Looking Back, Looking Forward by Sheila Greenwald
I started illustrating books for children in 1956 and began to write them in 1975. As a freelancer involved with many publishing houses, I had an outsider’s view of quickly changing styles, rules, and acceptable content. The pendulum swing of change seemed faster and wider as time went on.
Children’s book department offices in the 50s were small and intimate. We knew one another, talked and joked, had dinner, met one another’s families learned one another’s points of view, likes and dislikes, shared family news. As the industry has grown and departments have added more team members, this level of intimacy is harder and harder to achieve.
Along with these changes in children’s book department offices, the kinds of books houses are publishing for children has also changed over the years. I wonder now how my two new books Bossy Flossie: Biz Whiz and Bossy Flossie: Secret To Success would have been different had they been published sixty years ago.
First, the gender roles of both women and men are much less traditional in today’s children’s books. For instance, in 1956 I could not have depicted Flossie’s mother or a woman teacher wearing slacks. In the book, Flossie’s father is portrayed as a nurse, but in fact this role likely would have been seen as one of the few acceptable roles for women outside the home, but not an acceptable career for her father.
Additionally, there were far fewer racially diverse characters in children’s books published at the start of my career. Therefore, Flossie’s school mates, in illustrations by Pierre Collet-Derby, would not have been ethnically diverse were the book published forty or fifty years ago.
Moreover, the challenges that today’s generation of children face have opened up the opportunity for new subject matter in children’s books. A few years ago, I was at lunch with food editor and writer Jane Lear where we were discussing the effect of processed industrial food on the young. “America is poisoning her children,” Jane said with passion. When I asked if she wrote books for children and she said she didn’t, I recalled that I did and the idea for the plot of Bossy Flossie: Biz Whiz was born.
I write because I have strong opinions on subjects I wish to explore. Most often those subjects affect the lives of children. The challenge for me is disguising my message with humor, dialogue and interesting plotting to make them acceptable to the reader. The subject matter of my two new books, particularly the importance of healthy eating, would not have occurred to me sixty years ago. Junk and processed food was not an issue back then.
Now mothers can wear what they please, work at whatever they choose, books are ethnically and racially diverse, and the traditional family is no longer the necessary norm.
While there have been so many great changes within the children’s publishing industry over the last 50 years, there are a few things I miss. I miss the intimacy and sense of community of mid twentieth century publishing. I am however glad that the restrictions of the era which left out so many readers have been lifted and the books that now emerge answer the needs of a larger population.
While so much has changed in so many ways, I have my fingers crossed that good stories well told will endure, if not on the shelf, in the hearts and heads of readers.
Born and raised in New York City, Sheila Greenwald has written and illustrated about thirty books, many for children—and illustrated about forty others. She graduated from H.S. Music and Art as an art major and Sarah Lawrence College as a literature major. She is married and has two sons and one grandson.