Picture books do a lot of things. They entertain, they improve vocabulary, they introduce us to different art styles, and they help us show a multitude of different experiences in a safe and accessible format.
Picture books don’t have to have a ‘message’, they can be beautiful and entertaining for the sake of it and that is more than enough, but there will still be messages that children will pick up from stories.
Many picture book stories cover ‘being yourself’. For me this is an especially important message. Having spent a lifetime of trying so hard to fit in and never quite being able to, and not understanding how the majority of the world thinks in the first place, I don’t want my daughters to be as unhappy as I have been. I want them to know that everyone is a unique individual and we should all have the right to be accepted as we are.
This is an especially important point for my eldest daughter. She is almost seven and has a comforter in the form of a muslin cloth. She can’t sleep without a muslin, and at home she will hold (and chew) a muslin during the day when she’s feeling particularly anxious. She does feel more anxious than she really should, and I wish I could take her anxieties away, but that is part of who she is.
Some mornings she’ll be clutching her muslin on the way to school. As we get nearer school, and we see other children, she leans against me and sneaks the muslin into my pocket. I tell her it’s okay, but she says the other children will laugh at her if they see it. So we hide her muslin, and she goes into school where she’ll spend much of the day being quiet and feeling insecure.
Books that celebrate individuality and acceptance are therefore books that I am more inclined to love. Recent review books that have come into our house that cover this are Cuckoo, where Cuckoo tries hard to fit in but then finds someone who understands him just the way he is; The Driftwood Ball, where an otter and a badger bring their communities together because of their differences; Marmaduke the Very Different Dragon, where a dragon is bullied by the others for being different but he finds someone who loves him for who he is and soon everyone appreciates his uniqueness.
I have been told many times throughout my life that I should conform more. I’ve always found it hard to understand why. I’m told that I must teach my children to fit in, and to do what other people do so that they won’t be bullied. I wonder why we’re not trying to stop bullying instead. I’m told that’s just the way it is. I wonder why it should be.
So when I read a picture book where the message appears to be about conformity, I find it very hard to like. Maybe it’s supposed to be about empowering children to face their fears, but the message I get from Wimpy Shrimpy is one of ‘if you don’t fit in, you’ll get bullied, so try harder to fit in.’
This is not the only book that has this kind of message, there are many, but it’s the latest to come through my door so forgive me for singling it out. The plot of Wimpy Shrimpy appears to be that there is a Shrimp character who is full of anxieties and worries. Do his so-called friends try to support and encourage Shrimpy to join in with their games? Oh, no, they just shout “Don’t be wimpy, Shrimpy” and then one day stop playing with him.
At this point, I think it would be sensible to teach the friends that encouragement and support will help erase those worries and anxieties. Yes, sometimes you need to jump in whether you’re worried or not, but being called names and excluded from friendship isn’t going to help with that.
However, in this story, our Shrimpy suddenly realises that all his friends are actually having fun and all his worries are nothing to worry about so he joins in. Hooray for Shrimpy.
Hmmm… I know I read too much into picture books sometimes, and this is probably meant to be a story about facing fears told in a fun and brightly illustrated way, but it’s just not for me. I’ll stick to the picture books where we all accept each other’s differences. Yes, we should face our fears and try things we’re not comfortable with, but we should also be supported so that we can find the courage within.