Are We Sometimes Forgetting Kids in Kids’ Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 31, 2015

Recently, I went to see the movie Inside Out. I was charmed by its cleverness and intrigued throughout by the way it followed, raveled and unraveled its themes. What I didn’t love was the heartwrenching little four- or five-year-old’s voice piping up the movie theater aisle for an hour and a half, asking his dad again and again, “Is this Inside Out? Is this Inside Out?” He was confused by the movie, and a little freaked out, and clearly kept wondering when the kids’ movie he was excited to watch would finally come onto the screen.
I have no problem with Disney, Pixar, and co. making animated films for older audiences. Genre expansion and exploration, huzzah! But there are a couple of things going on here that do frustrate me.

One is that American adults tend to have a reductionist approach to almost everything these days; we’re so busy running around not getting things done that we barely give ourselves time to thoughtfully assess anything. “Animated movie” automatically equals “little kid movie,” so we drag tots to stuff that they won’t enjoy and that will give them nightmares for months. (Spoiler warning: the giant teddy bear’s head getting ripped off? The dog sliced in half and running around? That clown! Happy dreams, kiddies! And I thought Dumbo‘s pink elephant sequence was creepy….) I want adults to think just a little bit more about the experiences they’re giving their kids.
This is true with picture books, too; adults see a picture book and assume it must be for young children, when in fact one of the glorious things about picture books is they span such a range of audiences. But many people outside the field don’t realize that, and with all of the pressure to push kids into chapter books and away from what are seen as baby books, kids at ages 6, 7, 8, and older are being steered away from books actually meant for them.
My other frustration is that, as our adult sensibilities and tastes have morphed across the decades, we seem to be forgetting that children (even the smartest, most sophisticated tykes) aren’t simply tiny adults. We have, as a culture, grown so fond of irony and sarcasm that we have forgotten that, developmentally, young children don’t process those forms of humor quite the way we do. They don’t yet have the accumulated life experience and frames of reference to understand and appreciate the sly nudge-wink humor.
One of my colleagues recently said, “Enough with the ‘meta’!” and I know what she meant. She didn’t mean the kind of meta that works so beautifully in The Monster at the End of This Book, the Sesame Street book by Jon Stone. That book brings children in on the joke as Grover tries to hammer the pages shut, tie them down, begging the reader not to turn pages because of a monster at the end of the book that turns out to be — Grover. No. My colleague meant the kind of meta that amuses adults but leaves kids wondering why all the grown-ups are laughing at a picture book they don’t really get.
In part because of pop culture, and I think in part because so many books are born in New York City via people who are hip, smart, sophisticated, and young, our picture book preferences as an industry are tipping perhaps a little bit overmuch toward a single note, a particular voice, attitude, execution.
I’m not trying to sound like Opie’s Aunt Bea here. Funny is my favorite thing, along with smart. Smart and funny are my pb&j. And kids love smart, funny books. I’m just not sure we’re meeting them halfway. It seems as if we are trying to drag them into our adult world of well-armored, loud-funny insouciance, and that those kinds of books are quickly becoming the only kinds of picture books that sell anymore. And I think that’s because those are the books adults find most appealing — for ourselves.
Young children are still learning about the world around them. They need a huge variety of voices and approaches to that world, from the funny to the thoughtful to the extraordinarily ordinary. I guess what I’m saying is that, these days, I’m hungry to see a little more Ferdinand the Bull and Frederick and The Snowy Day on the pages of picture books meant for young kids.
ADDENDUM: As a result of some conversations about this post I’ve been having elsewhere, I’d like to clarify. I am not saying that books with sly humor and meta formats/approaches/humor are uninteresting to children. On the contrary; they can be and often are brilliant. Often, though not always, these books work best with for children who are six, seven, eight years old and up — old enough to start getting the juxtapositions, references, misdirection, etc. Some of them do also work beautifully for young children — because at their heart, they take into consideration how children see and feel the world. The Book With No Pictures works fantastically with young children. They want to hear it again and again — because it empowers them in hilarious ways. It is not a midlife crisis disguised as a book for four-year-olds. (I’m frankly fine with midlife crisis picture books, too. I just want them to be marketed smartly and to the right audience and not inflicted on four-year-olds.)
I am also not saying that books should not have jokes written specifically to crack up the adults reading them. We adults ALL love those moments, and the kids enjoy our enjoyment. Those moments can work wonderfully and make reading time extra fun – as long as they are extra chocolate chips, not the whole cake.
Also, I am *definitely* not trying to limit children to some rigid notion of “age appropriateness.” Children are drawn to all kinds of mysterious, intriguing books they might not fully understand — books of Goya paintings, complex nature guides, their older siblings’ books, etc. Creating books with layers and levels, with content and ideas to reach toward, makes for curious, engaged thinkers and interesting human beings.
My beef is with books that operate on a single level, a level that appeals primarily to older children and adults but is marketed to and/or bought for younger children. I’m talking about the kind of book that, read aloud to a group of children at story hour, leaves them unmoved by emotion or genuine laughter. I don’t want books marketed to young children whose sole enjoyment for the child is that the adults reading it are laughing.
Make those books, by all means. Just market them better. The general bookstore customer assumes that all picture books are for young children, so they pick up these books meant for older readers, wasting opportunities to share incredible books actually meant for three, four, and five year olds.
Finally, I’m saying that, as a culture, we are a little in love with snark and “cool” and a little afraid of earnestness.

16 thoughts on “Are We Sometimes Forgetting Kids in Kids’ Books?

  1. Monica Edinger

    To some degree I think there has been a move up with meta books. That is, I think they may appear to be for the very young, but are better appreciated by older kids (and, of course, adults). My 4th graders have adored many such books that are probably not particularly successful with their younger peers.
    Barnett and Scieszka’s Battle Bunny strikes me as a good example. It works to my mind on several levels — there are us adult readers who enjoy the tweak at the sort of saccharin Golden Books of our youth and then there are my 4th graders who may not have known such books, but delight in what is happening anyway. One recent meta-ish book that I thought worked really well for all ages was B. J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures.
    That said, a non-meta book I have wondered about is Ella ( a clear hipster updating of Eloise. It seemed to speak to a particular demographic and I wasn’t sure if that was a child one at all, especially if they weren’t already familiar with Eloise. Still haven’t decided. My students, after all, are New Yorkers. What about kids elsewhere?
    FYI I had a very similar experience to you when seeing Inside Out and did wonder who it was for exactly. It definitely isn’t for the very young.

  2. Kiera Parrott

    I hear you, but I think part of the issue, as Monica mentions above, is the intended audience. Not all picture books are meant for toddlers and preschoolers. Jon Klassen’s THIS IS NOT MY HAT tends to fall a bit flat with preschoolers and some kindergartners. (Nothing kills a joke like having to overexplain it to a befuddled five-year-old.) But read aloud to a group of first or second graders? Hilarious! They get the dark humor and the visual sophistication of the storytelling.
    Your larger concern about the industry producing too many picture books on the same note, with the same sense of ironic detachment and cynicism, is interesting. I’m seeing tons of beautiful, thoughtful, joy-filled, child-centric picture books. Are many of them making it to the NYTimes Bestseller’s list? Not always. But that could be a symptom of the new generation of parents buying the books. We’re looking at Gen Xers and Millenial parents who came age during much more cynical times and developed a sense of humor more grounded in irony and sarcasm, perhaps, than previous generations. It would make sense that this new generation of parents would buy titles for their kids that resonate with them, too. And hey, at the end of the day, if children are curling up to read a book in the lap of their grownup–be it meta or classic picture book–isn’t that the important part? Most kids would be happy to read the back of a cereal box if it’s read by a grownup they love and are given their full attention. Personally, I’m overjoyed at the sheer number and increasingly diverse picture book offerings for almost every age. Remember back when the NYTimes declared them dead?!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Kiera, yes, THIS IS NOT MY HAT is a great example of a book that needs the right age group. It is brilliant, funny, transgressive — and is often given to young children who absolutely have no clue what’s going on and don’t find it funny when it’s explained. It’s not a tragedy when books hit the wrong audience, but there are lost opportunities there for sheer magic. The right book at the right time is one of life’s greatest pleasures! I think your points are right on – but I do think something is also lost when we, as a culture, armor ourselves with irony. (And I say this as a guilty party myself. Some of my favorite things are satires, spoofs, clever cultural commentary.) We do owe children an opportunity to love things without being ridiculed for it, and I think our cultural and adult cynicism is not helping us become a compassionate nation. I think we can be funny as hell at the same time – but we are rushing kids out of childhood in every conceivable way, and some things are lost along the way.

  3. Marcia Kaplan

    I so agree with your rendition of Inside Out. I was invited by my Grandsons ages 8, 12 and 15. I laughed so hard, while children around me were going what is puberty. The youngest I am sure missed a lot, but the older grans really enjoyed the movie.
    As for books, I totally agree with you. When I sell a picture book I want it to be age appropriate as I do with novels. That is why a good bookseller tries to make sure the book is the right choice when asked by the parents or asks questions to see if it might frighten or disturb their child. Love to read your blogs!

  4. Art DiFuria

    Generally speaking, I agree with this article’s point. Too much meta leaves the kids behind.
    But most kids stuff, going way back to the dawn of so-called children’s literature, has always had more than its share of content aimed at adults.
    I also think the author overplays Inside Out’s inability to appeal to kids. I’m the father of a normal 8 year old boy. He *got* Inside Out with no problem. The concept was easy for him to understand. He didn’t laugh at the same parts as the adults, of course, but this was not just because there was aside material there he didn’t understand. He wasn’t laughing because it turned out to be a deadly serious movie for him. Like most 8 year olds, he knows what it’s like to grapple with feelings of joy, sadness, fear, etc.. We have a new way of talking about his emotions now, thanks to this movie. But we also have a new way of talking about *my* emotions.
    And so perhaps looking at the meta as somehow separate from the children’s content is, in some ways, like looking down the wrong end of the telescope. The meta, if handled properly — and I do think Inside Out handles the meta pretty well — can help you foster connections with your kid.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      My issue with the movie wasn’t the movie, but the fact that (a) it was marketed in a way that wouldn’t alert adults to the fact that it wouldn’t be great for young kids. I think kids who are 8 and up would absolutely enjoy lots of things about the movie (while of course some would go over their heads, but layered art is a good thing). And (b) I wish adults would simply pay more attention to movies before dragging their very young children to them. I realize in writing this post briefly, all of the nuances are left out. I think it’s fine for kids to read and watch material that is beyond their age level or includes references and jokes that will zoom past them. What I’m talking about are works that are not successful with young children but are marketed to them and to parents who don’t understand that picture books span many ages, but think all picture books are for babies to age 5.

      1. Art DiFuria

        Thanks for replying.
        Fair enough, but that wasn’t clear upon first read-through.
        You do point out that the five year old who didn’t get it was “excited to watch” it (presumably because of marketing). But a few sentences later you also point out that we tend to be “reductionist” and so “animated movie = little kid movie.” One sentence suggests that the marketers are culpable for the disconnect you’re critiquing. The other suggests the audience’s responsibility.
        Visually, Inside Out looks like any other Pixar film. And so one could expect people to want to take their 5 year olds to see it. I understand that. But I don’t think it takes much to see that it’s a little more complex than what a five year old could grasp. Watch the trailer. Rather than just saying “Pixar…take the kindergarten class for a field trip,” think, just a little bit, about the concept. It’s clearly a bit heady (that’s a terrible pun, isn’t it?). The ad’s clarity on the film’s basic premise was enough to make me know that a five year old would never in a million years get this film’s premise. I even wondered if my 8 year old would get it.
        Don’t get me wrong…I don’t disagree with your main point. I just don’t agree with this particular example, or the way you use it. I don’t find Inside Out insouciant.

        1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

          Yes, I think it’s both the responsibility of the marketers and the adults — it’s a combo deal. I don’t find Inside Out insouciant at all. I was using the movie as a springboard to talk about an issue I have with some books that feel insouciant to me. The confusion may arise because I don’t name specific books I’m taking issue with. I have no desire to insult talented, creative authors and illustrators who are making terrific books that happen to be reaching the wrong audience. I’m delighted you’re commenting – you are welcome to disagree with my post whole-cloth. I just want to make sure I’m expressing myself clearly.

      2. Corby Michmerhuizen

        I agree with you on b) that parents need to be paying more attention, although I disagree with you on a), as I don’t believe that Pixar marketed this erroneously. The picture book issue and your example of Inside Out isn’t a problem stemming from what is being marketed for children, but more what parents are deciding is appropriate for their children (or not actually taking the time to make a decision and just acting in a sort of self-interest). In the case of Inside Out I don’t get the sense that it was marketed to 4 and 5 year olds — it is about an 11 year old girl’s experience and I felt it was marketed to that mid-elementary age level in the commercials and previews.
        Many parents of 4 and 5 year olds don’t think twice about taking their children to movies that are aimed WAY above their age level. I was recently at a late-afternoon weekend showing of Jurassic World — without my 5 and 9 year old because it was 1) PG13, and 2) not appropriate for either of their temperaments — and there were no fewer than 4 under-six year olds (somewhere around 4 or 5 years old) in the audience — two of which were walked in and out of the auditorium during the movie. Comparatively-speaking, Inside Out was more on target for these kids, whether they understood the neuro-emotional concepts presented or not… In this age of having Common Sense Media around, there really is no excuse as a parent for being “surprised” that little 6 year old Johnny couldn’t sit through {insert title of latest PG-13 action adventure here}.
        As for my 5 and 9 year olds and their Inside Out experience, the 5 year old boy was visually entertained by Inside Out, and particularly the exaggerated antics of Anger and Fear, but not particularly interested in the subtext of the brain/mind nor the angst of an 11 year old girl moving to a new city, while my 9 year old girl was incredibly into the whole storyline and had several questions for me after we exited the theaters about how the brain works and why a kid would choose to run away from home.
        In the same way that picture books are made to give way to chapter book reading, or are read to preschoolers when their content is more digestible to 3rd graders, parents have to put on their critical thinking caps and maybe brush up on child development topics when deciding what to expose their children to at various ages. I can’t really fault Pixar nor the publishers of children’s books for what is ignorance, laziness, or self-interest on the part of parents. At least the act of reading ANY book to a child supplies an experience with language and closeness with an adult, even if they don’t get the joke.

  5. Kate Hannigan

    Great to see this discussion. I’ve felt this way for a while now as I’ve shared books with my kids and had so many fall flat. I thought maybe it was me and my growing curmudgeonly ways! But your comment “Funny is my favorite thing, along with smart. Smart and funny are my pb&j” is great. Kids know funny, the youngest audience especially. PBs with the grownup sense of irony and sarcasm just don’t ring true for these readers/listeners.

  6. Kate Barsotti

    I understood your main points without clarification. Well put.
    A smart person I won’t name pointed out to me, years ago, that children’s movies are often spearheaded by “white men with brown hair.” I thought that was such an odd thing to say, then thought of Alice and Wonderland showcasing Johnny Depp, and a few other examples. This person’s point was that we don’t market to kids, in movies, because we don’t really make children’s movies today. We make “family” movies, which is code for “better appeal to parents.” White men with brown hair were somehow seen as an anchor and a draw…perhaps even a comfort. A children’s movie in disguise.
    This attitude may be rubbing off a bit in picture books. It looks like sophistication till you remember what picture books are supposed to be for. It may also be–oh, I am going to get into trouble–the current trend with making childhood too much about the relationship between parent and child and not enough about the child to life. We are afraid to let kids be kids; we want them to be what we hope they are, not who they are at that moment. It’s not just irresponsible; it’s fearful of authentic emotion and experience.
    I’d be interested to compare U.S. books to books originating in other countries where the art may take more risks but the stories, perhaps, are more accessible to children’s experience. I am thinking now of Stian Hole, for example, and Garmann’s Summer. There are many others.

  7. Monica

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about kids being yanked away from picture books at younger ages to try and get them into chapter books. I was talking to second graders at the end of the school year, about the books in the library and mentioned to them that they should never feel bad if they are enjoying picture books because there are many picture books that are written for 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th grade. Out of the 5 classes, one of the teachers agreed and mentioned that they read a lot of Eric Carle that year — while another did her best to argue me down in front of her class! Argh! I think society definitely has problems with saying “picture books are for pre-readers” and many still see animated movies as just for kids — part of why I was thrilled when we could finally have a separate Anime section was so it was easier to explain to parents/grandparents why some of the titles were NOT for kids!

  8. Christine T.

    The answer to your question initially posed is “yes”, I’m increasingly finding books trending towards pleasing gatekeepers with the end user – the child reader – often a distant after thought.

  9. Grace lin

    “…as a culture, we are a little in love with snark and “cool” and a little afraid of earnestness.”
    This really resonates me, but I don’t think it is fear–it’s disdain.

  10. Sarah Lamstein

    I totally agree with what you say about many of today’s picture books, Elizabeth. The hipster affect often intrudes, but thankfully there are some earnest efforts out there.


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