Monday, January 16, 2017

Subliterary Scare

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’m finally getting around to writing about an article that appeared in the online Slate magazine, a piece that has generated no small amount of interest: 340 comments at last count.

In “My Kids Read Only Subliterary Branded Commodities. Yours Probably Do, Too,” writer  Gabriel Roth tells us that children’s book publishing today “is dominated by … book-like objects featuring familiar properties licensed to publishers by massive entertainment conglomerates.” Examples include Dora the Explorer, Transformers, My Little Pony and the Disney Princess and Disney Fairies line.


Roth is not shy about his views on the subject.  

“These stories are the juvenile equivalent of pornography: They aim to gratify base desires as voluptuously as possible,” he says. Comparing these books to junk food, he nonetheless concludes that he’ll continue to let his daughter indulge in her Disney fairy fantasies. He grudgingly ends his piece with: “My daughter’s appetites are her own.”

In 1972, Fairyland was featured in a subliterary branded commodity: a "Dennis the Menace" comic book.


At Fairyland, we don’t offer books in our gift shop, or in our Reading Room, that are based on branded and licensed products. There are too many creative, inclusive and original stories — many written and illustrated by Bay Area locals — that we prefer to highlight.

Books in Fairyland's Reading Room are not what one writer describes as "subliterary branded commodities."


But I was interested to know what our local expert — the person who has the final say on all of the children’s books that are purchased for the Oakland Public Library — had to say about the subject. As it turns out, Children’s Collection Management Librarian Amy Martin says this is one of her favorite topics in children’s literature.

She points out that there’s a good reason you’ll find scads of Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig, and even Transformers picture books in your 17 local children’s library sections: kids LOVE them. And that’s why a goodly portion of the children’s library’s $200,000 annual book budget goes to purchase – or replace – these books. 

Oakland Children's Librarian Amy Martin reading to children in an Alameda County Social Services Agency waiting room.


Amy wants kids to get into the habit of reading for pleasure. She believes it's important to teach kids that books reflect what they're excited about, whether it's drawing with a purple crayon or mermaid Ariel getting married. She cited an important study that affirms that reading for pleasure -- anything the child chooses -- gives children more educational advantages than having two parents with college degrees. 

Other Oakland children’s librarians concur. Here’s one story Amy heard from them: Two young brothers visited East Oakland’s Martin Luther King, Jr., branch on their own (many, many kids come to the library without adults). The older brother browsed, but told the librarian that his younger brother hated reading. That changed when Younger Brother discovered the library’s collection of “The Simpsons” comic books. After that, he returned every few days for a new stack.
“We found his entry point,” is how Amy describes it.
Feeling snobbish about Disney books? Talk to the children’s librarian at Oakland’s Brookfield branch, who still thanks Amy for approving the order of many books in this series.
Allowing kids to choose their own books validates their choices in general, something Amy thinks is important. “If adults reinforce that the things children value aren’t good, that could lead to defiance or bruised self-esteem,” she says.
She says she loves to see the excited faces of kids holding books. “I don’t necessarily care what the book is,” she says. And, she assures us, “classic books aren’t going anywhere.”
But she also loves to purchase original books by local authors. One she particularly likes is One of a Kind, Like Me, written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, and published right here in the Bay Area by Blood Orange Press. It tells the true story of the author’s young son, who wants to wear a princess outfit to a school parade and is supported in his (ultimately successful) quest. 
One of a Kind, Like Me / Unico Como Yo

We like the book, too -- and are pleased that Laurin (and hopefully Robert) will be among the authors featured in our May 6 Turn the Page! childrens book festival. It's a celebration of Bay Area authors and illustrators, wholl be reading, drawing, and talking about books in front of their biggest fans: kids. There may be some princesses, ponies, and trains in the lineup, but for this particular event, none of them will carry a registered trademark symbol.
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C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.



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