Leonard Marcus, in the November/December 2010 issue of Horn Book (my favorite magazine about children’s books) writes an interesting piece about foreign picture books – and why in the United States we see so few of them.
Everything else is going global, so why not children’s books? In the U.S. we have ready access to foreign culture through world music, foreign films, and a growing number of books for adults in translation – not to mention, the Internet. But children’s books? Not so much, despite the obvious need for American children to learn about other countries and cultures.
Marcus cites a number of factors. One is the economy. Drastically fewer picture books are being published in the United States; those that are tend to be safe bets. Books for all age levels that are most likely to turn a profit are series with proven track records and those by well-known authors and celebrities. Few foreign books fit into those categories.
Another issue, believe it or not, is sexuality. Frankness about the human body – at least for book-reading children -- is much more accepted in many other countries than in the U.S. When was the last time you saw a U.S. children’s book that depicts a breast-feeding mother? This common experience for young children and their siblings is reflected in European children’s books, but almost never in the U.S. (Passing gas, however, is wildly popular. Go figure! The Captain Underpants series, Walter the Farting Dog, and Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, to name just a few.)
Finally, there are differences in cultural style and imagery. Americans are said to prefer more character-based illustrations, while Europeans are keen on design. Marcus also gives an example of differing cultural perceptions from Mitsumasa Anno’s well-known book from the 1970s, Anno’s Alphabet. Anno’s first “A” illustration of an angel was changed to an anvil because his Japanese angel wasn’t recognizable to Westerners.
The challenge of communicating across cultures is something for writers and illustrators to keep in mind. Cultural authenticity is prized these days; yet too much cultural specificity may render a book too “foreign” for general readership outside that culture. At the same time, children around the globe have similar basic wants and needs. Some stories have enough life of their own to reach all children.
Children want and need to learn about other cultures in this increasingly interconnected world. That’s one more reason why funding for public and school libraries is important. Librarians and teachers provide the context for children to understand more culturally specific stories. Library and school purchases help support the publication of valuable books that don’t necessarily meet the mass-sales criteria at chain stores.
Though retail rules the roost at present, I’m willing to bet that some of your most beloved children’s books got their start in schools and libraries.