The Age (Melbourne), April 1, 2006
Children’s book illustrator Terry Denton is no stranger to controversy. Over a 25-year career, he’s contributed to popular books featuring nose picking, dog poo and runny vomit.
But it is not just excrement that can raise eyebrows. When he was illustrating an American school reader a few years ago, Denton was asked by a US publisher to redraw a picture of a multi-race couple. Denton’s drawing of a black person married to an Hispanic was for some reason deemed inappropriate. He was asked to draw a black couple instead.
Denton is one of a growing number of Victorian illustrators who say restrictions on educational books for children have intensified as the publishing market expands globally.
One highly successful book was not accepted in the US because it showed a bare baby’s bottom. Another illustrator was asked not to draw any udders in a book about cows.
Illustrators have been asked to avoid showing uncut loaves of bread and freestanding wardrobes because they might be unfamiliar to American readers.
Others report being given strict ratios about the gender and multicultural balance of characters, but without too much physical detail.
“(Large) lips on any blacks are completely out, the eyes on any Asian child have to not look Asian at all and the colour for any black child has got to be the softest brown,” explains Craig Smith, who drew the udderless cows.
“It’s unreal, that’s what I think the most despairing thing is. It means a book does not necessarily reflect what kids patently see around them, they see a cleaned-up version.”
Fellow illustrator Roland Harvey, who abandoned an educational project several years ago because of what he believed were excessive demands, described it as political correctness gone mad.
“It’s not only gone mad, I think it’s completely irrational . . . to start to think that portraying a race in a true and honest way is somehow derogatory or demeaning.”
At Thomson Learning Australia, Lee Walker has overseen the removal of genitals from a mouse, nail polish from children’s hands, and skull and crossbones from pirates’ clothing. “And we Photoshop out cows’ udders all the time.”
Ms Walker, publishing manager in Thomson’s primary division, agrees there are now more changes applied to illustrations to suit the international market, especially the “overly politically correct” US market, but she sees it as “just part of the business”.
“From a cost perspective, it’s easier,” she said. “I’m sure all of us feel a little bit challenged sometimes because we might not necessarily agree, but . . . we would always put our market first.”
Publishers at Pearson Education Australia point out that without the export market, some of the local education publications wouldn’t get off the ground. “At times with certain series, it’s this with some compromise, or nothing,” said primary publisher Rosaleen Stewart.
But some in the industry fear the result could be that the books become less attractive.
“It creates a double standard between what people can see on TV and in books,” says Denton. “And therefore it makes books a whole lot less sexier for kids.”
Andrew Kelly, of Black Dog Publishing, is also worried about the effect of the “PC taken to an extreme” approach to illustrations.
“I think it deadens the story and makes the story less interesting,” he said.
“But on the other hand . . . sometimes I think if a literacy expert honestly believes that it is going to distract the child from focusing on words or impede their reading, they have to accept that.”
GUIDELINES FOR ILLUSTRATORS FROM A US PUBLISHER
Avoid stereotypes such as females as peripheral/helpers to active/leading males, or senior citizens as infirm, with canes, doddering.
Elderly people should be shown as active members of society; unless relevant to text they should not be shown in wheelchairs.
Show mothers involved in outside employment (not in aprons in kitchens).
Show African-Americans in positions of power, not just in service industries.
Show African-Americans and other people of colour with a range of skin tones. Hair texture should vary from straight to curly.
Do not stereotype Asian people with glasses, bowl-shaped haircuts, or as intellectuals.
Never use slanted lines to illustrate Asian eyes.
No large groups of people without an appropriate ethnic mix and male/female ratio.
No “help the disabled” pictures — show disabled people doing for themselves and others.
Show many types of family grouping. Take care not to imply that one-parent homes are broken.