Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I love children's books. Always have, always will. I think the day you grow out of children's books, is the day you really get old. If you don't feel your heart swell when you read the dialogue between Pooh and Piglet, notice the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention at a tense Potter extract, snort with laughter at the latest Sue Kendra or Kes Gray, or feel a wash of genuine childlike joy at the mere sight of a Julie Donaldson and Axel Scheffler effort, then, and only then, should you consider yourself officially over the hill.
Until then, you've still got it, kiddos.
Adventure is the best introduction to story time...
In 2017, I took my then 6-year-old son to Northern Ireland for a mummy-son adventure. One evening, after a day exploring from beach to hidden waterfalls, we cosied up on our big double bed together and I read him a book that we'd picked up from a second-hand book shop, whilst he dozed off. Towards the end of the story, my son opened his eyes and sat up to look at one of the few illustrations. He studied the page for a while, before saying "That's not how I imagined it in my head, Mummy". He went on to tell me that, when I was reading, he was imagining the story in his head and had conjured up the characters and setting - and they didn't match those in the book. We talked about what he had imagined and then we played a game of describing something and imagining it in our head and then sharing what and who we had created. This activity was loads of fun but it also sparked something inside me. Something that would eventually become Picture-This Books™.
Once this switch had been flicked, I couldn't turn it off. The more children's books I read to my son, the more I noticed the similarities between the character and setting illustrations. Everything looked incredibly manicured and almost uniform - weird considering what wonderful and imaginative stories were being told. I went through the hundreds of children's books on his shelves and around the home and I realised, with horror, that there was also a notable lack of characters of colour - in the stories themselves as well as the illustrations - particularly in terms of influential characters. I'm ashamed to say I had not noticed this before.
Now remember how much I love children's books! It wasn't that I was suddenly against children's books or hating my favourites (never!) but I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what I was seeing. And I know that 'uncomfortable' is a ridiculously privileged reaction to something that runs much deeper for so many.
I kept digging and I looked into other areas of representation and inclusivity. Everything from additional needs, mental health, family units, class. I cringed at the stats and the discrepancy between the world portrayed in our children's books and the one they wake up to and go to sleep in every day. Something was amiss. Something is amiss.
Not only are we showing our children a perversely whitewashed version of the world but we are also selling it to them as normal. I began looking at children's books very differently from that moment on. After all, if our children are seeing the same characters and settings over and over again to the point where they consider those characters and settings 'normal' but can't actually relate that normal to what they see every day, how does that leave them feeling?
Abnormal. Different. Weird. Like they don't fit. Uncomfortable. Awkward. Embarrassed. Out of place.
Picture-This Books™ is every child's place.