In 1966, one of Sweden’s most popular children’s writers, Jan Lööf, published Grandpa is a Pirate, an illustrated children’s book, which featured, among other characters, the wicked pirate Omar and the street peddler, Abdullah. The book has been a bestseller ever since, and has been translated into English (as My Grandpa is a Pirate), Spanish, French and other languages. Ten years ago, 100,000 copies of it were even distributed to the Swedish public with McDonald’s Happy Meals, as part of an initiative to support reading among children.
Ah, but those were the days of yesteryear! Now, fifty years later, the book is no longer tolerable. The now 76-year-old author told Swedish news outlets that his publisher recently said that unless he rewrites the book and changes the illustrations, it will be taken off the market. The publisher also threatened to withdraw another of his books unless it is redone: it features an illustration of a black jazz musician who sleeps with his sunglasses on.
Lööf’s publisher, the Swedish publishing giant Bonnier Carlsen, says that it has not yet made a final decision and that it only views the rewriting and re-illustrating of the books as “an option.” There is no doubt, however, that they consider the books in question extremely problematic.
A celebrated Swedish illustrator has spoken out after being asked by his publisher to change “stereotypical depictions of other cultures” in his popular children’s books.
Jan Lööf, who won the Astrid Lindgren prize in 2011 “for meritorious authorship within the realm of Swedish literature for children and youth”, told Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter this week that his publisher Bonnier Carlsen had asked him to change images in two of his books, Morfar är sjörövare (Grandpa Is a Pirate) and Ta fast Fabian (Catch Fabian).
The first title, which was published in 1966, sees a boy and his grandfather set out to steal the treasure of an evil pirate named Omar, while the second features an image of a man in a tribal costume.
Lööf told Dagens Nyheter that he had been given an ultimatum – either change certain illustrations in the books or they would be pulled from sale.
Robert Muchamore with interesting observations about gender and children’s publishing….
Speaking at the Hay Festival, in an event with author Sophie McKenzie, [Robert] Muchamore, the author of the best-selling Cherub series, said: “The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve realised that actually girls and boys are more into the same things than they are into different things.
“There’s a lot of convention in children’s publishing – that if you write a book for a boy it’s got to be very simplistic, it’s got to have lots of action in it because all boys want to do is run around and bang their heads up against the wall because they’re lunatics.
“And if you write for a girl it’s got to be about make-up and lipstick and kissing boys and all that. And it’ s just not true.
“My books have got bits of all of that stuff in and what I actually find is that I get emails from boys who are really interested in who James’s girlfriend is going to be or what relationship he’s going to have in the next book; I get emails from girls who are interested in the action scenes.”
Gendered book covers are a large part of the problem.
Muchamore said: “I think there’s a lot of cliché, especially the way children’s books are packaged sometimes. You’ve got the pink girls’ books, and the boys’ books with a man running on the cover. I find it all a bit depressing really, because the longer I’ve written I find once you’ve got past the barrier of getting the boy or the girl to pick the book up and read it, what they actually like inside the books is actually much more the same. “
Canada’s Globe & Mail has had a go, in an editorial, at the UK’s IoS editor’s announcement that she will no longer consider for review books that come in gender-specific cover designs.
“A tad fanatical”, the editorial thinks.
The sins of undiscerning marketers should not be visited on innocent children’s books. Katy Guest, the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper in Britain, announced on the weekend that henceforth no children’s book that is marketed by the publisher as “for girls” or “for boys” would even be considered for review. That strikes us as a tad fanatical.
If there is a problem here, blame adults who know little or nothing about children’s literature (or literature), and just want someone to help them figure out what to buy for this or that child. Yes, a children’s book that is narrowly directed to one gender is probably not a good book. But the fault may lie in a publishing company’s presentation, rather than what the author has written. And is it so wrong for cover designers and dust-jacket writers to try to help buyers, by suggesting who might be most likely to enjoy a book? Ms. Guest’s promise to throw ostensibly gender-targeted children’s books “straight into the recycling pile” will cause injustices.
Christopher Myers writes an important piece in the New York Times
The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.
Publishers Weekly report on the Let Books Be Books campaign:
Timed to World Book Day, which the U.K. and Ireland observe more than a month before the rest of the world, the U.K.-based Let Toys Be Toys campaign – which has advocated for stores to stop labeling playthings as “for boys” or “for girls” – has begun a similar initiative called Let Books Be Books, aimed at erasing gender stereotypes from children’s publishing.
By the end of launch day on March 6, an online petition encouraging publishers to “stop labeling books [in a gendered] way and let children decide for themselves what kinds of stories and activity books they find interesting” had garnered more than 1,500 signatures, most from the U.K. but also extending to continental Europe, North America, and beyond. A Twitter hashtag invited users to join the conversation on stereotyping in children’s books; one parent tweeted: “daughter was excluded by classmates today as not dressed as a princess for #WorldBookDay Sad #LetBooksBeBooks.”