Friday, 2 March 2018

DARK WOR(L)DS – Dianne Hofmeyr

What place does darkness have in children’s fiction? If you look at the 2018 Kate Greenaway Longlist, it seems plenty.

At a quick glance, a number of titles jump out – Thornhill, Night Shift, The Song from Somewhere Else, Town is by the Sea. There seems never to have been quite such a collection of black and white illustrations on the Longlist to add that touch of mystery, secretiveness, sadness and even desolation.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill (David Fickling Books) crosses between the two worlds of Mary an orphan in 1982 and Ella who moves into a house near the old orphanage in 2017.

For a fascinating insight into Smy's illustrations see the videos below:

Debi Gliori’s Night Shift (published by Bonnier Zaffre) is a picture book for older readers where depression in the form of dragon, invades the daily life of a young girl. 

The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harold with shadowy illustrations by Levi Pinfold past winner of a Greenaway (published by Bloomsbury Books) crosses boundaries and reminds one of the work of Shaun Tan and Jim Kay in the almost nightmarish way the stage-like black and white takes hold of your imagination. 'A story about strangeness, strength, friendship, and keeping the shadows at bay.'

In Town by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz with illustrations by Sydney Smith (published by Walker Books), there's the strong contrast of a boy living in the bright sunlit world of a seaside town while his father works in a cramped under-the-sea tunnel, mining coal. In the contrasting page turn this book epitomises the light and dark of daily life with the disconcerting suggestion of inevitability in the boy knowing he too will grow up to be a miner.

So then, what place does darkness have in the world of children’s picture books? Is the job of the writer for the very young to preserve innocence… or tell the truth?

In a recent article in TIME magazine (Feb 12th) Newberry Award winner, Matt de la Peña, raises this question. His recent picture book Love, illustrated by Loren Long, has an illustration showing a boy crouched under a piano while his upset mother stands by and his father staggers out the room, furniture upturned with an empty glass resting on the piano.
When de la Peña’s publisher suggested the image was too heavy, both the illustrator and writer fought to keep it. They felt that instead of anxiously trying to protect our children, we can support them through bad experiences. 

Kate Di Camillo, author of Because of Winn Dixie & The Tale of Despereaux, writes a brilliant open letter of endorsement to Matt de la Peña, worth reading here 

In it she says: I was a kid who hid under the literal (and metaphorical) piano. I felt isolated by the secrets and fear in my household. For me, as a kid, to see that picture would have been such a relief. I would have known that I was not alone. I would have felt less ashamed.

De la Peña suggests that while there has been a real shift towards racial inclusion in books, ‘many other facets of diversity remain in the shadow and an uncomfortable number of children are still crouched under the piano.’ 

Here in the UK, many publishers and organisations like Inclusive Minds with their annual conferences of A Place at the Table, are working towards more diversity and publishing books that reflect the real and sometimes very dark and different world of so many children experiencing some form of emotional pain and otherness.

The darkness in some titles on this year’s Kate Greenaway Longlist should be seen as a celebration of books that explore just this… complex, stark emotions and experiences in childhood of sadness or rejection. These stories shine light into a dark world and pay off the gambol of feeling slightly discomforted when seeing into a world that is often not spoken about. As Di Airey, Director of Diversity Dynamics said at the closure of this year's A Place at the Table, 'Children are born with an open mind – it’s what happens around them that closes it.'

If children can experience these stories while being cuddled in the lap of someone who loves them, so much the better.
Twitter: @dihofmeyr

Dianne Hofmeyr's new picture book TIGER WALK illustrated by Jesse Hodgson and published by Otterbarry Books, touches on the fears of a little boy as he tries to fall asleep and will be out later this year.


Penny Dolan said...

A thoughtful and wise post, Di.

Savita Kalhan said...

I really enjoyed your post, Dianne. As Penny said, it is very thoughtful, and I too think that there is place for some darkness in Picture books, and in children's books generally. It is all about how the darkness is dealt with.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Agreed... its the way darkness is handled... sensitively and without a blow by blow heaviness.

David Thorpe said...

This is a fantastic post, Dianne. I'm so glad you listed all these books and showed the illustrations, but even more glad that writers and illustrators – and publishers – are tackling these subjects. This is not darkness for the sake of darkness, but darkness because without it we – children included – do not fully appreciate the light – and vice versa: without the light we do not appreciate darkness. We all experience darkness at times, so difficult subjects should be addressed – but with care, to promote understanding and empathy and help stimulate discussions by children. Only by coming to terms with these unpleasant experiences can we become fully rounded adults. If children's books can help just a little to achieve this then they have done a great job - part of the reason that we have literature.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

David you have expressed it SO much better. You've summed up what I was attempting to say in an incredibly succinct way. Thank you! And yes we do all have dark times and only with self confidence on our side can we get through them.