Many people have no idea how much discussion and debate children’s librarians have about topics like books, programming, library organization, awards, digital media use, inclusion/diversity, holidays and more. We are a passionate, caring bunch! Even in my small, rural library we analyze, critique, and evaluate the merits and missteps of kids media on a daily basis.
Recently, our in-house discussions have focused on media that reflects the Alaskan/Arctic experience. Finding any content that includes Arctic animals, cultures, landscapes, etc. can be hard. When we do come across media with Arctic references, we pay special attention.
Three titles, two picture books and one app, came across my desk late in 2016 that made me let out a deep sigh; Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith, Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and Christian Robinson, and LumiKids Snow by Lumos Labs. (See more info below.) At first glance they had nothing to do with the Arctic, but then…
Why does some children’s media continue to feature, incorrectly, penguins living in the Arctic and walruses in Antarctica?
What’s the big deal, you ask? Accuracy.
I am calling attention to the penguin/walrus issue here because I think it represents the broader accuracy/authenticity issue that is sometimes pushed aside as minor because the media is otherwise high quality. Some might say I am exaggerating or being overly sensitive. Should I overlook penguin/walrus issue?
While I am a true fan of the fantastical, fictional, and imagined, I do think that kids and their families learn a lot about the real world in fictional media. In all media for kids, books, apps, etc., I think accuracy matters. Incorrectly associating penguins and walruses may seem like a silly example of accuracy issues, but authentic representation supports kids by allowing them to see themselves, their environment, and their culture in the media they read, watch, and explore. All types of media also feed all types of kids’ curiosity about other people, places, and times. Inaccuracy- stereotypes and misinformation- can have lasting effects. I know writers, illustrators, designers, and developers can create high quality experiences that entertain, challenge, represent, and teach.
Interestingly, the Annoyed Librarian posted about scientific accuracy in children’s picture books on the Library Journal blog (November, 2016). While there are several comments to consider on the blog site, check out the additional conversation over on the Storytime Underground Facebook page. Whether or not Eric Carle’s caterpillar makes a chrysalis or a cocoon may not seem connected to the current discussions about fake news, but it might be. Kids and their families take away information from all reading experiences.
As media mentors, it is important for librarians to help families think about what the book, app, video, and website is telling us and whether or not the content is factual (and accurate), fantastical, or a hybrid. Media literacy is not new to librarians and this aspect of our work continues to be fundamental across formats. Intentionally including critical thinking skills in programs for even the youngest patron and conversations with families will have a long term impact. These skills will be invaluable as young children become adult readers and expand their media consumption. I and several others talked to Linda Jacobson about this for her article, “The Smell Test: Educators can counter fake news with information literacy. Here’s how,” in the January issue of School Library Journal.
Problem: Walrus in the Antarctic?
A walrus appears late in the story clearly about Antarctica and told by a penguin. There is no explanation why and how the walrus appears in a marine world filled with otherwise authentic Antarctic animals. Was this a mistake or did I not get a joke in the otherwise humorous story?
Problem: Walruses and Penguins?
Again a walrus appears in this book about penguins, but in this case the walrus is a subtle addition to a book not as clearly about Antarctica, except for the presence of penguins. The generic types of animals, other than penguins and walruses, can be found in both regions. Maybe the penguins have immigrated? Maybe the walrus did?
I read both books with preschoolers on different occasions and asked kids to help me decide. I asked the two different storytime groups to help me find the issues. One or two kids were able to recognize that walruses (native to Alaska and the Arctic) and penguins (native to the Antarctic and Southern Hemisphere) do not coexist. That was ok- we all learn something everyday. They liked the books for the most part, but were a bit puzzled why the walruses were there given that all of the other animals were appropriately connected. Even the adults had the “huh!” expression on their faces.
With information literacy on my mind, I then used the books as starting points for media literacy conversations. We briefly discussed whether the book was a pretend story or a real story (pretend- penguins don’t talk or live in igloos, they were sure) and tried to figure out if the authors and illustrators added the walruses as a joke (not sure). We also used nonfiction titles and images on my iPad to help us take stock of where the other animals in the books live in real life (all in Antarctica except for the walrus, they were sure) and to decipher if the illustrations looked like northern Alaska and the Arctic or Antarctica (not sure- both regions can be snowy, icy, and have water).
Problem: Penguins in the Arctic?
App Description (iTunes, 3/10/17): “Explore an arctic adventure in LumiKids Snow! In this frozen playground, meet new LumiKids friends while you toss snowballs and sled around then warm up with some cozy s’mores!”
The app I reviewed for inclusion on my library’s mounted iPad, but I will not be adding it until the description is updated. (I contacted the developer in early January).