Post-colonial / Race Criticism in Children’s Literature


Another day, another lecture prep session. As I was preparing my lecture on post-colonialism / race criticism in children’s literature, I was reading Clare Bradford’s text Reading Race, and I came across her discussion of initial reactions to John Marsden’s (author) and Shaun Tan’s (illustrator) picture book The Rabbits. I must have been immersed in the beginning of my PhD at that time, so I don’t ever recall reading this before, but here is an example of a journalist’s reaction:

“Surely it’s a joke. Why else would the Children’s Book Council include The Rabbits in this year’s shortlist, let alone give it first prize, except to make bunnies of us all?

Self-important, contrived, manipulative and totally lacking in hope and magic, it is the antithesis of what a picturebook can be.”

(Meg Sorenson, Sydney Morning Herald, 21st August 1999)

Pretty shocking isn’t it! I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t love and use The Rabbits in their classrooms – it’s one of the greats in children’s picturebooks and won CBCA picture book of the year in 1999. Here is an interview with Shaun Tan about the book:, and here is what he said about the controversy:

I am mentioning it in my lecture because the discourse around books is just as important as the discourse within books. Or any text for that matter… I am also mentioning texts of pop culture, such as the controversy around the American DVD cover of the Australian film, The Sapphires. The image on the left  is the Australian DVD cover illustration of the movie; the image on the right is the 2013 US DVD cover illustration of the movie. Take a look and see what you think:



In the Australian cover, all characters are depicted in full colour (high modality – fully realistic), spaced out across the page, with the Jessica Mauboy character as most salient (positioned in the centre, at the front, shown larger in size because of her foregrounding) and the other characters getting a reasonable amount of space depending upon their role in the narrative. The female indigenous characters take up collectively more space and are more salient than the one male, who is relegated to mid importance in the image to reflect his role in the story. Questions I am raising about the US version of the cover.

  • Who seems to be the most significant person in the story? (salience)
  • Who is shown in full colour? (modality)
  • Who is at the front and centre of the image? (salience)
  • Who is relegated to the background?
  • Who is shown in muted, cool, monotone colours (ambience = cold, distant and unfamiliar) therefore creating an “othering” of those characters?
  • Whose name is shown on the cover as the star of the movie?

I do so love the Summer and the month or so before the semester begins, because it gives me time to delve more intensely into theory, do my lecture prep in advance, update my reading, and to think without too much distraction. Academics are so privileged to get paid for thinking.

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