Conferences and Events Features Picture Books

Last Day at the Arts Conference: Establishing Culture and Identity through Children’s Picture Books

Yesterday was the last day of the conference. It was a Sunday and predictably there were only a few people about – one couldn’t really blame them since the city is just so inviting (I’ve witnessed around two live performances so far in QVB and an artist painting his mural in the streets). So while I could have chosen to just stay with the family who is hosting me in Sydney, I decided to brave the Sunday morning cold and attend this talk for the love of Gathering Books.

The Sunday 1020 am session was on: Illustrations in Children’s Literature – Commonplaces of Culture and Identity. The presentors were Dr. Linda Wason-Ellam from the Department of Curriculum  Studies, College of Education and Dr. Peter Purdue who is from the Department of Art and Art History – both from University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.

Basically, the lovely Dr. Wason-Ellam (I wasn’t able to get a very clear picture of her) discussed how a group of post-impressionist painters called the Group of Seven used their paintings of Canadian wilderness and rugged landscapes to enliven children’s picture books to establish a strong sense of nationhood and identity.

Dr Wason-Ellam also talked about how the youth nowadays are deeply immersed into the consumerism subculture being fed to them by the media, that they are unable to connect deeply with the outdoors and subsequently fail to realize just how beautiful their environment actually is. If you are unable to connect with your environment, then your sense of ownership, responsibility, accountability for what happens to it – drops to zero visibility. This is a slide example of how an artist / writer portrays Spring Snows in Canadian picture books:

This is another beautiful slide of a painting drawn by Lawren Harris woven together with the poetry of George Swede:

The basic theme of Dr. Wason-Ellam and Dr. Purdue’s work is that (and I quote directly from the slide that they have shown):

“The children’s literature of any nation is a microcosm of that country’s literary and socio-cultural values, beliefs, themes, and images, including those of geography, history, and identity.

Beautifully stated. I just looove looove the fact that an academic lens is directed to picture books that speak to the heart, forge a strong sense of nationhood, and portray the works of eminent Canadian artists – how can you possibly go wrong?

What I of course loved the most is the fact that she has, yet again, shared some of the works that she has used in her studies – now I have more to add to my reading list:

One of the illustrators in the audience asked if there is a big market for such picturebooks in Canada. Apparently they have a steady market with the public libraries and the schools who make certain that they have these books in stock.

Personally, I believe that this is such a wonderful initiative. Dr. Wason-Ellam spoke of how most countries are being so globalized right now that when you visit a country that you have not seen before, everything that you see in their Mall could most likely be found in your own doorstep. Why leave home at all when you have international common branding of everything from shoes to water to cutlery?

In these picture books, one is able to have an authentic taste of how the wind in the prairie feels like as it touches your cheeks, how the green of the trees found in Canadian valleys are shades of green that you could find nowhere else.

At the same time that it gives children a strong sense of rootedness, it also provides people from outside of your country a lovely lovely glimpse of what it is like to be in that scenic countryside.

I think it would be best, if I also quote directly from her slide wherein she talks about the significance of one’s growing identity being deeply tied to its topography as humanized through these picture books which directly speak to children’s sensibilities:

This also has a unique space for growing children since according to one of the slides found in the presentation of Dr Wason-Ellam:

“Picture books are one of the first points of contact for children to interact with verbal and visual representations of national identity and they can be an ongoing medium for literary engagement throughout children’s schooling.”

Very true indeed. I have always known the almost-magical spell-like quality that any good picture book can wield upon its adult reader, how much more a young child with eyes and senses open to just about anything that the universe gives to them as a gift. These are books that definitely feed the soul.

Moreover, Dr Wason-Ellam claimed:

Hooray indeed to the magical enchantment of children’s books. I shall definitely miss the daily travel to the Sydney college of the arts. I’ve also taken several photos of their magnificent trees on campus (I must have been a dryad in a past life), and I shall end (and have actually started) this blog with this beautiful picture that I personally have taken in the SCA grounds.

This must definitely be the place where the goblins, gnomes, and gremlins of Sydney as well as the winter fairies hold their high council. One can create an entire picture book from this photo alone. =) Cheers to Children’s Picture Books!

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “Last Day at the Arts Conference: Establishing Culture and Identity through Children’s Picture Books

  1. Pingback: Dual Tastes of Morocco and Sydney: Mirror by Jeannie Baker |

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