The Children's Book Garden

Weeding through the underlying messages about inclusion & diversity in children's books & media

The Charm of Poetry August 25, 2011

Filed under: Poetry,Read aloud — Maiaoming @ 2:10 pm
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poetry speaks to children book coverI was biased against poetry.

Mind you, I went to school for poetry; I got my MFA in writing poetry.

But maybe it’s this presumed expertise that’s fueled my ferocity of my critical ear: So many poems are lousy, I felt, including the ones aimed at kids. They either veer into sing-song land, don’t say anything, or rely upon confusing construction to appear complex.

I think I was in a post-grad daze of jadedness.

And in that daze I found myself avoiding reading poetry to my kids. Of course, I read Mother Goose rhymes and books written in rhyming stanzas, but I winced when I saw the books of collected poems.

I was sure my kids get bored if they didn’t understand the content, and I didn’t think I was tough enough to handle trying to explain metaphors and outdated phrases and soaring romps of the imagination without factual root.

But one day I found myself reading a particularly eclectic and inspired collection I’d found at a booksale  – Poetry Speaks to Children – and guess what? The kids love it. They ask for it again and again. The poems – from Billy Collins and Nikki Giovanni to Lewis Carroll and WB Yeats – are varied in type and length, subject and tone, but we haven’t come across one they don’t like.

And why is that? It’s because poems rock, that’s why! Didn’t I know that? Whether capturing a thought or a feeling, an image or sound, a poem delivers a moment of language in a new and pleasing way, and so of course, of course, whether they understand all the words or not, children – who play with language and sound all the time – who love repetition – eat it up.

And I love reading them.

My faith in poetry is happily restored.

That’s what kids do for you, right? Make you remember why you loved things, like beauty and poetry and sunsets and first days of school.


Comic Books: Friend or Foe? August 18, 2011

DC comicbook heroesMy daughter is 5, but thanks to her dad, she already knows which superheroes belong to Marvel, which to DC.

On the one hand, I’m impressed.

On the other hand – the one with the super mama-cyborg powers – I’m not sure if comic books are good material for these young, impressionable brains.

Don’t get me wrong: I may have an MFA in poetry and thus sometimes qualify as a literary snob, but I have some comic-cred, too:

1) I read Kavalier & Clay twice

2) I owned Wonder Woman underoos

3) I got my Storm figurine when I was 21.

At first, I was all about my daughter getting exposure to super-girls. I even started seeing correlations between heroine storylines and goddess mythology – even the art can look similar, if you’re talking about some of the new Hindu goddess pictures. Strong women with power? Absolutely.

Well, not exactly. I have some concerns:

1) Ethics. Most of the storylines are extremely simplistic – no nuances or subtleties that question perceptions of right and wrong – just very childish black and white thinking. Jo asked one morning, “Why is Cat Woman a bad guy?” and I realized that I don’t like the values of painting people as “good” and “bad.” It’s unrealistic. And these books don’t really explain or investigate motivations. They teach moralistic opposition, punishment and judgment, but not empathy and understanding.

2) Violence. Don’t think I really need to explain this one. I don’t cringe so much that violence exists in these comics – certainly my son needs to have some way to exercise his need for speed – but fight after fight after fight – it’s overwhelming. It’s the main source of action. It’s the only way problems are solved.

3) Power. Sure, my daughter sees strong women – but they are definitely warriors, not goddesses. There power is all physical, not spiritual. These images of exaggerated muscular domination absolutely transfix my kids – but are they learning that might makes right?

Josephine and Sam love comic books – from the old-school editions to the new and strange made-for-preschoolers Super Friends series.

I’m not sure how I feel. I think I prefer Super Woman to Cinderella – and DC to Disney. But are they equally negative? Am I being too reactive?


Heather Has Two Commies – I mean, Mommies August 3, 2011

(Dumb title, sure, but one of them does have a No Nukes t-shirt.)

First of all, I just have to give mad props to author Leslea Newman for two things:

1) Writing this book in the first place – it took a lot of courage

2) Amending the book for a later addition that still gets the message across but removes the age-inappropriate specifics of artificial insemination and pregnancy that I think must have helped make the book as controversial as it became on first publishing.

I personally like that Heather Has Two Mommies features not just Heather and her moms but a range of family structures.

I do wish there were more books that featured gay parents. Tthe main fault of this book in my view is not that it talks about two moms, or even the old addition with the very explicit details of human reproduction, but that it has a mission. Not a point of view, a theme, but a mission. It knows it’s the only book about two moms, and it was written to Be That Book.

It tries to do everything in just one book – represent women in unconventional work roles, show happy kids with gay parents, present an inclusive range of family types that borders on the super-cheesy… Thus it tends to read like a lesson in being liberal more than a real story.


The Issue with Issue Books

Most books written “about” a kid’s issue – starting preschool, bullying, saying goodbye, using manners, getting a new sibling, divorce – tend to read like this – as thinly veiled instructional manuals that only pose as a story. Generated from the desire to teach a fact as opposed to a desire to express a truth, these books strain to achieve beauty, rhythm, humor, genuine emotion.

There’s something manipulative about this kind of story that I just plain don’t like. I don’t like it when a children’s book – or video, for that matter – tries to make hard things in life fun or easy with entertaining ploys to distract or trick the kid into brushing her teeth or going potty.

Yes, books teach us; most of what I know about the world came from novels (sometimes accurate, sometimes not). But don’t use a lame storyline, a bright shiny object, to attract attention and slip the medicine in while they’re not looking. For one thing, it doesn’t work. For another thing, it’s boring and it sucks to read.

Books That Teach That Work

On the other hand, books that are upfront about their educational intentions work. (Go figure.)

The series by Joy Wilt that includes You’re All Right explicitly set out to clue kids into their bodies, emotions – what it means to be a person, have accidents, make mistakes, and my kids love them. They’re long, but the comic-like artwork is fun, simple, and the concepts are clear, and good conversation-starters.

Most straightforward science books we have, too, tend to be involving.

Conclusion: Either write fiction or nonfiction – don’t write nonfiction and dress it up like fiction. It’s condescending. And kids can sniff that out, even when it’s coming from a book.


Favorite Children’s Books: Gender-Skewed Selections? July 19, 2011

I’m lucky; I work with people who read. It’s not unusual to find us chatting about things we’re reading, but especially, it seems, the books we remember reading as kids.

A bonus of having children: I get to reread my favorites to or with them at some point, including:

  • A Wrinkle in Time trilogy (though there’s actually four or five in that line)
  • the Ramona Quimby books
  • Trixie Belden
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Beverly Cleary books
  • Lois Duncan books
  • Chronicles of Narnia
As I look at the list, I notice something. Something really obvious. They are all – mostly – about girls.
Now, I happen to be a girl, so it’s no surprise, but what I wonder is, are there amazing, awesome, meaningful, captivating books for the pre and emerging adolescent about boys that I somehow missed?
My brain scrambles. A few titles surface:
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • The Hardy Boys
  • On the Run
But, that’s all I got.
Because my son is a boy – go figure – and I’m going to want to give him and my daughter a balanced view of things:
Any Suggestions? 

Kindle for Kids: Now, for sure, the End is Nigh June 22, 2011

My girlfriend was about to enroll her six-year-old daughter in a summer reading program with Barnes & Noble until she realized that by doing so she was entering to win a Kindle (well, probably a Nook). For her kid. Then she stopped.

Which reminded me that I needed to write about how much I loathe the electronic book craze that’s happening. I realize that by doing so I sound like an old-fashioned old lady, Luddite-lite (I AM blogging, so I can’t be All Luddite, right?). But I don’t care.

You may argue that, just as culture transitioned from an oral tradition to the written word, and then from books to visual media, Progress take various and shifting forms of communication and story-telling – and one isn’t better than the other, but the quicker, the more portable, the less cumbersome, the better.

Of course, using that logic, we should return to the oral tradition, which was extremely portable and definitely not subject to fires or electronic rights hang-ups.

But I digress. I don’t agree that every change is either

a) unavoidable or

b) an improvement.

Cultural shifts occur through human choice, and we can be mindful about which paths we take, which options to exploit.

As for ‘progress’ or ‘improvements,’ inventions, new technologies – these often have both positive and negative effects, some we don’t see for decades or more. But whatever the effects, I think we can look even closer at the experience, and weigh the costs and benefits.

The Options of Experience vs. Convenience

For instance, there’s the issue of pregnancy in hospitals. Many people advocate for home births, for a better experience. I personally care less about the experience than I do about safety. So, I’m fine with medicalized birth.

Guns, on the other hand, are great for protecting against snakes, but I don’t think anyone should experience the power of killing another person with a gun. I think it does something to our brains. It’s not just the power, but the lack of effort required to shoot a gun; it’s too easy to point and shoot. Point and click. Touch and go. When certain activities become too easy, we treat them too casually, and shrug off the consequences, because we literally, physically, do not feel or experience any. We’re into convenience, at the expense of experience.

How we choose to structure and frame our experience – whether it’s education, entertainment, socializing, transportation, whatever – changes the context and tenor of the experience itself.

  • Shopping on Amazon vs. visiting a store
  • Having a conversation in person vs. on Facebook
  • Going to live theater vs. watching a movie

Virtual reality is not “bad” – but it does insert an interface between the person’s physical body and senses and the physical reality of the world. Stripping out the information our bodies get from our physical senses lessens the amount of information we’re getting; depletes reality a little; and leaves those senses, our sense of our physical selves, our sense of our bodies, to wither from lack of use.

Five Reasons to Stick with Real Books

And that’s reason number one for me thinking e-books are harmful, especially for kids:

1) It will train a child’s consciousness to understand the self as divided and separate from the body and the world. The lack of the anchor of a physical book separates your mental experience from your physical experience; reinforces the false notion of a division existing between mind and body, a cultural understanding that allows us to divide reality and subjugate parts of it.

2) It will affect the growing brain. We know too much about the brain now NOT to bet that interacting with an electronic reader will have a different effect on your neural networks than reading traditional books will, especially when the brain is young and growing.

3) It will hurt your eyes – there’s a reason heavy computer users are encouraged to take a break from staring at the lit screen. Eye strain, headaches can result from prolonged exposure. Not so with the printed word.

4) The experience is less pleasurable – and reading should be pleasing! I argue this based upon my own subjectivity mostly – but also just in terms of the physical, sensory engagement of each – with a regular book, you feel its weight, touch its texture, smell the pages – you write in the margins, you dogear pages, you can flip back and forth…

5It will instill a value of convenience over experience: it doesn’t matter if it’s enjoyable or not, moral or not, painful or not; if it’s fast and easy, it’s the better option. FYI: it is not.

Ever since Derrida and the other post-structuralists solidified the Cartesian dualism that has ruled Western culture, I feel like we’ve given up on real life. OH well, we’re saying; we’re hitched to Progress, and it’s killing the planet and giving us stress and cancer, we’re stuck in ruts of war and competition and hierarchy, jobs we hate and economies built on cheap goods and suffering and There’s Nothing We Can Do About it.

I agree that we’re not going to fight the power and take it all down.

But I don’t agree there’s nothing we can do about it.

By firmly choosing values of experience over convenience, especially for our children, we can grow and retain conceptions of reality and self that will allow us to make choices that remove us from the drowning yoke of Progress.



Yummers, by James Marshall June 19, 2011

This book has confounded me for a long time. The story starts off with a pig realizing she’s gaining weight, doesn’t know why, and should exercise. (I can empathize.) Her turtle friend shows up and suggests they go for a walk. Lovely, except everywhere they go on their walk, Emily Pig finds food to consume; she can’t help herself. By the end of the book, after she’s had dozens of treats, scones, ice cream, pizza samples, sandwiches, she’s so ill, Eugene the turtle calls her a taxi.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Here’s where the book has confused me:

1) The turtle friend, Eugene – whose restrained appetite contrasts with Emily’s voraciousness throughout their excursion – he doesn’t stop her, in fact he encourages her. When she can’t choose between favorite sandwiches, he suggests she have more than one.

“I don’t want to make a pig of myself,” said Emily. “I’ll just have a tuna fish and a jelly delight.”

“That sounds sensible,” said Eugene.

But it’s not sensible, at all; she’s on a walk to lose weight, not gain it.

And the next day, after she makes herself sick overeating, Eugene visits.

“What do you suppose was the matter?” asked Eugene.

“It must have been all that walking,” replied his friend.

Eugene smiled. “Maybe you should stay in bed an eat plenty of good food.”

“Oh, yummers,” said Emily.

2) So, I’m baffled by the ignorance of the turtle (obviously, Emily’s lack of awareness is part of her problem). But even more so, I’m totally thrown that the above interaction IS THE END OF THE BOOK. There’s no moral to the story. There’s no resolution of the issue. It seems a strange tale for children (especially in the Land of the Obese).

What the heck?

Mystery Solved

We’ve had the book for a while, it’s always seemed strange to me, but we’ve enjoyed Marshall’s pictures, and I always appreciate how well he writes for children – funny characters, witty exchanges, but pared down verbiage so it’s not too dense or rambling. The George and Martha books are favorites. Still, never really got the point of Yummers.

Until last night.

When, while reading the book, I flashed to something I’d written the day before on my other blog, about body image:

As I try to understand myself as not in my body but as my body – I am my body – any idea of  it being wrong – any part of it being shaped “wrong” – is ridiculous, irrelevant. That would be like a tree wanting to bulk up or slim down, a pig feeling her figure needs to be an hourglass – well, it would seem silly, no? Why? Because they are the shape they are supposed to be, right? Can you apply that logic to yourself?

So I’m reading about Emily Pig wanting to lose weight, and when she says, “I don’t want to make a pig of myself,” – well, she IS a pig. Pigs are not supposed to be thin.

It struck me that the story of Yummers is exactly what I’ve been ruminating on regarding how we treat our bodies. The whole episode launches when Emily decides to try to be something she isn’t; it backfires on her. Isn’t this true for real people, too? I know it is for me. I almost experienced the very same thing. A month ago I went on a calorie-counting diet, and I weigh more now than I did before I started. Part of me rebelled against the whole idea of limiting my food and I overate to compensate for all the hunger I put myself through.

My two quandries about the story – Eugene’s support of Emily’s bingeing, and the seeming lack of a conclusion to the story – make sense when I view the story, not as a story about how the pig can’t stop eating and makes herself sick, but as a story about a pig who tries to go against her nature and makes herself sick. Eugene supports Emily following her gut (literally). And the conclusion/resolution of the conflict is that Emily goes back to being herself and not trying to lose weight, but eat. Ah – it all falls into place!

A moral did exist in the story – I just couldn’t see it, because it wasn’t the moral, even the story, I thought it must be.

Eating, Hunger, Kids: Sigh

It seems tricky to argue that the pig should eat if she wants to – we don’t want our kids to take that as a cue to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, without any self-control. So let’s turn to Eugene’s character – who slowly eats one scone while Emily has a couple of platters of them, who chooses skim milk while she has three ice creams, who gets jasmine tea at the supermarket while she feasts on pizza samples. Eugene is not trying to diet; he’s not trying to show up his friend, either. Eugene is making choices about what to eat and how much based on an internal sense of what makes sense to him. He is self-regulating. He is listening to himself.

If we teach our kids how to listen to their bodies, not to fight them, I think we will find that they can learn – over time – how to eat what they need. I mean, we have to trust our bodies. The more we fight with ourselves, try to control our hungers, the more we set up an endless internal war, where someone has to lose. This is not happiness or health. This is misery.

Following our nature, be it pig or turtle, we find inner peace. Yummers!


Quirky Counting Story Worth Searching For November 5, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Beautiful Books,Favorites,Read aloud,Uncategorized — snowbrice @ 5:13 pm

I usually find counting and sequential stories cumbersome to read.  My tongue gets dry and twisted constantly repeating the same sentences over and over.  But, An Invitation to the Butterfly Ball: A Counting Rhyme, by Jane Yolen is actually fun to read.  This quirky book is about a little elf who goes to the homes of woodland animals with an invitation to a butterfly ball.  Each animal in turn is frantic about not finding the perfect outfit or accessory to wear.  The mouse needs a “floor length dress”, the rabbits are frantically searching for “baubles and laces”, and the skunks are looking for “one clean suit.”  I also appreciate the use of descriptive vocabulary.  There are plenty of opportunities to discuss the meaning of words such as “mournful”, “crimson”, and “silken.”

The watercolor illustrations pay homage to Beatrix Potter without being direct copies.  Each painting incorporates intricate details that deserve more than a dismissive glance.  They each tell a story within the story with characters and plot.  Parents and older children will delight at the irony of skunks fighting over a pinstripe suit and turtles that wish to wear party slippers.

Unfortunately, this story is out of print and it will cost you upwards of $50 to buy a copy.  Thankfully, we have public libraries.  Or if enough of us harass her, maybe we can get Jane Yolen to publish it again.


Revisting Ella Sets Sail July 10, 2010

Several months ago, I gave two thumbs and several other fingers down on the latest Ella book. I felt like this installation of the little elephant’s adventures went awry, depicting her character as too foolhardy and rash to fit what the previous books had established.

After several rereadings, I’ve changed my mind.

In the first three books, Ella’s signature, lucky red hat comes in handy at the most desperate of moments to save the day. It’s a kind of talisman from her grandmother that supports an innate pluckiness that helps Ella overcome her shyness and supports her desire to help others.

Ella Sets Sail is different. It’s a story about what “lucky” means. And that meaning turns out to be much more complex here than I’d initially understood. The book questions Ella’s assumptions – and ours, as readers – about the element of luck inherent in the red hat – or in anything.

This is clear when Ella, trying to rescue the hat from stormy waters, uses it as a sail for the boat she’s borrowed in order to save it – the weather storms, and she ties the red hat up as a sail – “It’s never failed me before,” she says, with confidence.

But it does fail her. It comes undone from the boat and is lost. Then she, too, is lost, on an unknown island. It only comes back to her when a fisherman finds it in his net and gives it to his wife, who has taken Ella in. By the time Ella returns home, intact and reunited with the red hat, she feels lucky again – to have survived and to have made new friends with the fisher family.

At first, I didn’t appreciate this story line, because the motivations that led Ella into her adventures were not stemming from wanting to help put on a show or deliver a cake or save a bully – the plotlines of the other books. She was just riskily going after the hat.

The thing is, luck (“is not a lady”?!) in the form of the hat is – of course – fickle. And – not always apparent. The hat doesn’t save the day in the story. It’s actually completely random that Ella survives. Its loss leads her to risk her life and then to discover new friends – she calls herself unlucky the whole way through – and can only appreciate her gains at the end.

My own recent job search has felt much like a relationship with a red hat. One minute I thought I was going to get a job – the next, I didn’t. I felt tremendously unlucky – even cursed. Later, when I got an even better job, I found myself so glad I didn’t get that first job, which wouldn’t have paid enough at all.

The point is that luck is a trickster, and it’s about happenstance – not a sure thing. Which is why we worship it so – it’s not an act of god or an innate quality of an object that brings it – it just happens for no reason at all. Sometimes, it’s magical and transformative and seemingly miraculous. But sometimes, our lives involve loss – loss that may or may not result in anything found – though, more often than not, whatever we experience, however hard, offers us something to find in ourselves.

I think it’s one of the hardest things for us humans to wrap our heads around – that life is not only something we can’t totally control, but circumstances are also not scripted or planned or controlled by other outside forces, either. We live on stories that come into being from an author’s creative vision – it feels strange to think our lives are not similarly mapped. When things don’t go our way, we feel personally punished or responsible, when really, things just happen. Or don’t. And we just have to ride the waves.

Ella Sets Sail now feels like a symbolic story that resonates with my struggles to comprehend and accept the bad luck of winds and storms that have caused so much strife. “I am lucky,” says Ella, at the end of the story. The lucky red hat didn’t come to the rescue – her luck is not based on the hat or on her being special. She’s just filled with gratitude for what happened – for being alive, for finding friends, for what is. The fact that she is there is enough to warrant her sense of luckiness and – dare I say, being blessed.

A good thing for all of us to have a sense of – whether or not things go as we want them to. We can’t always determine what circumstances are lucky or not – and as contexts change, how we view events can change, as well. Luck is not about the events – it’s a state of being.

And I feel lucky to have found this other reading of what is turning out to be one of my favorite children’s books.


Red Sings from Treetops July 4, 2010

Filed under: Beautiful Books,Favorites,Read aloud — Maiaoming @ 10:27 am

Red Sings From TreetopsThis gorgeous book by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski sings,res are as the title suggests, with colorful lyricism. It is a pleasure to read aloud – to taste the words, with images that often surprise and delight – this is a real poem as much as it is a book for children, with the kind of rich density that makes poems re-readable, endlessly. The pictures are equally enchanting. And the way the colors move through the seasons keeps my four and two-year-old coming back for more.

The descriptions are accurate to the imagination:


White clinks in drinks.

Yellow melts

everything it touches…

smells like butter,

tastes like salt.


Makes a great gift.


Lucky’s Choice by Susan Jeschke

Filed under: Animal books,Friendship — Maiaoming @ 10:20 am

A random book selected from a stack at the library book sale, Lucky’s Choice has turned out to be one of my favorite children’s books ever.

Not only does this nicely paced story run easy on the mouth – there’s just a couple places where I find myself wanting to skip words to keep the rhythm moving – it’s compelling and touching.

And cute. Lonely Lucky is a skinny cat whose owner calls him “lucky” because she keeps him and feeds him, unlike the ownerless alley cats outside the window who scrape for scraps. Yet, Lucky’s owner doesn’t cuddle or snuggle with him – she may meet his material needs, but she doesn’t provide any emotional attachment. When Lucky finds a friend who happens to be a mouse, Ezra, he’s in a predicament – owner wants the mouse dead, mouse is his one companion. Lucky chooses to escape to the alley with the mouse instead of staying safe in the loveless landscape of his owner’s apartment. He chooses love over safety, and at the end, both he and the mouse get rescued by “the cat lady,” a human who really does love and appreciate Lucky and his friendship with Ezra.

The classic tension between a safe, predictable world vs. a wild, dangerous one; the ironies of Lucky’s name and his friendship with a would-be prey; and the contrast between what it means to be owned vs. loved all play together to tell a story about real things, not just to get across a simple message or teach a lesson. The book allows the opportunity to ask children about what’s important to them and about making choices… and to ask yourself.