I became involved in SELCIE when member of the group, Sarah Dunnigan, kindly invited me to have a look in the museum of childhood archives held at the city chambers, where I met the rest of the team and joined the journey! In the basement, there is a room full of boxes the team have catalogued and another room with older books and chapbooks dating back to the seventeenth century. Over the last year, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to sketch from some of the books in the archive as SECLIE’s artist-in-residence and to inform my doctoral research on cultural representation in picturebooks.
Through my research, I found that the concept of childhood, and so the tradition of printing books for children in general, is part of Western tradition. In the archives, I search for clues of ideological bias that underpins illustration in children’s literature and how this has changed over time.
For instance, among the first adult books redacted for children were ‘adventure’ stories in the late eighteenth century that embedded colonialist messaging. I found versions of adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift redacted for a child audience in chapbooks held in the Museum of Childhood archive:
I made a note of the following quotation from a version of Robinson Crusoe found in a chapbook in the archive:
“After this, Crusoe sailed to the Brazils, and recovered much of his property and plantations, and returned to England very rich. He sailed to his beloved island in a ship he had given to his nephew, and took many useful articles for the inhabitants, divided the island among them, and recommended religion and good fellowship as their guide.”
In this excerpt, it is evident that colonialism was socially-accepted in the UK at the dawn of children’s literature and normalised the hegemony of European cultures over their colonies.
Soon, stories appropriated from colonised parts of the world were commonplace in children’s literature in the UK as collectors of fairy tale began to redact folktales originating in other traditions and cultures. Andrew Lang, for instance, in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, included tales from many sources, for example, the Brothers Grimm, Madame d’Aulnoy, and Antoine Galland’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights from Arabic. I found The Yellow Fairy Book (1899) in the archives, and in it, Lang uses stories from countries including Norway (East of the Sun, West of the Moon); North America (The Boy and the Wolves, or the Broken Promise); and Russia (The Story of King Frost).
I made some sketches of the illustrations in The Yellow Fairy Book by Henry Justice Ford, which are included below:
This western bias in children’s literature began to be challenged in the mid-twentieth century during the civil rights movement in America, which influenced US and UK illustrators to include representations of a wider range of ethnicities in picturebooks (Whalley & Chester 1988). For example, Italian illustrator Gianni Benvenuti illustrated Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Marie Ponsot and published in New York in 1960:
In the 1960s and 70s the move toward inclusiveness in children’s literature, encouraged by the tragedies of the Second World War and ethos of the civil rights movement, had an affect on how children were taught about cultural diversity. As a result, more illustrators experimented with styles that took inspiration from the folk art and crafts of other countries to illustrate collections of folktales. However, it can be argued that Western illustrators arguably often appropriated the vernacular of foreign cultures and so repeated colonial tendencies.
Supported by sketches and notes made on visits to the SELCIE archive, I found the fairy tale narrative to be adaptable to changing social environments, while the essential elements of the story stay recognisably intact. In this way, fairy tales are one-dimensional enough to be remembered and retold, but expansive enough to take on ideas and meaning of a multitude of cultural contexts. My own artwork aims to be open to interpretation, giving more narrative voice and agency to readers. I try to provide further scope for readers’ imaginations to be unhindered by pictorial detail, as the fairy tales are able to evade specific descriptions of time, place and character in the text, enabling them to be malleable narratives, and so forever relevant.
The SELCIE archive has been a very important part of my research project and continues to influence my illustration work, such as in the snippets from a recent illustration I made based on The Ballad of Mulan (c.5-6th CE), above, which I close this article with. Thank you for reading!
Chandler, D. & Munday, R., 2011. A Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press.
Harding, J. & Pinsent, P., 2009. What Do You See?: International Perspectives on Children’s Book Illustration, Cambridge Scholars.
Lang, A. & Ford, H.J., 1903. The yellow fairy book, Longmans, Green.
Luthi, M., 1976a. Once upon a time. On the Nature of Fairy Tales (Bloomington, 1970), pp.85–86.
Nodelman, P., 1992. The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature. Children’s Literature, Association Quarterly, 17(1), pp.29–35.
Pinsent, P., 1997. Childrens Literature and the Politics of Equality, David Fulton.
Rose, J., 1984. The case of Peter Pan, or, the impossibility of children’s fiction, London: London : Macmillan.
Whalley & Chester, 1988. A history of children’s book illustration, London: London : J. Murray with the Victoria & Albert Museum.
This post written by Katie Forrester, SELCIE artist-in-residence