If you’re not familiar with Johanna Hurwitz you should be. She writes these very knowing and engaging children’s books that capture the joys and challenges of childhood in ways that young children can immediately empathize with and understand. One of her most important creations is the character of Monty. Monty has asthma and when we meet him he is about to enter first grade. Not an easy thing this asthma, but through his adventures we learn that Monty is not defined by his affliction, but thrives despite it. In the course of Monty’s adventures (which fill three books and soon a fourth that is to be published this summer) we learn about what asthma is and how it affects Monte; the things Monty needs to do to keep himself safe; and how this chronic challenge affects him emotionally. But the thrust is always on the character and the emotional journey he takes the reader on. So why can’t children’s picture books that address issues such as allergies and ailments do the same?
When I look at the choices for children’s picture books surrounding such topics as lactose intolerance, gluten-free diets, food allergies, asthma, and even more widely needed educational material such as potty training the vast majority of the literature (and I use that term loosely) out there falls into the three step instructional model: 1) Here’s the issue we are discussing, 2) Here are important things to know about the issue, and 3) Here are things you can do about the issue. Yes, of course, these provide important information for the very young and the parents trying to explain difficult concepts to them. And they often do a very good job of presenting the information. But just as adults learn best when information is presented in an engaging, emotionally infused manner, so do children. As such, we as publishers, artists, and writers of children’s picture books need to do more. Can there be a picture book where a child has a potty accident that leads him on an adventure of discovery, while still teaching the reader about the potty? Or another where a child’s food allergy prevents something catastrophic from happening to his playmates, but still informs as to the nature of the ailment and how our differences make us stronger?
There are many arguments. Commerciality. Age appropriateness. The limits of the picture book form and presentation. They are not very good ones.