Tuesday, February 9, 2016

No Straw Hats! Stereotypes about Agriculture in Children's Books

From Celebrate the 50 States!
This January I was fortunate enough to be chosen for the first On the Farm Experience for children's authors, sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. The program was designed to educate authors about issues related to agriculture, with an emphasis on cattle ranching in this case.

The twelve selected authors had a wide variety of backgrounds including some who grew up on farms, a current cranberry farmer, as well as city and suburban folk. Many fun and fascinating things took place (e.g. a hay ride with cattle running behind) but this post is about how farms and farmers are depicted in books for children. For the sake of convenience, the terms "farm" and "farmer" are intended to include ranch/rancher.

The relevant activity was to have the authors draw a farm on several large pieces of paper in a conference room. The illustrators among us grabbed the markers and doodled away. The sketch included sun, hills, grass, cows, sheep, a hog, a fence, a red barn, and a some farmers/ranchers. Fortunately, the artist drawing the man had been warned not to give him a straw hat. What's wrong with straw hats, you ask? There are some things people in agriculture are tired of seeing endlessly in the media, and some they would like to see. If you are writing and/or illustrating a children's book or classroom resource about agriculture, this information could affect your book's reception in the farm community. The general theme of the items listed below reflects a desire for accurate depictions of 21st century agriculture.

• STRAW HATS are so last century, or maybe the one before that. Most farmers wear baseball caps these days. In the west, cowboy hats remain popular.

• BIB OVERALLS are not the garment farmers usually wear nowadays.

• A RED BARN is ubiquitous when an artist wants to portray a farm. However, real barns are quite diverse, usually made with regional materials and building methods.

• MALE FARMERS ONLY, as if women and girls don't work on farms, own farms, and other sexist assumptions. Big misconception.

• A PIECE OF STRAW IN THE MOUTH might seem cute but has insulting associations such as implying that farmers are clueless bumpkins lacking in intelligence.

The next one is going to be painful, so consider yourself warned:

• TALKING ANIMALS as characters do not align with the goal of giving a factual presentation of what life on a farm or ranch is all about. Farm animals are not pets and are raised for food or fiber, so giving them human characteristics clashes with reality.

We had quite a discussion about how anthropomorphic animals can be a useful literary device and so on, but the takeaway is this: if you would like your ag-themed book to be embraced by farmers and ag literacy facilitators, that audience prefers realistic animals. Food for thought, no?

As for what farmers would like to see, one topic that stands out is technology. Like everyone else, farmers use mobile devices…for example, to monitor animals or crops. People farm in greenhouses, underwater, in urban areas, and are gearing up for skyscrapers and space. Have you ever seen an illustration in a children's book of a farmer using a drone to check a field? Probably not…but soon, perhaps?

I haven't had the occasion (yet) to illustrate many farmers but found a few in my 1999 book Celebrate the 50 States! There was a gal in overalls (uh-oh!) in Missouri talking about "our mules," a couple of historic farming illustrations, a rancher in Wyoming, and the above image for Iowa with a red barn, a girl and her winning calf. No straw hats in sight, so that's good. As writers and artists, it can be tempting to just repeat stereotypes without thinking much about it, but a better approach is to do in-depth research or better yet, meet some actual farmers. Outdated images and accounts that don't reflect how farmers live and work today serve little purpose (aside from historical depictions, of course.)

Jack & the Hungry Giant
Speaking of children's books with an agricultural theme, there is a database for ag literacy that includes children's books called the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix. Educators can find K-12 lesson plans and companion resources on various topics from planting seeds to "feeding a digital world." Authors can submit an appropriate book as a companion resource by finding a lesson plan to link it with. My most recent books that relate to agriculture are Jack & the Hungry Giant Eat Right with MyPlate and Amazing Plant Powerswhich was co-authored with my husband Andrew Schuerger, a plant pathologist.

Amazing Plant Powers
I'm happy to say that both books were accepted into the matrix, despite some anthropomorphic plants in the latter. It probably helped that most of the images in the book are photographs of real plants. Neither book is an obvious "ag book" per se. As a matter of fact, the facilitators from the Ag Foundation and National Agriculture in the Classroom recommended that authors refrain from writing an "ag book." Instead, they suggested writing a great book that just happens to take place on a farm or otherwise has ties to farming. Sounds like excellent advice, no?

Loreen Leedy
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