Why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?

Why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?

Shall we read a story? What shall we choose? Oh, here’s a lovely story about having a new sibling. Here is another brilliant story about two friends who lose a balloon in the park. Or how about this one? This is a story about a whole family going on a diet and then giving up and eating cake together in their kitchen. These are great stories.

How lovely that children can read these beautifully illustrated stories together with their parents about normal everyday life. Totally relatable tales from the perspective of a child. Oh no, hang on, not a child, something that looks like a child except that is has the head and tail of a monkey/ crocodile/ lion/ elephant/ aardvark (delete as appropriate).

 It seems that children’s authors, illustrators and publishers think that our kids can relate better to Caroline, the preschooler with a baby sibling, if Caroline, instead of being a child, is actually a Crocodile. I mean, not an actual crocodile swimming around in a swamp, oh no, no that is ridiculous. I mean an anthropomorphic crocodile. A crocodile that stands up, walks on hind legs, wears cardigans and lipstick and goes to cafes.

 The particular story I am referring to is actually a fantastic story that we have read many times and enjoyed. The artwork is fab, it is funny and well written and I do not have a problem with some picture books featuring anthropomorphic animals, but the amount of these walking, talking, clothes-wearing animals is starting to freak me out.

 I would say that at least 80% of children’s picture books we own (and we own a lot, handed down from big cousins) feature these humanistic creatures and although they are cute and the stories are great I am puzzled by their dominance in my kids’ story books. I really noticed it when we started to read Shirley Hughes books. We have read the Shirley Hughes books over and over again. They are totally relatable, funny and at times rather moving stories about real tots just doing normal things.

 The absolute all time favourite is ‘Alfie Gets In First,’ a story about Alfie, a rather energetic and fiesty little boy accidentally locking himself in the house alone and his Mum and baby sister outside on the street. Another all time favourite is ‘Dogger,’ a heart warming tale of a little boy called Dave who loses his favourite teddy and his big sister Bella who ends up saving the day when she swaps her enormous new teddy for scraggedy old ‘Dogger’ who has ended up on a bring and buy stall.

 These stories are set in the real world of a small child and are about real children and adults. We love reading them together. I know some of them off by heart and although the stories would be just as fun, I don’t think it would be as relatable for children if Alfie, instead of being a real boy, was actually a boy with the head of a badger.

 It seems that for the most part you have to go back to children’s books published twenty or thirty years ago to find any stories with children in. Most recent stories favour animal heads above all else. It is not a new concept obviously, I mean, look at Peter Rabbit. Children obviously enjoy seeing animals acting like them but has it gone too far the other way now? Are we lacking in stories about real kids? Are we lacking in stories about real animals, that do not walk around town and work in an office? Has there been some new research us parents don’t know about that says our kids just do not want to see real kids in stories?

I can imagine a writer approaching the publisher with a story about a young boy and girl called ‘Pip and Posy’ who just have little dramas that end well one way or another, set in the everyday world, only to be sent away with the notes,

“Hey Axel, we love the concept but instead of a boy and girl how about a rabbit and mouse? Something like that? Maybe a badger and a squirrel? We’re not too fussy really so long as they’re not human. They could still do all the things in the story but just draw them with the heads and feet of some cutesy woodland animals. Real children are soooo thirty years ago.”

Again, I do think these books are great, I just think it would be so refreshing to have some more stories about real children, that actually look like real children, with the heads of human beings. They do exist but I just wish there were more, especially some as beautifully illustrated and everyday as the Shirley Hughes books.

 A little bit of magic in a children’s story is what really hooks my daughter in. ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea,’ works so well, in my opinion, because into the normal everyday world of a real girl and her mother, the real world of a child, walks an enormous, hungry, tea slurping tiger. If the tiger rang the doorbell and Sophie was actually a clothes wearing gorilla we’d just be like,  yeah? And?

Surely it is the bizarre and the magic appearing in the everyday relatable world of a child which is so pleasing to children? When Lucy hid in the wardrobe during a game of hide and seek and walked past the fur coats into the snowy forests of Narnia, I was absolutely fascinated as a child, but if the story had started in Narnia or was about Lucy and her family of Fauns going to Narnia it just would not have worked. I think that sometimes children want to see themselves go on the adventure and I wish there were more books like this out there.

 So please, childrens’ Authors and illustrators, let us read more stories with our children about children. Please leave in the magic, leave in the bizarre and the adventure but for once let it be our children on the adventure, not Bertram the tweed-wearing badger.


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