For The Mind to Come:
Critical Knowledge Production in Children’s Picture Books




: Introduction and Background :


    Some of the content in children books can be questionable or even uncanny. Often, children’s books are used and handed over from generation to generation, and therefore traditionally the content might not be questioned by parents or grandparents. How can the imagery and the stories be told without handing over long overcome knowledge, e.g. on the post-gender, post-digital and post-migrant world? Instead of “only” criticising the existing practice, the proposed project strives towards knowledge production in itself—by not only researching what children’s books generally intend to do, but also through developing strategies of criticality that enable readers, adult and child alike, to talk back in cultural theorist bell hooks’ way.

    How can children’s picture books intervene in social hierarchies and hegemonic cultural narratives? How to experiment collaboratively with picture book illustration and texts? Even before children attend school, many have already been exposed to special types of items: children’s books. So, let’s have a closer look into a very traditional field that forms an important basis for further art education: images and stories told with them. As German literary scholars Iris Kruse and Andrea Sabisch (2013) points out, children’s books are present at the nascent stage in both the language and visual development of children. So, we can assume that children’s books shape some of the first frames of reference for social norms, typically monolingual and dominant-culture centred knowledge. They can be nuanced in their portrayals of human and non-human experiences and construct content within social, economic, cultural, and political experiences. That is, particularly concerning what stories are told, who tells them, and where they are read in a given society. Thus, as British philosopher Gillian Rose (2001:15) specifies, looking (and, I would add, reading) “always takes place in a particular social context that mediates its impact.”

    I began my professional career as a children’s book illustrator. Together with my artistic practice, I worked as an arts educator for over eight years in New York City—teaching students from various backgrounds, which exposed me to a plurality of struggles. My previous MA research, Taking Root Without Taking Over, outlined concerns over reimagining the conventions of thinking about community. It examined two distinct neighbourhoods— Nord-Holland in Kassel, Germany and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, USA—and my role as an artist/teacher in dialogue with situated knowledges (as formulated by feminist scholar Donna Haraway, 1988). A period of extensive research shaped my thoughts and interpretations on the micropolitics between artistic practices and processes of gentrification, and contextualised the discourses of various subject positions.  Altogether, the engaged research understood itself as a (self-)critical practice to challenge what can be said, done, and seen.

    The proposed PhD project, For The Mind to Come: Critical Knowledge Production in Children’s Picture Books, is multilayered, and there are many vital research aspects to be explored in direct correlation to what children’s picture books a) communicate and b) could communicate differently. By taking a critical look at current imagery in children’s books (initial case studies are from Finnish, US, and German contexts) the work begins to address some questions as; how do they produce knowledge, and what kind?  How can multidisciplinary research and practices help understand these outcomes better, and can children’s books provide this knowledge critically? It further asks how to make complex issues accessible for young children—stories that prioritise and engage with feminist, indigenous, queer, anti-racist, and disability discourses and subjectivities.

    This collaborative artistic-scientific research project in the field of illustration and art education combines and investigates aspects of education, representation, participatory action research, and anti-racist activism. This research is situated in critical educational theory contexts, works with historical and analytical research methodologies, and looks for artistic and collaborative perspectives to stretch the edges of disciplined scientific approaches. The artistic/art educational practice takes collaborative writing frameworks as a starting point.

    The theoretical and practice-based artistic study will investigate both the contemporary and historical place of children’s books as an important venue for new sociabilities. I plan to work collaboratively on a children’s book as the artistic component of my research. This methodology intends to structurally foster more intersectional narratives within this genre—aiming to align within feminist, queer, and anti-racist content creation. In my approach, an ecology of narratives emerges through qualitative research practices via dialogical methods such as memory-work, collaborative image-making, and by organising workshops for critical image analysis and creative writing. Shared authorship and a decolonial framework of thinking and making invigorate the work to develop new picture book creation methods.




: Theoretical Frameworks / State of Research :




Practices of Freedom. Situating my Work in Radical Educational Theory

    Picture books have the potential to dive into learning processes which respond to struggles of oppressed or exploited groups—engendering a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures and produce alternative (to the dominant) narratives. The theorist in critical pedagogy Henry Giroux (2007) asserts that any critical pedagogy needs to activate a vocabulary at the intersection of theory, education, critique, and imaginings of the possible to support the social conditions for collective production. This, in turn, facilitates what Pierre Bourdieu (2000: 43) calls “realist utopias.” In response to an “increasingly oppressive corporate-based globalism,” Giroux (2007) embraces the language of what he calls “militant utopianism,” intent on activating the language of resistance, possibility, and hope while “being constantly attentive to those forces which seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss those who dare look.” By addressing what it means to make the “pedagogical more political” Giroux insists on engaging in peoples’ capacity to interrupt and critique certain institutions—who are employed as the producers of “official memory”—and must propose alternative narratives (Giroux, 2007: 30 -31).

    One dimension to open spaces for such alternative narratives can be thought of through the use of testimony or experiential knowledge. According to the theorist, educator, and activist bell hooks, bringing the dimension of experiential knowledge into the  classroom is a way to enhance our learning experience. A critical approach to pedagogy through bell hooks enables the use of the “authority of experience” as a means of “asserting voice”—“experience informs not only what we write about, but how we write about it, the judgments we make” (hooks, 1994).

    Thinking through bell hooks (1994), I consider critical pedagogy frameworks to foster a collective experience that insists that everyone’s presence is recognised. To do this, hooks states the person in the role of pedagogue must “genuinely value everyone’s presence.” This valuing upholds the dynamic that each person is responsible for the act of looking and discussing together. “These contributions are resources,” hooks writes, “used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community” (hooks, 1994: 8). Feminist philosopher Judith Butler (2015) claims that our bond to learn doesn’t come from the individual or the group but stimulates an exercise of freedom from “what is between us, from the bond we make at the moment in which we exercise freedom together, a bond without which there is no freedom at all.” (Butler, 2015: 52)

    My practice advances the field in a more radical turn than normative bookmaking structures by searching for and collaborating with “non-professional” writers and storytellers. De-professionalising is an anti-hierarchical strategy—an approach aimed at legitimising unrecognised literary contributions. This, in turn, positions experience as a theoretically-driven approach to writing. The aim is not to commodify experience or exoticise and thereby silence it, but to invoke it as a “way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing,” (hooks, 1994: 84).

    While hooks is opposed to an “essentialist practice that constructs identity in a monolithic, exclusionary way” she continues that one should not conversely “relinquish the power of experience as a standpoint on which to base analysis or formulate theory.” Where I stand, my body and experiences inform how I know, as hooks writes, “I am disturbed when all the courses on black history or literature at some colleges and universities are taught solely by white people, not because I think that they cannot know these realities but that they know them differently” (hooks, 1994: 90).

    In writing from the position of experience, the question then becomes, how can this be done without guilt or moralising becoming an inevitable corollary to the stories told? Levinasian scholar and educator, Sharon Todd sees the issue as a “pedagogical problem.” Her book Learning from the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education, guides new ways of storytelling beyond moralising experiences. Thereby, without explicating an image of what togetherness is supports an individualistic journey of learning from someone else (Todd, 2003).



“Mittendrin” – Children’s Literature Research as a Dynamic Academic Field

    Children’s literature historian, Kimberley Reynolds (2011) elegantly summarises the genres immense history elaborating on how there have been written works for children at least since ancient Rome. By the 18th century, in a western context,  publishing for children was a significant commercial business. Today, children’s literature is one of the world’s major cultural industries, contributing substantially to the economy of many different countries.

    Critical theorists have pondered over what kinds of knowledge children’s books produce. Walter Benjamin has said about the genre that “with their expressions and concepts they seemed to hold the talisman that would guide one over the threshold of youth into the promised land of manhood” (Benjamin. “Radio Benjamin.” Apple Books, 2014: chapter 32). The critical theorist and philosopher even produced over 30 radio broadcasts (from 1929-1932) he called “Enlightenment for Children.” In 2000, bell hooks wrote in her seminal work Feminism is for Everybody, “Children’s literature is one of the most crucial sites for feminist education for critical consciousness precisely because beliefs and identities are still being formed.” Whether explicit or implicit, picture books have a political dimension. They have been a site of civil resistance and change historically—from the avant-garde movements of the 1920s to feminist struggles of the 1960s, and beyond.

    However, there is also a long history of commandeering children’s books to bring about authoritarian social revolution as Reynolds (2011) points out—the Puritans, Nazis, Soviets, General Francisco Franco, and Chairman Mao all recognised that books were an important way to engage the rising generation. They suppressed children’s books they regarded as subversive or ideologically impure and produced others that vaunted their own world views (Reynolds, 2011: 112-126). The suppression of children’s literature continues, and organisations such as the American Library Association continually update it’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books list (2019). Overwhelming these are illustrated picture books focusing on LGBTQIA+ content and characters—or violence, even when those books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird highlight the violence imposed on black bodies in an effort to expose systemic racism.

    It’s only relatively recently that picture books have become a dynamic academic field. For long, it was assumed that the books of childhood were something to outgrow rather than something that should grow with you. Their lack of status has often been central to their innovation. During the McCarthy era in the USA, some of the writers banned from Hollywood, and other influential roles, found work writing for children. Many of these books also passed on the liberal values that were then under attack to a generation that grew up to champion civil rights, feminism, and peace (Reynolds, 2011: 96-11). Picture books are then a curious and paradoxical space—innovative and conservative, often overlooked but also highly regulated.

    Exemplifying this paradoxical space are some essays from The Picturebook: A Mirror of Social Changes (Cackowska and Dymel-Trzebiatowska, 2016). From Stockholm University, researcher Kelly Hübben (2016: 48 -58) interrogates tacit class distinctions between animals—revealing which ones have been historically represented as good to eat vs good love, and how children have been taught to distinguish between the two. From the University of Gdańsk, Hanna Dymel-Trzebiatowska (2016: 118-132) looks at the dichotomies of cuteness and aggression in books that deal with war and the role of soldiers in Polish and Scandinavian picture books, from a metaphorical perspective. Polish researcher, Katarzyna Smyczyńska (2016: 69-84) brings attention to books which have an affective engagement for their readers. She draws on works whose vivid visual language have the “power to immerse the reader in the unknown and offer the joy of the unpredictable.”

    Israeli literary scholar Yael Darr examines the political nature of Hebrew children’s picture books within the decade that followed the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This period, she asserts, “saw a rapid transition from the former overt politicisation of children’s literature to a striking and active avoidance of political content… [and] decisively disencumbered the children of their former active political tasks.” Consequently, the proportionate current trend is to be “global, translatable, psychologically responsible and politically passive”  (Dar, 2016: 36-48). What culminates from these essays is a taste of the art, media, and language, and the theoretical, historical, empirical, and didactic dimensions of current picture book research.

    The need for equity in children’s literature is strong. In Finland, the Goethe Institute began an initiative called the DRIN (INSIDE) Project, which deals with the representation of marginalised experiences in children’s picture books produced in Northern Europe and Germany, and I am in preliminary talks to collaborate with this endeavour. Projects such as The Children’s Library Project in Finland articulate the importance of this critical research in the field very clearly. This participatory action research project was funded by the KONE foundation in 2016 and continues to operate via the Gender Studies programme at Åbo Akademi University. I am in contact with social scientist Katarina Jungar, who headed the project from its inception and will subsequently act as an external advisor for my work as it develops.

    From ecologists pivoting their attention towards learning from indigenous peoples to the trail that has been blazed by the scores of feminist, LGBTQIA+, anti-racist and BIPOC focussed publishers in the US, the politics of whom we listen to is omnipresent. Many organisations (from a US position) have published findings/statistics as to what the current state of representation is: Publisher’s Lee & Low’s Diversity Gap (2018), literary researcher Emily Midkiff’s CCBC data graphs (2020), Pueblo scholar Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature (2006), queer Chicana artist Maya Christina Gonzalez’ “Children’s Books as a Radical Act” (2016) blog posts (to name a few). What is generally articulated is that though the production of more heterogeneous books has been on the rise since 2013, overall, and unequivocally, representation in the production side has gone up only marginally in comparison. Here, again, is where my practice directly addresses this gap—seeking the writers whose narratives emerge from their subject positions.



Who Can Act, How, When? Conundrums of Participatory Action Research

    Art historian and critic Claire Bishop (2006) identifies three dominant concerns within artistic practices whose frameworks require participation since the 1960’s—activation, authorship, and community. She argues that activation depends on the artist's desire to “create an active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation.” Second is the artist's gesture to cede some form of “authorial control”—which gives collaborative creativity the social veneer of being more democratic and egalitarian. Thirdly, building community is seen as an important response to conditions of neoliberalism and increasingly isolated existences, and the perceived lack of collective responsibility. Therefore, engaging with community through participatory artistic practices is a “restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning” (Bishop, 2006: 12).  

    For me, the criticism comes when people are used as “privileged materials”—activated to awaken their “critical consciousness,” as in the Brechtian model, or mobilised to produce “new social relationships and thus new social realities” as in the Situationist model (Bishop, 2006: 13). It is not that these modes can not work or succeed (this is usually the point of art!), but it can sometimes deny the reality that people do this on their own, spontaneously, and without institutional endorsement. In these and other formulations, groups/individuals are classified in binary terms of activator or spectator, inviter or invitee. Rancière (2009) reflects on the inherently privileged positions reflected in this either-or model which liken spectatorship with passivity:


Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed. There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. (Rancière, 2009: 17)


In this regard, Rancière repositions the framework of participation not as a means for access to awaken ourselves from passivity but as a means for equality.

    There are conundrums. Picture books are part of long-held traditions. Librarians, publishers, editors, and art directors (even parents and teachers) act as gatekeepers of the social modality for how these items are produced and received. This makes them in most instances (but somewhat elastic if we consider self-publishing) part of what linguist Robert Hodge and semiotician Gunther Kress term logonomic systems, in their book Social Semiotics (1988). 


A logonomic system is a set of rules prescribing the conditions for production and reception of meanings; which specify who can claim to initiate (produce, communicate) or know (receive, understand) meanings about what topics under what circumstances and with what modalities (how, when, why). Logonomic systems prescribe social semiotic behaviours at points of production and reception, so that we can distinguish between production regimes (rules constraining production) and reception regimes (rules constraining reception). A logonomic system is itself a set of messages, part of an ideological complex but serving to make it unambiguous in practice . . . The logonomic rules are specifically taught and policed by concrete social agents (parents, teachers, employers) coercing concrete individuals in specific situations by processes which are in principle open to study and analysis (Hodge and Kress, 1988: 4)


    Who will be the people I work with? How will they be found? Of course, the limitations are many, considering the paradox that who will want to write a story if they have never considered writing? One cannot make possible what one can not even imagine. So here the politics of making (logonomic systems) meet the politics of thought. In Foucauldian terms, this can be recast as an a priori, “not a condition of validity for judgements, but a condition of reality for statements” (Foucault, 2002: 143). Working through the contradictions, the project will be transmitted via my rhizomatic networks in the US, Germany, and Finland; and I will find individuals with whom to work. Children’s books might actually allow the negotiations of these exclusions/inclusions on a discursive level by asking “who is actually everyone?” Thereby challenging the notions brought forth by political theorist Ernesto Laclau and others, of the “included as excluded” model and confronting the binary of  “norm” vs “other.”



: Methodologies :



    How do children’s picture books produce knowledge? By what means? What kind of knowledge? How can research, based in art education, help understand power/knowledge as articulated through picture books? An analytical perspective—taking visual and textual discourses into account—wish to follow these questions. To follow my inquiries, I propose to work syncretically with a mix of different methodologies while keeping the research open and ongoing from “the middle” of the material. Without trying to discipline a) my will to learn and b) the upcoming collaborative processes, I would, instead, situate the “ways to go” in three methodological dimensions:



1 - Critical Visual Readings – Analytical Approaches

    The analytical approach takes a sample of picture books. It begins with three principles of philosopher Gillian Rose’s (2001) critical methodology towards interpreting by a) taking the images and text seriously, b) thinking about the social conditions and effects of these objects and c) considering an individualistic way of looking/reading the images and text. The starting point towards a method for sampling procedure would work in two parts. The first method, concerned with working alone, looks at books that are already considered “progressive” in the current zeitgeist of books which address some of the same concerns that this research proposes. Initially, this would gather a small sample of books whose main character is a person of colour, or considered marginal within the situated cultures of Germany, the US, and Finland. The second method, concerned with the effects on audiences, would use the framework of a workshop with members of the writing group, who could bring one important book, as a departure into the social ways these works function.


    There is no “correct” discipline to analyse the materials, as the scholar and cultural theorist Stuart Hall asserts:


It is worth emphasising that there is no single or ‘correct’ answer to the question, ‘What does this image mean?’ or ‘What is this ad saying?’ Since there is no law which can guarantee that things will have ‘one, true meaning,’ or that meanings won’t change over time, work in this area is bound to be interpretative—a debate between, not who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’, but between equally plausible, though sometimes competing and contesting, meanings and interpretations. The best way to ‘settle’ such contested readings is to look again at the concrete example and try to justify one’s ‘reading’ in detail in relation to the actual practices and forms of signification used, and what meanings they seem to you to be producing. (Hall, 1997: 9)


Therefore, I will keep the research open by employing some key aspects of five relevant systems: compositional interpretation, semiology, discourse analysis, and audience studies. We can use compositional interpretations to study the effects of the images and text, discourse analysis to investigate the institutional processes that produced those effects, and semiology to interpret some of these outcomes such as “preferred meaning.”

    Compositional analysis asks how are the works functioning, does it position you in a particular way in relation to it? What is the affective response? How are words, colour and text performing? What do we see, what is affecting us most profoundly and what are the structures evoking? Art historian Michael Ann Holly (1996) calls these queries the logics of figuration—asking “what the work of art does for us” (Holly, 1996: xiv).

    Discourse analysis, as understood by Michele Foucault (1972), is concerned with how discourse shapes a “particular knowledge about the world which shapes how the world is understood and how things are done in it” (Rose, 2001: 136). How are children’s picture books structuring the way something is thought, and how are the readers acting based on that reasoning? Thinking through political theorists Ernesto Laclau and  Chantal Mouffe, researchers Marianne W. Jørgensen and Louise Phillips (2002) suggest that discourse can always be challenged because meaning is always made in relation to something else, such as in specific “articulations”—therefore there are always other “meaning potentials.”

    Both language and image-making are social phenomena and are constantly in flux, “it is through conventions, negotiations and conflicts in social contexts that structures of meaning are fixed and challenged” (Jørgensen and Phillips, 2002: 25). What is proposed is to focus on “specific expressions in their capacity as articulations” (Jørgensen and Phillips, 2002: 29). By situating meaning via its relationship to its context, one can begin to ask what meanings are being established in connection to one another and “what meaning potentials do they exclude?” (Jørgensen and Phillips, 2002: 29). Although meanings are contingent contextually and can not be pinned down, or fixed, it is interesting to ask the books being interpreted which fixations of meaning have become so conventionalised that we think of them as natural?

    Foucault has suggested suspending the archive, to look at the materials/sources with fresh eyes.  Instead of holding accepted notions, he says, pre-existing categories “must be held in suspense. They must not be rejected definitively, of course, but the tranquillity with which they are accepted must be disturbed; we must show that they do not come about by themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known and the justifications of which must be scrutinized” (Foucault, 1972: 25). Therefore, strategies via discourse analysis for this part of the research include the examinations of the material’s truth effects, looking for the invisible as well as the visible, identifying key themes and looking for complexity as well as contradictions.

    In semiology, explains Gillian Rose (2002) “there is no stable point that can provide an entrance into the meaning-making process; all meanings are relational not only within the image but also in relation to other images and to broader dominant codes, referent systems and mythologies” (Rose, 2001: 91), Hence, in this way, aspects of semiology interrelate with discourse analysis. In this regard, I am to research the ways visual style and text are used, creating hegemonic structures, such as national or cultural norms/identities, and how via these symbols (text and image) preferred meanings begin to emerge.

    As Stuart Hall explains, these preferred meanings (mythologies or ideologies) become preferred readings when audiences interpret them in ways that retain “the institutional/ political/ideological order imprinted on them” (Hall, 1980: 134). In many ways, children’s books are among the first systems that indoctrinate and articulate these dominant “codes.” As Hall continues: “[a]ny society/culture tends, with varying degrees of closure, to impose its classifications of the social and cultural and political world. These constitute a dominant cultural order, though it is neither univocal nor uncontested . . . The different areas of social life appeared to be mapped out into discursive domains, hierarchically organized into dominant or preferred meanings.” (Hall, 1980: 134).

    Anecdotally, I have experienced a publisher denying me an illustration position because I did not meet their preferred visual definitions. In an email, they stated that though my “portfolio looks great” they are looking for artists with an “original and polished Nordic style / Finnish vibe.” What does this really mean? How can one have an “original” style and yet simultaneously meet the requirements of a nationalised “style”? Here is a prime example how the embedded power relations of this system enacts certain social conditions. By examining these struggles further I can begin to unearth how these “signs” (images and text with preferred meaning that engender specific readings) have a privileged status, and how they are defined in relation to the other “signs” in the discourse. By noticing recurring themes (visually/textually), one can ask what is the discursive production of some sort of authoritative narrative and how/is that narrative contested within the social practices both in which it is embedded and which it itself produces?

    Additionally, the research will investigate how the work is functioning on a social level through qualitative methods. Finding at this early stage that I am most interested in how audiences who bring their own ways of seeing, and other knowledges make their own meanings. Group members who will act as the writers of the collaborative part of the project may comprise those who are asked to give their thoughts on a certain picture book—exploring how different audiences react to the same work. Thinking again through Stuart Hall (1997), we can begin to engage with one’s “subject positions” concerning the books we decide to consider—working to situate how a variety of impressions are constructed. We can ask ourselves “what discourse is being produced”—asking one to identify how they are produced as a subject in relation to the material.  Individuals, writes Hall, “may differ as to their social class, gendered, ‘racial’ and ethnic characteristics (among other factors), but they will not be able to take meaning until they have identified with those positions which the discourse constructs, subjected themselves to its rules, and hence become the subjects of its power/knowledge” (Hall, 1997: 56).



2 - (Un)Doing Together – Collaborative Production as Artistic and Educational Research

    Is there such a thing as a “safe space”? Many institutions are now calling on “safer space policy” and announcing manifestos which outline the guidelines for what this means. I can not predict what the needs of the people I collaborate with will be, and I am critical of a space entirely without conflict. Safer space policy better supports dialogical enquiry, but I also recognise that for marginalised and oppressed minorities, “there is no safe space” (Leonardo & Porter 2010:140). Instead,  I can work towards “a pedagogy of disruption” (Leonardo & Porter 2010:139) and search for methods of working collaboratively that are reflexive, and plastic enough for change and appropriation.

    Individuals who show interest in collaborating and writing for the book will steer the framework for how we want to work collectively—figuring out the roles, but also figuring out ways to support changes. The liminal stage of developing the working group will engender a mostly dialogical methodology, where the group meets and discusses their interests and aims. Ideally, the whole group meets at least three times per year, starting in Fall 2021. Then, I will maintain a one-on-one interaction with each collaborator throughout the project. I plan to organise a total of 4 workshops with guest artists/experts. Topics could include: creative writing exercises, memory work, discussing and analysing picture books (using some of the analytical approaches  noted in my section on Critical Visual Readings—noting representation, patterns, likes/dislikes and what each feel is missing from the narratives that we study).

    As is the nature of working with other people or communities, there is always the issue of trust. bell hooks asserts creating together “usually means finding out what it is we have in common as well as what separates us and makes us different” (hooks, 2003: 109). The final stories written for the book may reveal various positions of commonality, which can be appreciated without this commonality turning into a demand for unity. We are all distinctly different, the purpose is not to erase these differences or to neutralise them, but to live with, celebrate, continue to evolve, and discuss our uniqueness—in the spirit of philosopher Julia Kristeva’s notion of a “polytopic and supple society” (Kristeva, 1991:154).

    I’m interested in a multidisciplinary process, which fosters a more cooperative approach to developing intellectual frameworks, beyond singular disciplinary perspectives. Using experience enacts the initial steps to writing. As writing methods progress, the finalised stories may become more fictionalised. The collaborators will inform the illustration side of the book as well. A good way to start will be to ask questions:



      • How can we as a group begin to (un)learn some of these normative power relationships—to shift power through what is shown in pictures of children’s books—with which daily pictures and stories of “normal” children are socialised?
      • How can we expand the notion of collectivity and approach our relational bonds, not within the confines of pre-existing social structures, but actively becoming in context as a learning process?
      • How to experiment in writing stories which prioritise the perspective of  minority ability, culture, or religion in non-moralising ways?
      • How to create picture books rooted in emancipatory knowledge production?
      • How can we write stories that pay more attention to the values of social justice and anti-racism, while also understanding power and privilege in existing social, political, and economic structures?

    These aims are a part of a wider claim to the issues and concerns of my own identity. I am a cisgender, white woman who benefits from some structures of oppression. Yet as a child, I also didn’t see stories representing my own multiculturalism—as a New York-born, working-class female, of both Jewish and Islamic heritage. However, I did at least see characters that looked like me in the literature my mother and grandparents read as part of their mainstream, white upbringing. I could understand the cultural mores that were normalised by my surroundings. Part of this doctoral work will be to investigate my relationship to “whiteness” as a construct across countries. As a US American, my whiteness is presumably assured, but in Finland it has a more complex relationship towards racialisation, where whiteness is simultaneously conflated with national belonging (Krivonos, 2018).

    By probing deeper into the theoretical work of scholars writing about race, such as Peggy McIntosh and Ruth Frankenberg, I aim to focus on marginality, while also examining my subjectivity. The difficulty is not out there. The difficulty lies with me. As children’s librarian Allie Jane Bruce (2015) asserts, there is a need for more books problematising whiteness “because ‘white’ has its own culture and cultural beats, and those are too often considered ‘universal’’’(Bruce, 2015: 3-6). Interrogating my own problematics is not an act of benevolence, it’s praxis in better support of emancipatory practices within artistic and pedagogical endeavours. Literary and cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak speaks critically of benevolence. If practitioners do not look to address their position, then action is steeped in a condescending paternalism. In discussion with professors Geoffrey Hawthorn, Ron Aronson, and John Dunn, she explains—“entertain the notion that you cannot consider all other subjects and that you should look at your own subjective investment in the narrative that is being produced. . . it is not an invitation to be benevolent towards others” (Spivak, 1990: 29).



3 - Rethinking Histories – Historical Perspectives

    One approach that seems interesting besides critical readings and collaborative exploration is historical research. It might open new approaches to look at the forgotten radical history of children’s books  and work on positioning them in various avant-garde art movements, and how they can embrace decolonial theory. This part of the doctoral research will require going through archives and examining how picture books are situated within archival and memory practices (i.e. cultural storytelling)— contributing to frameworks of political and social imaginations.

    Elina Druker from Stockholm University and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer from the University of Tübingen map out vestiges of the many mutual links between radical art movements and picture books in their book Children’s Literature and the Avant-garde (2015). What is proposed is how some avant-garde artists, from the first half of the twentieth century, designed their own “radical” manifestos and ushered in a “great literature for the small.” The research shows how these picture book artists experimented with the same trends within various avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Expressionism in Hungry, Color Field painting in the US, and were influenced by surrealism and theories of psychoanalysis, in France. They discuss how the development of some avant-garde children’s books went “hand in hand with a broader awareness of contemporary political, cultural, and social issues, leading to revisions of traditional concepts of childhood” (Druker and Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2015: 2). Children’s literature scholar, Philip Nel (2019) argues for radical children’s literature in our modern times but refuses to codify its aesthetics. Instead, he observes the geographical and ideological range of the avant-garde across the discipline and traces the remains of avant-garde aesthetics and politics in “now-familiar, not-quite-innocent” texts and imagery.

    Art historians Klaus Beekman and Jan de Vries (2007) demonstrate how contemporary artists have tried to renew and advance some well-known avant-garde ideas of the early twentieth century. By diving into the archives of contemporary picture book writers and illustrators, we can examine how these movements live on in current practices in this rather moderately researched genre. Innosanto Nagara, Nikki Giovanni and Shaun Tan; Eric Velasquez, Sabrina Mahfouz and Supriya Kelkar are just a handful of children’s authors and illustrators whose works shift dominant narratives. Their work acts as a continuation of developments that we could consider expressions of the avant-garde in picture books today. Further research is tasked with finding non-Western examples of content engendering the emancipation of subjugated bodies and telling anti-racist stories that don’t undermine themselves. Researcher Jaana Pesonen (2013) describes this undermining as accentuating overly moralistic lessons and thereby losing their intended positive outcomes.

    Another starting point is to study authors whose work falls between, rather than within, the familiar boundaries of accepted genres or mediation. The point of engagement arrives through such interstitial authors as Chinua Achebe, whose first children’s book, Chike and the River (1996) addressed concerns over how a prejudiced view of African life was being presented. The iconic Nigerian novelist went on to problematise the dominant structure of monolingual storytelling by brilliantly weaving the colonial English language with African proverbs and idioms in his books—such as Things Fall Apart (1994). Additionally, Gloria Anzaldúa’s (2012) seminal work Borderlands: La Frontera also splendidly interrogates the ways language is used, challenging its reader to explore our ontology of language. The Chicana cultural theorist and feminist scholar developed Borderlands Theory which can be used as a means to explore identity as something which straddles a multiplicity of borders and fights an array of oppressions without ranking them. For Anzaldúa a border was not only a physical place but, more broadly, a space that is “physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (Anzaldúa, 2012: 19).

    Anzaldua’s tremendous theoretical influence is a way of positioning the illumination of a perspective that is on the edge, or periphery, of dominant social constructs, and a means to decolonise the inner self as well. Interestingly, Anzaldúa went on to write two children’s picture books, Prietita and the Ghost Woman/Prietita y la llorona (2001) and Friends from the Other Side / Amigos del otro lado (1997). These two writers’ bodies of work are crucial examples of a vivid sensibility within broader decolonial thinking, of language-use and identity, and will inform this research throughout its many stages. The artistic body of the PhD project concretely resists dominant, monolingual/monocultural conceptions of social realities and supports writers by exercising and experimenting with multiple languages in picture books and supporting authorship in their mother-tongue.



: Conclusion :



    My work involves supporting all participants in this collective bookmaking. Inspired by artist and researcher Céline Condorelli (2009), I understand support as supplemental—not as a moral obligation and not enacted from the top-down. In both a Finnish and German context, I aim to work with people to tell the youngest generation the stories that will inspire a future based on equality. I’m in pursuit to tell thought-provoking, beautiful, and compelling stories, not in establishing some protocols for political correctness, which cultural theorist Claire Bishop (2008: 206) evaluates as a “position of doing what seems right in the eyes of others.” This work is not about a moral obligation to society, but about what I can learn, and turn imaginable, by working with others—“[a] striving in concert or [a] striving together that seems to form one meaning of political movement or mobilization” (Butler, 2015: 133).  Whatever we learn makes us and whatever we make, makes something thinkable. I hope to have the opportunity as a researcher and artist at Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg to do just that.



: Bibliography :



  1. Achebe, Chinua. Chike and the River. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
  2. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
  3. Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Borderlands: La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012 (4th ed.).
  4. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.
  5. Beekman, Klaus and Jan de Vries, editors. Avant-garde and Criticism. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.
  6. Benjamin, Walter. Radio Benjamin, Lecia Rosenthal, editor. Jonathan Lutes, translation, et al. London: Verso, 2014.
  7. Bhabha, Homi K. “Conversational Art.” In Conversations at the Castle: changing audiences and contemporary art, Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson, editors. Cambridge, Mass and London: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 38-47.
  8. Bishop, Claire, editor. Participation. London: Whitechapel Ventures Limited, 2006.
  9. Bishop, Claire and Jennifer Roche. “Socially Engaged Art, Critics, and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop.” In Artistic Bedfellows. Histories, Theories, and Conversations in Collaborative Art Practices, Holly Crawford, editor. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2008, pp. 202-209.
  10. Bourdieu, Pierre. “For a Scholarship with Commitment.” In Profession, 2000,  pp. 40–45.
  11. Bruce, Allie. “On Being White. A Raw, Honest Conversation.” In Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 13(3) (Fall 2015): pp. 3-6, doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/cal.13n3.3.
  12. Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  13. Cecelia Silva-Diíaz, et al editors. New Directions in Picturebook Research. London: Routledge, 2010.
  14. Condorelli, Céline. Support Structures. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009.
  15. Coté, Mark, et al., editors. Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization. University of Toronto Press, 2007.
  16. Darr, Yael. “Picture-Books and Politics: Israeli Children's Picture-Books during the Shift from Pre-State to Statehood.” In Problemy Wczesnej Edukacji/Issues in Early Education, (3)34, Maùgorzata Cackowska and Hanna Dymel-Trzebiatowska, editors. Poland: Katedra Wczesnej Edukacji UWM, 2016, pp. 36-47.
  17. Druker, Elina and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, editors. Children’s Literature and the Avant-garde. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015.
  18. Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. A. M. Sheridan Smith, translator. London: Tavistock Publications, 1972.
  19. Frankenberg, Ruth. White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  20. Giroux, Henry. “Utopian Thinking in Dangerous Times: Critical Pedagogy and the Project of Educated Hope.” In Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization, Mark Coté, et al., editors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 25-42.
  21. Gonzalez, Maya Christina. “Children’s Books as a Radical Act.”  

https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/ (Accessed on 9.9.2020)
  1. Donna Haraway. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Feminist Studies 14(3) (1988): pp. 575-99.
  2. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/decoding.” In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies. London: Hutchinson, 1980,  pp. 128-38.
  3. Hall, Stuart. “Introduction.” In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Stuart Hall, editor. London: Sage, 1997, pp. 1-12.
  4. Holly, Michael Ann. Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  5. hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  6. hooks, bell. Feminism is For Everybody. Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000.
  7. hooks, bell. Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  8. Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Leon Roudiez, translator. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  9. Krivonos, Daria. “Claims to Whiteness: Young Unemployed Russian-Speakers’ Declassificatory  Struggles in Finland.” In The Sociological Review, 66(6) (November 2018): pp. 1145–60. doi:10.1177/0038026117737412.
  10. Kruse, Iris and Andrea Sabisch, editors. Fragwürdiges Bilderbuch: Blickwechsel - Denkspiele - Bildungspotenziale. Kopäd Verlag, 2013.
  11. Lee & Low’s Diversity Gap. https://blog.leeandlow.com/category/diversity-race-and-representation/the-diversity-gap/ (Accessed on 9.9.2020)
  12. McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989.
  13. Midkiff, Emily. https://emidkiff.wordpress.com/graphs/ (Accessed on 9.9.2020)
  14. Milevska, Suzana. “‘Infelicitous’ Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage. Participatory art’s promises and hopes for democratization of society.” In p/art/icipate – Kultur aktiv gestalten #07, 2016. https://www.p-art-icipate.net/infelicitous-participatory-acts-on-the-neoliberal-stage/ (Accessed 20.12.2020)
  15. Nel, Philip. “A Manifesto for Radical Children’s Literature (and an Argument Against Radical Aesthetics).” In Barnboken, 42, (December 2019) doi:10.14811/clr.v42i0.437.
  16. Oushakine, Serguei Alex. “Translating Communism for Children: Fables and Posters of the Revolution.” In Boundary 2, 43(3) (August 2016): pp. 159–219. doi:10.1215/01903659-3572478.
  17. Pesonen, Jaana. “Anti-racist Strategies in Finnish Children's Literature: Physical Appearance and Language as Signifiers of National Belonging.” In Children's Literature in Education, 44(3) (Fall 2013): pp. 238-250, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-012-9186-z.
  18. Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” In Profession, 1991, pp. 33–40.
  19. Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Gregory Elliott, translator. London: Verso, 2009.
  20. Reese, Debbie. https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/ (Accessed on 9.9.2020)
  21. Reynolds, Kimberley. Children's Literature: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  22. Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage, 2001.
  23. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Post-modern Condition: The End of Politics?” In The post-colonial critic: interviews, strategies and dialogues,  Sarah Harasym, editor.  New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc. 1990, pp. 29.
  24. Sternfeld, Nora. “‘How Do We Come Together in a World That Isolates Us?’” In Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial, Margareta Von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, editors. Leuven (Belgium):Leuven University Press, 2020, pp. 362–374.
  25. Todd, Sharon. Learning from the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
  26. Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists, American Library Association, 2013.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10 Document ID:8417fa9e-ceff-4512-aca9-9fbc81b8bd81(Accessed December 26, 2020)

© Dahlia el Broul 2022

Made possible by the generous support of family, friendship, and love