Tag Archives: Lift-the-flap books

A Global Post-Christmas Stroll


The cover of Walk this World at Christmastime, showcasing a global celebration.

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’s books try to engage multiple senses, particularly touch.


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.


The book’s single Jewish family lives in America; there are none depicted in the Middle East.


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.


Nigerians leaving towns and cities by the busload for “home” in the poor and rural areas of the country.


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.


The Calabar Carnival, in Powell’s book, is part of the Christmas celebrations that take place in this rural Africa.

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.


Anyone can be St. Lucia in Powell’s Sweden . . .


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).


Screenshot of the boy the Swedish department store chose to be among its “Lucias”. Photo by Janerik Henriksson.

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.

Is the Sun Rising Again? The British Empire and Children’s Literature

Last week, I was looking for something for Sunday lunch; I fancied a pie, so I went into the pie aisle at a major grocery store and found . . . Empire Pie. EMPIRE pie? I looked round, wondering if I had been transported back to the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, Empire-themed dishes were quite popular; the Empire Marketing Board made sure of it. But no, I was still in 2015. So it led me to wonder as I ate my Empire Pie (well, it sounded tasty—and, to be fair, it was): Is the British Empire making a comeback? Could I find any evidence in children’s books out now?

Let’s eat the empire, 20th century version.

Let's eat the empire--21st century version.

Let’s eat the empire–21st century version.

There was a time when you could go to a British (or colonial/former colonial) bookstore and find, in the children’s section, multiple volumes with “Empire” in the title. This would range from periodicals like The Empire Annual (there were versions for Boys, Girls, and Youth, depending on the year) to history texts such as H. E. Marshall’s 1908 Our Empire Story to novels by G. A. Henty (With Clive in India: The Beginnings of an Empire was first published in 1884 but was reprinted constantly throughout the beginning of the twentieth century) to ephemeral items such as Animals of the Empire: A 3 Way Tracing, Puzzle and Story Book. All of these texts were designed to prepare young Britishers (as they were once called) to take over the care and keeping of the British Empire from the previous generation. They ranged from the merely informative to propagandistic, but all celebrated the idea of an empire that the British owned.

Once, empire was everywhere.

Once, empire was everywhere.

After World War II, the idea of celebrating Empire had become untenable, even for its most ardent supporters (they switched instead to mourning the good old days and complaining about the changing face of Britain). The Empire Annual became The Commonwealth and Empire Annual in 1952, but even that only lasted a few years. Empire became a semi-fantastic subject for literature, lived out in the pages of Biggles for children and James Bond for adults. History texts were vague on the subject, especially more sensitive parts such as slavery (slavery, beginning in the Victorian period, was often depicted as something other countries did, while Britain acted as the primary force to abolish it). The first map that British school-children encountered was no longer the one that was colored pink in large swathes where the Empire had been.

But now—had anything changed? The Empire Pie was still bothering me. I went to the bookstore, and was frankly relieved not to find the titles I feared; there was no Charlie and Lola: We Completely Must Eat an Empire Pie or recommendation signs saying, “If you loved the Hunger Games, try The Empire Chronicles”. But in the children’s history section, I did find two books that suggest that the old ideas of empire might be making a comeback. Both are from 2014, although one, Ladybird Histories: British History (written by Tim Wood, with illustrations from Phil Page, John Dillow, Peter Dennis and Carlo Molinari) is a reprint of the 2011 edition of a 1996 title (got that?). The other, an appealing “lift the flap” type book, is entitled See inside the History of Britain by Rob Lloyd Jones and Barry Ablett (London: Usborne, 2014).

Britain beyond Britain is an 'empire' (why the quotation marks?)

Britain beyond Britain is an ’empire’ (why the quotation marks?)

In the latter book, the empire is dealt with only on a single page: “Britain beyond Britain” in which we learn that “From the 1600s to the 1900s, British influence spread around the world. Explorers set off on dangerous journeys, and traders set up colonies in far-off lands” (8). Looking at the page without lifting flaps, we learn that Britain “took control of large parts of Africa” and also “took control of India”. Notably, Australia “became” part of the British Empire. The difference in language harks back to language in history textbooks from imperial days, in which “white” colonies such as Australia and Canada, were described quite differently from non-white parts of the world. The page spread also repeats the phrase which was once so familiar to young Britons (although with a curious use of quotation marks): “By 1900, Britain ruled over a quarter of the world—a vast ‘empire’ that stretched across the globe” (8).

The main story in See Inside tells us the empire is all about trade.

The main story in See Inside tells us the empire is all about trade.

Lifting the flaps does let you in on some darker secrets of this glorious empire.

Underneath that history of glorious trade is a darker story.

Underneath that history of glorious trade is a darker story.

For example, lifting the flap about trade (which described a list of raw materials and products, such as tea and sugar), we learn that another of the items that Britain traded was slaves who were treated “dreadfully” (9) and “like animals” (9). Shockingly, we also learn that some people “resented” (9) being ruled. It is a good change that See inside the History of Britain does admit British people’s role in the slave trade, but still more than a bit troublesome that the main page—what children see when they open the book—is purely celebratory of British power.

You can see why the British had to conquer the warlike Zulus from this picture in the Ladybird History.

You can see why the British had to conquer the warlike Zulus from this picture in the Ladybird History.

Ladybird Histories: British History has little to say directly about the British Empire (empire is not listed as a subject in the index, and commonwealth, which is included, refers only to the period of Britain under Oliver Cromwell), but some of what it does say is disturbing. Slaves are labelled, confusingly, as “cheap labour” (111) and the “Indian Mutiny” (otherwise known as the Sepoy Rebellion) started with “resentment” (127) and ended with the British building “roads, railways and postal services” (127), all resentment apparently put aside. The most disturbing reference to empire, though, is on the page about “The Zulu War”. The illustration and text return to imperial descriptions of the war between the British and the Zulu; the “vast British Empire” is threatened by the “warlike people” who “massacred” 1500 British troops in a “disaster” that was later avenged when the British army “destroyed” the Zulu capital (all page 128). There follows only two further references to the Empire; on page 132, “Representatives came from all over the Empire to pay their respects” to Queen Victoria; and on the final page, “The great overseas British Empire was about to disappear” (146) after WWII, apparently for no particular reason. If it was so great, why did it have to go?

Well, I suppose Empire Piecrust promises are just the same as any others: easily made, easily broken.