Take Your “Golden Age” and…

So I just read this interview with Neal Porter and Julie Danielson and it was refreshing. In particular, the discussion of the state of publishing resonated strongly with my gag reflex. Emphasis all mine:

NP, talking about trends: But like most trends, they start when a really good book is published that breaks genuinely new ground—It’s a Book and Press Here, published six months apart, are examples that come to mind—and then everyone rushes to mimic its success. That’s frustrating.

But it’s only a part of a larger frustration—the need to serve “the market” at all costs.

[…]

JD, talk about the supposed Golden Age we’re in: I’m glad you said that about the “Golden Age.” I wrote in one of my Kirkus columns recently that, for me, the jury is still out on whether or not it’s a “Golden Age of Picture Books” right now.

To clarify, they both framed this uncertainty with the fact that you don’t know it’s a Golden Age when you’re in it. Well, I’m going to be controversial and say this ain’t it. What this is, I think, is the most markety, contrived time in children’s book history. And I’m sad.

I’m sad because the children’s market is catering only to The Market. This means that if x book does well, suddenly that’s the thing to aim for. Not just aim for, but copy. We want you to be Mo Willems, friends have heard from respected literary agents. Kids like to see things they could have drawn! Kids want a strong brand they can buy! Kids want simple things! Kids do not want the things that were published twenty years ago. Representational crap is out–kids hate that stuff!

All kids? Really? All however many million US children like the same thing? WHO KNEW! ALL CAPS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN A LOT. I’M HARRY POTTER IN BOOK FIVE (MY FAVORITE) AND I’M NOT AFRAID TO SHOW IT.

WARNING: I don’t like a lot of trends. Well, I like the trends when a few people are doing them. When they feel all genuine and (not) shit. I do not like it when trends replace variety. And I do not like it when people avoid saying they’re looking for trendy by framing it around what the kids like. I also don’t like to hear that we left innovation and experimentation back in the 90s. Because, well, we did. During that last Golden Age.

I was a child born in the late 80s. I was swept up in the rebirth of children’s fiction. I was exposed to the classics, and to what are now classics, like the Stinky Cheese Man and the Goosebumps series. I was exposed to high concept picture books (Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, a sorely neglected tale) and to lush retellings (The Talking Eggs). I was of the Scary Stories generation. My favorite early reader was A Dark Dark Wood, especially the story about the green ribbon and the woman’s head falling off. I lived for every American Girl chapter book. I made my parents come to loathe the Berenstain Bears.

Since people use anecdotes to try and dissuade certain concepts, Ima use anecdote to sway things back!

What I’m saying is, I liked everything.

The primary issue here isn’t necessarily concept, but visuals. I mean, the world of MG and YA is positively overflowing, and there are pretty heavy and innovative things happening there. It’s the picture book world that needs some help. (And this is less of an issue with books published outside the US. Lucky ducks.)

Kids haven’t changed. A kid born in 1900 and a kid born today are exactly the same. What changes is the stuff we expose them to. Deciding one day that kids can’t be sold x type of picture book is pure insanity. As a child, I did not prefer books that looked naive or “drawn by kids”. I loved lush, moody, creepy, representational things. Why a kid would suddenly not understand this, or be profoundly disturbed by it, is beyond me. For every kid too scared to read something is a kid not scared at all. Don’t deprive that second child for the sake of the first. They can avoid it. But the second child needs to be able to find it in the first place.

Everyone has an opinion about what kids can handle. The truth is that kids are as varied as adults. Not all adults can handle horror. Not all adults like genre fiction. But guess what, some do! You would never reject a pitch because “it’s too scary for adults”. That just sounds silly. So it should be equally silly to hear it framed around kids. Insisting that kids only like things that appear kid-like is, well, condescending. So many classic children’s books could never, ever be published in today’s market. I grew up at a time when I could get Paul O. Zelinsky and Lane Smith at the same damn time.

Kids love all kinds of things. Simple things, scary things, happy things, silly things, serious things, goofy things. EVERY DAMN THING.

Primitive. Naive. Representational. Conceptual. Digital. Traditional. Serious. Silly. Scary. Fantastic. Let them all exist!

We should be expanding and adding to the visual vocabulary, not closing doors as we walk down the hall. Trends come and go, but they need to be in addition to. Kids should be exposed to variety, and I know damn well they are not one homogeneous group who will resist it.

Sure, there are some groundbreakers still popping up and esteemed illustrators still doing their thing. But often the new kids on the block have a polished pedigree in some other field (especially animation), allowing them wiggle room that untested newbies don’t have. Which, fine, but those are different fields. Someone whose focus is on children’s books and always has been should be given as much credence and due respect as anyone else. They should be given the chance to add that missing variety.

What makes popular illustrators unique and exciting is that there aren’t a hundred others on the shelf nearby. Let them stand out. Let everyone stand out equally.

And this is from someone whose focus is on MG/YA and adult. I’ve seen too much carnage. TOO MUCH.

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