Keeping Children Safe during the Pandemic: Self-Published Picture Books

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 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…

Self-published Picture Books: The Case of Healthy Holly

Here’s Holly! Catherine Pugh, Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun! (Baltimore: C. E. Pugh, 2010), p. 26. Cotsen unprocessed.

It’s been fairly difficult to score copies of  the Healthy Holly titles, whose shady distribution scheme brought down their author, Catherine Pugh , former mayor of Baltimore. There was the question of how many picture books  Pugh wrote “dedicated to improving the physical health of children.”  The sizes of their print runs was also a mystery.  Had the FBI impounded them all as evidence or are there still dusty boxes languishing in Baltimore warehouses?

Now that Pugh has resigned her post and been indicted for corruption, copies have been drifting onto the market.  The three published in 2010, “Exercising is Fun,” “A Healthy Start for Herbie!” and “Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow” are turning up more often than the fourth one, “Walking with your Parents is Fun,” which was glimpsed during the Healthy Holly segment that aired April 7 2019 on “Last Week Tonight.”  John Oliver, will you donate your copy to Cotsen, if your staff didn’t lift the picture of it from the Web? Likewise the fifth, “Vegetables are not just Green.”  Neither Abebooks nor Ebay have listed copies the days I’ve checked, but there are images on Google, so there is still hope.

The Cotsen collection now has copies of the first three–“Exercising,” “Herbie,” and “Fruits. ”   A few interesting details.  ISBN numbers, check.  One was printed in Canada.   A social media presence was established on Facebook and Twitter for the series in “Herbie” and “Fruits.”   To write Holly directly, an e-mail account was set up:  The address of Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in Baltimore was given for those wanting to place orders by phone or snail mail.  As of last week, the e-mail address and telephone number were not operational….

Copy editing, layout, and back cover design are credited to Carmelitta Green.  She doesn’t seem to be an experienced graphic designer or the series would have been more uniform in concept, with the same features in the same order in the same place in every book.  The “bookplate,” which provides the owner with three lines for recording name and address, was not placed on the inside front cover, but on any preliminary page where there happened to be room.  Title page placement is also haphazard.   In “Herbie” and “Fruits,” it was on the back of the half title, falling on the left-hand side of the title spread where the frontispiece should be.  On the right hand side where the title ought to be, is technical information about publication that normally goes on the back of the title.  To underscore the first book’s message that  physical movement is healthy, the words “fun,” “exercise,” “healthy,” “walk,” “walks,” “walking,” “ride,” “riding,” “rode,” swim,” “jumps rope,” “jumping rope,” and “dancing” (but not “bike”) are set in bold.   This feature was dropped in the other two books.  

Journalists’ hilarity over the embarrassing blips in punctuation has sidelined the more important question, how good are the Healthy Holly books?  Let’s put aside the rolling revelations about Pugh’s business practices and assume that at the beginning her desire to persuade children to eat better and exercise more was sincere.  Her previous work was a self-published book of poetry, Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow (2005), which is not much in the way of preparation for the challenge of writing short fiction teaching children how to live.  Readers can and do scoff at the earnest author who tries to offer advice and critics rarely give a break to any children’s text that smacks of didacticism.

Pugh must be a firm believer in the saying, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief”  because Holly talks like this… “I will be healthy.”  “Welcome to my world where exercising is fun.” “Fruits taste so good.  They are sweet and juicy. They are healthy.”  “When he [little brother Herbie] gets bigger, I will help him have fun eating right.  I will help him exercise…He will be like me.  I’m Holly and he will be Healthy Herbie.”   Any kid with an ear will resent being talked down to in such wooden dialogue.   And what kind of payoff does Holly hold out to young readers for following her tips? “Eating healthy and exercising will help you to live longer like your grandparents.”  It takes a while for children to correlate change with time, so will this pitch actually resonate with the intended readers of the Healthy Holly books?

Holly, with her brown skin, dark eyes, and Afro-textured hair seems to have been conceived as a role model for Baltimore’s children of color.   But the lack of continuity in these illustrations of her from the back covers suggest that the Hollys could have been drawn by three artists working  independently.  Or could the differences have been deliberate?  Holly could be of Near Eastern descent.  Or African-American.  Maybe even Filippino or LatinX.

The first page in Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun. Notice the anthropomorphic sun and cloud in the upper left hand corner and the pink lamp post possibly inspired by Lumiere in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

Holly’s world isn’t described in much detail–Pugh left that job to Andre Forde who was an enthusiastic supporter of the mayor’s campaign to help children without ever having met  her.   He considers himself as an entrepreneur rather than an artist, so he could have farmed out the illustrations to other people in his organization or to outside contractors.  Whoever did them, the illustrations in Candyland colors depict a generic cityscape, where there are clean, green parks to play in and quiet streets where bikes can be ridden three across.  Her fit full-figured mother has time to walk her daughter to the library during the day, as if she doesn’t have employment outside the home.  The intact nuclear family lives in a comfortable, well-furnished house and sits down at night to a home-cooked dinner, not fast food or takeout.

Pugh preaches the benefits of Holly’s healthy lifestyle as if it didn’t cross her mind how difficult it would be for many families to emulate it. This comes out most clearly in Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow.  Holly’s family does not live in a food desert and the food budget is sufficiently generous that her parents can take her on an educational trip to the grocery store.  There she’s allowed to chose fruits that match the favorite colors in her crayon set (Holly, who looks seven or eight in this book, is surely too old to be thrilled by this proposition).  The scenes in the produce department look as if they were created by someone who has never gone food shopping.  The strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, which have are not drawn to scale, are packed loose in bins instead of in containers. (Examine the pictures carefully and you’ll see that some of the fruits have been drawn and others Photoshopped in).  Instead of bagging the fruits and arranging them carefully in the cart to minimize damage to the delicate ones, Holly and her mother just pile them in with a watermelon, which will bruise or squash everything by the time they get home.
The mixed messages of the Healthy Holly books may be due more to Pugh’s inexperience as a writer, than to her quest for alternative ways of financing her political ambitions.  Whatever the circumstances and motivations, these amateurish picture books are on a par with most children’s books published outside normal trade channels today.  Pugh didn’t have to rely on to distribute her works, as she had set up an LLC for that purpose.   For less savvy writers, Amazon offers a means to promote values they believe the majority culture should be voicing louder.  Forgoing the services of a professional editor may be seen as a trade-off worth taking: the aspiring writer may prefer knowing that third parties will not dilute the message. Good grammar, attention to accidentals, and competent production are less important.

In the end, it comes down to this: why would a young reader trust Holly as an role model?  She acts as if she would never ever sit on the couch watching cartoons, drinking soda, and crunching Pringles.   Is she so perfect that she never struggles to overcome the temptation to eat tasty foods laden with salt, sugar, preservatives and empty calories?   Her mom knows her nutrition facts and has the money to buy accordingly.  But what about a working mom without access to decent grocery stores, money to buy fresh produce, and time to cook?  In Holly’s fantasy world it’s no more complicated than just saying “No,” which is, of course, a big, fat lie.  Aspiring and doing are two different things and the ability to follow through may depend largely on the socio-economic class a person belongs to.