Oh Susanna – Are There Taboo Subjects In Picture Books?

OK.  Twitter?

Here’s the problem:

I could spend ALL DAY there!!!


Everybody posts all these awesome links to fascinating, must-read articles and blogs and photos and etc. etc. etc. and no sooner am I done with one there are 20 more I’m dying to check out.

How do y’all get any work done?

Twitter is the Anti-Work!

Clearly there are going to have to be some strict ground rules or there’s going to be some world-class time-frittering going on over here 🙂

So which one of you self-disciplined types is going to lay the rules out for me?

And enforce them?! 🙂

Alrighty then.  Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you all had wonderful Mother’s Days however you may have celebrated!  I spent mine like this:

(Well, not really, but I would have if I could have :))

I hope you’re all as excited as I am about the Birthday Contest coming up at the end of this week!!!

And I must apologize in advance if I’m a little behind in visiting you all this week.  I have three days of back-to-back school visits, so my time will be limited.  But be assured that even if I don’t have time to comment I will be reading!  (I am abysmal at trying to comment from my phone… whilst driving… and trying to listen to my GPS… also the police frown on such multitasking and it is of course illegal so I would never do it… even if I was coordinated enough. :))

So stop encouraging me to break the law and let’s get onto today’s Oh Susanna question.

I have actually chosen two questions which I will address together because I think they are related.

First is Saba’s question:  Are there any subjects that are considered taboo in the picture book industry that children’s writers should stay away from?

And second is Catherine’s question (which I’m paraphrasing slightly): [In my story] Cheeku the Cheeky Chinese Chicken… I took out the chef because someone said kids can’t think about chickens going to be killed… The motivation for Cheeku to run away was so as not to be eaten. I had to change it to he didn’t want to be cooped up forever, but although it’s fun, it has no story as such. Do you think i should put the chef stuff back in?

These are interesting and related questions, I think.

Saba, I’m sure you aren’t referring to things like graphic violence, murder, torture, what I will refer to as “adult topics”, and things of that nature.  I don’t think any of us would ever consider writing a picture book about a subject that was so obviously inappropriate for children.  I think what you might mean is what I would call sensitive topics.  For example, is it appropriate to write a picture book about a family with same sex parents, or a picture book about war, death, or serious illness?

And that is a question that I think different people might give you different answers for.  Some would say those topics should be avoided – that they’re not appropriate.

But I think most would say that picture books are badly needed on those topics, because children who are experiencing those situations have just as much need (possibly more) to explore their feelings and feel validated, understood, comforted, and reassured as children who read books about being scared of the dark or getting a new sibling.

One glance at the Perfect Picture Book list will show you that there ARE picture books about war, poverty, illiteracy, death, illness, disability, non-traditional families, slavery, and a host of other sensitive and difficult topics.

To a large degree, I don’t think it’s the topic that is the issue, but more how it’s addressed.  Pretty much any topic – even a story about bears – can be written so it’s not appropriate for the picture book audience.  But by the same token, pretty much any topic can be written about in a sensitive and careful way so that it is not only appropriate, but valuable for this age.  For example, a book like Beatrice’s Goat most certainly addresses poverty, but in a way that is very palatable to children and filled with hope.

It all depends on how it’s written.

This is not to say that every book is appropriate for every child.  What’s right for one family may not be right for another.  Parents, teachers, and librarians must use their discretion.  While a book about a child losing his mother (as a very powerful example, I would cite the picture book The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic) might be terribly upsetting to many children, it might be just exactly what a boy or girl who has just lost a parent might need to hear to feel that they are understood in their grief and loneliness, that others have gone through this, and to help give voice to their emotions.  And while some families might welcome a book that addresses where babies come from in a very exact way (for example, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle) others families might prefer to preserve the mystery a little 🙂

As writers, we want to reach all children, the ones that struggle with the hard things as well as the “every day” things (and I put “every day” in quotes because nothing feels every day to a person who is going through it, but as adults we know that there are some experiences that are normal and common for childhood and others you hope no child will ever have to bear, yet some of them do.)

Catherine’s question about her manuscript I think ties into this discussion.  Is it appropriate to write about a chicken who is afraid of being eaten?  I think it can be if it’s done right.  If there is humor, if the emphasis is more on the escape then the reality of being eaten, if it ends happily, and if there is a level at which it relates to common childhood experience – perhaps having to do something you don’t want to do, or needing to find a better way to do something, or finding your place in the world – then I think it can work.  There are certainly a host of fairy tales where some pretty scary stuff goes down if you think about it too carefully (Red Riding Hood, anyone?!) but that hasn’t stopped parents from reading them or children from enjoying them.  And anyone who has seen Disney’s Little Mermaid has seen the chef singing “les poissons, les poissons” merrily preparing to cook Sebastian the crab and I think most kids find that scene deliciously fun 🙂  So again, I think it’s all about how it’s written.  And again, depending on how it comes out, it might be a story that is not be appropriate for every child (perhaps more sensitive children would be better steering clear) and that parents, teachers and librarians might want to be selective about.

Saba and Catherine, I hope that answers your questions.  If not, please feel free to clarify or ask follow-ups in the comments!

Everyone else, Saba, Catherine and I are all VERY interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Are there subjects that are taboo in picture books?  Or that should be?  Should a writer stay away from the topic of a chicken who is afraid of being eaten?

I will look forward to your thoughts!  Especially if you have first-hand experience with having a story turned down by traditional publishers only because of topic.

Have a wonderful day! 🙂

59 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – Are There Taboo Subjects In Picture Books?

  1. Robyn Campbell says:

    *hangs head* I'm late to the party. Sorry. *hangs head even lower* Head is down at the floor now. My friend's daughter died on Mother's Day and my sis-in-law has been in the hospital since late last week. She's dying. *sigh*

    I love this advice, pal. YOU ARE MADE OF BODACIOUSNESS MIXED WITH AWESOMENESS WITH A LOT OF TREMENDOUSNESS ADDED. (Hmm. I am thinking tremendousness is not a word. But I coined it. Maybe folks will use it now.) *wink*

    What about the picture book titled, I'd Really Like To Eat a Child? I think if it is done with humor as you say, Susanna, it can be a great thing. So to Catherine I say, “Put the chef back in!”

    Back to the hospital. I am sending Phyll on her flight in the morning. I am sorry for the delay, but I have been at the hospital A LOT! Hugging you tightly!

    Phooey on work. Tweet on, my friend. *wink*

  2. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Oh, Robyn! So sorry for all your troubles! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and the PB you mentioned is an excellent example, and don't worry about delays, and you just come on over here and hang out in happy land or tell us what we can do to help when you're having such a tough time! I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we are here for you!

  3. Jarmila V. Del Boccio says:

    Love the cat, Susanna! As far as Twitter goes, I was hooked early on, but then lost interest. I do try to tweet posts that might be helpful to others at least a few times a week, and I did, at one time, designate Tuesdays and Thursdays for Twitter days (all T's). Maybe that would work for you…
    I do agree that it should be up to the parent, who knows her child best, to determine which books are appropriate.

  4. Kimberley Gorelik Moran says:

    I came over to check out this post after what you said on mine about The Scar. Love this. I think it is our responsibility as educated adults to provide material for children that helps them sort their challenges in life. Great post.

  5. Cally Jackson says:

    Great post, Susanna. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any topic can be tackled in children's books if done with sensitivity and humour. That doesn't mean every book will be right for every child, but there will be some little person out there who was very glad the book was written. 🙂

    P.S. Put the chef back in, Catherine!

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