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Essay: Taboos About What Can’t Be Shown in Children’s Picture Books Vary Around the World

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The issue, then, is the extent to which publishers feel the need to pander to the limitations any one group might impose, particularly in such an uncommonly politicized children’s book culture. If you are in a high-risk, small-margin business like publishing, with a constant eye on the bottom line, why allow a small, inconsequential detail — a character in a crowded street scene holding a cigarette — to alienate 48 percent of your potential market? Surely it’s easier to pre-emptively avoid all the possibly problematic things. Just in case.

We translators are stationed permanently at bridging points between different book markets operating under different rules, which feels like a good position from which to interrogate them. We’re always grappling with the fact that what might be widely accepted in one market will be controversial in another. Seen from Nordic countries, say, Anglophone markets can look prudish when it comes to sex, sexuality and human bodies, and in total denial when it comes to death.

Context isn’t irrelevant, of course. Genuine harms exist, and threats to children’s safety aren’t the same everywhere. An episode of “Peppa Pig” in which Peppa learns to befriend a spider was, sensibly, pulled from transmission in Australia, home to some of the more ferociously unfriendly arachnid species.

One common sticking point is that what differs from market to market is, fundamentally, the concept of children and childhood: What is expected of and for children? How much agency should they have? How much do adults trust in their general robustness in the face of The World? Woodstein recalls being asked by publishers to alter words or scenes to avoid suggesting that child characters have “too much liberty.”

Unlike some publishers, Enchanted Lion is constantly working to “expand the field of possibility,” as Bedrick puts it. One of my favorites from their wide-ranging catalog is “The Bird Coat,” by Inger Marie Kjolstadmyr and Oyvind Torseter, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking book about a tailor who aspires to fly and bravely jumps … to his death. It’s a book about courage, consequences and failure; about following a dream. People love books about dreamers, Bedrick says, but only when the dreamers succeed. It’s not the first time she has encountered U.S. resistance to kids’ books without conventionally happy endings.

I don’t expect one culture’s discomforts to be inflicted on another. Just because Australia has some highly venomous spiders doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be continually fretting about them. In practice, sure, minor accommodations often need to be made (if I want my books to span multiple markets, best to keep witches and pigs out of the pictures). But what Schimel experienced in Hungary — and what plenty of authors experience in parts of the United States — is about assuming that one’s own taboos are, or should be, our neighbors’. This looks particularly willful and arbitrary to those of us who are trying to reconcile divergent cultures that assume theirs is the only way.