Christmas is over, and today many people head back to work, a little dissipated and not quite ready for heavy intellectual thinking. I myself have a pile of work to get back to, but I’m not really eager to jump from mince pies and cranberry sauce to my promised chapter on police brutality in children’s books. So instead, I thought I’d take a look at a book that arrived in the Christmas Eve post by illustrator Debbie Powell, Walk this World at Christmastime (Candlewick 2015) and extend the holiday a bit more.
Powell has previously produced (like many children’s book illustrators) greeting cards and illustrated maps, but her specialty is board books with special features (shiny trucks and animals, for example) and lift-the-flap books, books that encourage a child to interact with the material presented. The theory behind these books is that their multimodal nature will spark increased learning through tactile, as well as visual and/or auditory senses. Walk this World at Christmastime is no exception, being a “Christmas around the world” book that is primarily visual, but includes factual information (written, not by Powell, but by the uncredited—on the front cover—Zanna Davidson and Mary Sebog-Montefiore) behind the multiple flaps on each page. There are 25 numbered flaps (like an advent calendar), but each page also has several unnumbered flaps. The flaps, numbered or not, contain information about traditions in various parts of the world; many of the numbered flaps describe traditional gifts or food, particularly toys and sweets.
These kind of books are always interesting to me for the stories that they tell, as well as the stories they don’t tell. European countries get four of the book’s double-page spreads, as much as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America put together. The book begins with the US and Canada, the only double-page spread that nods to other traditions (Hanukah and Kwanzaa); the Middle East (represented by Lebanon and Iraq) is filled with Christians in this book, as are India and Pakistan. The page showing Chinese and Japanese traditions looks, except for the elephants and a couple in kimonos, curiously European (partly because China is represented by Hong Kong, long a British territory). Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are not mentioned in the book at all, even in the places where they are the dominant religions. I understand that the book is representing Christmas traditions, but Jewish people celebrating Hanukah are represented, so it seems odd to leave other traditions out.
Additionally, the fact that the Jewish people are in America is not incidental to the book. Although Walk this World mentions Christians on the Middle Eastern page, it mentions neither Jews nor, somewhat surprisingly, Bethlehem. And this brings me to another observation about this global stroll: it strives for a non-confrontational global harmony that only works if the reader is ignorant of the world. In addition to the absence of Bethlehem, I would highlight two countries that are present in the book, and the pictures that present an idealized picture of holiday reality.
The first is Nigeria, which, like several other of the represented countries, is over half non-Christian in its population. Leaving that aside, and the likelihood that Christmas celebrations might be interrupted by insurgents in the north, the two-page spread highlights Calabar Carnival as one of the ways that Christmas is celebrated. The carnival, although it is held in December and includes some Christmas events (such as carol singing) is not actually a Christmas event. While many places around the world do have Christmas carnivals, including some in the Caribbean that are connected with a past history of slavery and rebellion, these are not highlighted (no Caribbean countries are represented in the book), and the Nigerian carnival is relatively new. According to tourist information sites, “Ever since its inception in 2005, the Calabar Carnival has grown from just a state festival to a national brand” (http://infoguidenigeria.com/calabar-carnival/), and the aims of the carnival are primarily revenue generation and job creation, rather than celebration of Christmas.
Even though Calabar is a city of more than 350,000 people, the picture in Walk this World associates it with the rural villages to which urban Nigerians “return” at Christmastime. Most of the global south is depicted as celebrating in the countryside villages and markets, while the global north celebrates in cities and shops. This is a common depiction of the world in “global” picture books written by people from the US or Europe, and it suggests to readers that the global economic status quo, where the global south does the best it can to imitate European traditions despite their lack of access to economic and technological power is both normal and desirable by all.
The other picture that stood out to me was from Sweden, showing girls “dressed in white” for a St Lucia day parade. The picture stood out to me for positive reasons, unlike the African pictures: because it is pleasantly inclusive, with Black girls as well as white girls are dressed as the saint symbolizing light in the dark of a Swedish December. Unfortunately, this is a harmony that doesn’t always exist in Sweden. A Swedish department store who depicted a dark-skinned boy dressed as St Lucia in an advert this year was forced to pull it after racist abuse was directed at the boy (http://www.thelocal.se/20161205/swedish-festive-ad-pulled-following-racist-abuse-of-child).
Powell’s book does a good job of depicting Europe and the US as racially mixed, but given this and the controversy about the Mall of America’s Black Santa that I wrote about a few weeks ago, it is not an image that white Americans and white Europeans accept as harmoniously as Powell presents it. Walk this World at Christmastime is a lovely book, and I can attest to the fact that pretty much everyone likes lifting flaps to find secrets no matter what their age . . . but “this world” of Powell’s creation is very different from the one we all have to live in.