a mask cum sling-shot.   Eventually  the miserable beast confesses how much he hates wearing a mask and tearfully concedes that he will try to be a good sport and wear it because Drew tells him to, but  he still doesn’t understand why.  After Drew patiently explains it all to Diggory. he realizes that by wearing the mask, he is nothing less than a public health superpower and is inspired to contribute to the cause of containing COVID-19.

Lucy’s Mask by Lisa Sirkis Thompson builds to the same realization, but tries to engage the little reader’s moral sense through the main character’s imaginative flight about all the exciting things she can be as soon as her mother finishes making her a mask.   It takes just a few words from her mother to convince Lucy that she will be playing a much more important role than an ordinary superhero when she wears a mask that covers her mouth instead of her eyes.   Off they go in their masks to visit Grandmother while keeping them all safe.  That is a kind of everyday heroism we can all  emulate…

School Days in Children’s Books

Returning to school this fall has been bewildering for students, parents, teachers, and staff.  Here’s a post about school books from the past whose illustrations suggest that  the process of education has never been especially orderly or  free from distractions.  Welcome back!  And the publishing new posts will resume next week.

One of the interesting aspects about cataloging children’s books is seeing an amazing variety of illustrated materials–fiction, stories, poetry, history, as well as books about history, science, technology, nature, animals, birds, insects–illustrated books of all shapes and sizes. Some scholars don’t really consider instructional materials to be children’s “literature” per se, but these kinds of books, games, and ephemera that were used to “home school” children constitute an important part of the Cotsen collection too. .

As a cataloger, I often encounter a dizzying array of material randomly, since they are described in the order that they’ve been acquired. The sheer variety is part of the fun. But sometimes, I serendipitously encounter books on similar subjects that seem to complement each other or to suggest connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me if only looking at one alone. Just this week, I saw several educational books about teaching children that also pictured children themselves in the accompanying illustrations. Let’s take a look…

Frontispiece : The Boys' School

Frontispiece: The Boys’ School, or Traits of Character in Early Life / by Miss Sandham (London: John Souter, 1821?) Cotsen acc. no. 6100564

The engraved frontispiece of The Boys’ School, or Traits of Character in Early Life (undated but published about 1821) shows a well-appointed (and generally quite orderly!) school-room–notice all the books and several globes on the shelves in the background. A well-dressed boy expounds an astronomical problem to a smiling master sitting at his desk in front of a small class. Note the compass the boy holds, the telescope, and the other astronomy, navigation, or time-keeping paraphernalia in the foreground too. Looking at the illustration, it’s not clear to me how much attention the other boys are paying to the recitation though, but at least they’re in their seats! Generally, a scene of enlightened decorum is effectively presented.

The frontispiece pretty much speaks for itself, but the text it accompanies tells us that this is a private school for a “limited number of boys,” and that Mr. Morton, the master was “good-natured” with a “steadiness of temper.”

It’s worth pointing out that, while the process of education is depicted in the frontispiece, the real object of this book is the moral education of its readers, as the author makes clear in her preface. The main character is one of the “children of affliction”–an orphan named William Falkner of small size and weak body–who is at first ridiculed by other students for his “personal defects” at the school, but who shows his mental and moral strength in the course of the story via his accomplishments. In many respects, this presentation is characteristic of English “moral tales” for children of its era.

Moving back in time, Elementary Dialogues for the Improvement of Youth (published in 1790 as the first English version, of Joachim Campe’s Kleine Seelenlehre für Kinder) is presented in the form of a dialogue between a tutor and his students. While generally benevolent, the tutor employs some educational techniques not exactly in accord with current practices today. At one point, for instance, he appears at the beginning of the day “with a knotted handkerchief in his hand; and without speaking, strikes each of the boys with it.” This isn’t as punishment for misbehavior though, but to demonstrate cause and effect to the boys in a way they’ll remember.

"the poor blockhead at his wit's end

“The poor blockhead at his wit’s end”: Elementary Dialogues for the Improvement of Youth / by J.H. Campe (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1792) Cotsen acc. no. 6334569

One of the illustrations depicts what I first thought was a studious boy in a library or study–maybe a model scholar?. There’s no caption to key a response, but notice the books, including one open on the desk before the boy. Take a look for yourself and see what you think!

Yet the accompanying text tells a different story. The tutor’s narrative describes the boy as a “poor blockhead at his wit’s end.” Unable to do a merchant’s apprenticeship text in writing and arithmetic, the boy “struck his forehead to correct himself for want of diligence … having profited little by education and…lost his time in running about and at play.”

As the text makes explicit, the tutor first shows this illustration to his students–as he does with the fifteen others presented in the book–and then elicits responses from them as he explains the context–which is immediately apparent to the boys in this case, who “read” the illustration more correctly than I did! Perhaps the moral here–at least for catalogers–is that you can’t tell a story by looking at one picture!

In some books, the illustrations make visible in graphical terms what the author is trying to describe in the text–they play a secondary or supporting role. In other books, such as toybooks by Caldecott, the illustrations ironically comment upon, or even undercut, the text; they can even become the primary narrative element. (And, to be honest, in some children’s books, there’s little relation between text and illustration; the illustrations are essentially decorative.) In Elementary Dialogues, text and illustration work together, the pictures intended to “make sensible” to children the “ideas” that the author wants to present. This method is meant to leave “the pleasure of discovering [the ideas] to the children,” and is consistent with the theories that Locke presented for using illustrations and objects for children’s education.

Having had all this moral and conceptual education, it’s time for a break, don’t you agree?

And so apparently do the students shown in the engraved frontispiece of Christmas Holidays: a Poem Written for the Amusement & Instruction of All Good Masters & Misses in the Known World by Tommy Tell-Truth, B.A., published circa 1767 (some titles are too good to shorten!).

Frontispiece: Christmas Holidays

Frontispiece: Christmas Holidays: a Poem (London: H. Roberts & H. Turpin [ca. 1767] (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802

Here we see an eighteenth-century English class on the verge of their Christmas break. A benevolent-looking master gives out a prize, or treat, to one student, perhaps a star pupil? The rest of the students look like they’re about to explode with delight. (Remember that feeling yourself when in school?) One boy skates out of the picture at lower right, school-bag and hat in hand; other students stand and cheer (Huzza!) or chatter amongst themselves–a sense of festive jollity prevails over order or decorum. Compare this scene with that depicted in the 1820’s Boy’s School frontispiece above, in particular the number of students, their clothing and the general classroom decor. (We’ve moved from the world of Jane Austen back to the world of Tom Jones, or so it seems to me.)

Detail of frontispiece: (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802)

Detail of frontispiece: Christmas Holidays (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802)

Of particular interest to me are the boys shown on the left side of the engraving. In the foreground, one boy stuffs his school-bag (his back completely turned to the master) while another sprawls on the floor, holding his stomach in laughter while clutching a paper, perhaps his term grades? Meanwhile, two boys feed the fire with what appears to be the master’s birch rod and disciplinary paddle. The whole scene is one of blissful abandon and festive misrule, not inappropriate considering that another engraving in the book, titled “Twelfth Night,” depicts the festivity of a group of carousing adults, some apparently in their cups.