Picturebooks as Trojan Horses: Changing linguistic landscapes and language hierarchies

Associate Professor Nicola Daly, University of Waikato

Picturebooks as windows and mirrors

Children’s literature is an area often underestimated, primarily because the audience for which it is intended has little power. However, children’s literature tells us a lot about the culture and society in which we live – our values and beliefs. Children’s literature also offers opportunities for changing power structures. There is a very famous metaphor involving windows and mirrors, first used by Professor Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) to explain the power of children’s books. She points out the importance of children both seeing themselves (mirrors) and others (windows) in the books they read. She also points out the inequities that come from dominant groups seeing more of themselves than minoritized groups. This is the case when, for example, in 2020 the percentage of children’s books about people of colour (Black/African, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islanders, Arab) in the United States was 30%.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, it is also important for all children to see themselves and their families in the books that they read, and to hear their voices. We are a very multilingual society, home to over 160 languages, but many classrooms have a monolingual bias. My colleague Libby Limbrick and I conducted some research to see how teachers working with former refugee children recently arrived in New Zealand used picturebooks sourced from around the world. These books featured the home languages of children including Farsi, Arabic, Tamil, Punjabi, Burmese, Karen, Chin, and Spanish. The teachers reported the joy of the children and their parents in having a book in their own languages, and the range of connections this enabled with parents, children and teachers.

Linguistic landscapes in bilingual picturebooks

The combination of image and text which is central to picturebooks provides support for language learning. Because the text is often pared back, there is room on the pages to include more than one language, creating bilingual picturebooks. In Aotearoa New Zealand, many picturebooks are now published in two separate versions – one in English and one in Te Reo Māori. This approach has been crucial in ensuring Māori medium educational contexts (kohanga and kura) have access to resources in Te Reo Māori. In recent years, the English speaking communities of New Zealand have become more interested in learning Te Reo and contributing to its revitalisation. In response, a new form of dual language picturebook has been gaining popularity – the bilingual picturebook. These picturebooks feature the story text in both English and Te Reo Māori in the same book. Sometimes both languages are on the same page, sometimes on facing pages, and sometimes in different sections of the book. Wherever they are featured, they support learning of the language which is less familiar to the reader.

Over the last 10 years, my research has focused on the linguistic landscape of these picturebooks. Linguistic landscape is an approach used to analyse the language present in public spaces as a way of assessing the relative status of a range of languages in a community. I have used this approach to analyse the relative status of languages in Spanish-English bilingual picturebooks published in the United States and in multilingual picturebooks – some featuring up to 12 languages in the same picturebook – at the International Youth Library of Munich, Germany.

Mostly what happens is that languages with more status in society are given more space, and are given first, thus supporting existing language hierarchies. Children reading these books are introduced to this power structure, learning that some languages are more important than others. Such attitudes can promote loss of home languages and support a monolingual bias.

My research of New Zealand bilingual picturebooks featuring Māori and English shows that some picturebooks also follow this trend, giving English first and in larger text across more pages; but some present a linguistic landscape that elevates the language with fewer speakers and less status – the language being revitalised – Te Reo Māori. In this way, picturebooks do important work in supporting the revitalisation of the indigenous language of Aotearoa. Dunedin publishers Reo Pēpi, for example, identified that many parents wished to bring Te Reo into their homes to use with their children, but they needed support to do this. Reo Pēpi created a series of boardbooks in which the Māori text is given first and in larger font than the English text – thus supporting a change. Reo Singalong picturebooks feature the text in Māori throughout the body of the picturebook; the English text is given on one page at the start of the picturebook to support parents and educators to use Māori.

My research has also explored the motivation of writers and publishers of bilingual picturebooks featuring indigenous languages. Findings showed that they are motivated to create these books to support increased use of indigenous languages. They were aware of the significance of font size and space given to the printed languages in order to enhance their status and visibility.

The Trojan horse

These linguistic landscapes which invert the existing language hierarchy bring me to another metaphor I would like to introduce to explain the power of picturebooks – the Trojan horse. As with the wooden horse used by the Greek army to gain access to the city of Troy, picturebooks are often seen as harmless and inert. However, they can bring powerful ideas into homes and classrooms in a form that many readers, both adults and children, find palatable and, indeed, enjoyable. Maria Popova explains it well when she says

“children’s books are works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of conciousness with their soft surefooted gait.”

Bilingual picturebooks are excellent resources to support diversifying the linguistic landscapes of homes and schools in line with both Te Whāriki and the New Zealand Curriculum, our national curriculum documents which support the recognition of the languages, identities and cultures of all our tamariki.

For access to bilingual picturebooks, contact the National Library of New Zealand, who are continuing to build their collections of these powerful educational resources. 

Nicola Daly is a sociolinguist and Associate Professor in the Division of Education at the University of Waikato, New Zealand where she teaches courses in children’s literature. Her research focus is multilingual picturebooks and she was a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar in 2019.


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