On the Diversity Scale, which I just invented, I give Cynthia Rylant an 8.
The author of several series of children’s books (as well as novels and poetry), Rylant’s characters include positive portrayals of the elderly (Mr. Putter), kids with single parents (Annie and Snowball), and people who enjoy eating who may be on the portly side (Poppleton).
Why she didn’t win a 10? I haven’t noticed a great deal of racial diversity in her books, though some might argue that books populated by animals as main characters do, in fact, provide the idea of diversity, species diversity standing in for human racial diversity…
The Pitfalls in Children’s Literature
One of the things Rylant does especially well is to portray characters with flaws without pitying them or slopping on some heavy-handed didacticism about why the flaw can be overcome; she also makes her characters sympathetic and heroic without making them overly simplistic. It seems in children’s books, because of the eagerness to teach Important Lessons, as well as because of the format – which I wouldn’t say is simpler or easier, but requires a Hemingway-like precision with words – authors forget that to create a good book, you need to create well-rounded characters. Even for kids. Especially for kids.
Mr. Putter, the affable senior citizen, isn’t either just soft and nice, and neither is he utterly ridiculous and irrelevant. His desire for a train set like the one he had as a boy, his reluctance to exert himself physically due to his ‘cranky’ knees, his willingness to serve tea or make a good cake for his friend Mrs. Teaberry, his penchant for sleeping and eating with his cat, are all very specific elements of Mr. Putter’s character, his age, his personality, and they make an old person a real person, with feelings and wishes a kid can understand. And Mrs. Teaberry’s taste for cheesy toasters and new adventures even make me giggle. The series wins an A+ for being both entertaining to my kids AND to me – the true test of a good children’s book.
And we just discovered the Annie character from the Henry and Mudge series. She’s a little girl who loves frilly dresses and shiny shoes – but also “throws a mean Frisbee,” climbs trees, and plays with toy submarines. She and her dad and her bunny live next door to Henry. No need for Rylant to directly address that Annie’s family structure diverges from Henry’s two-parent home – instead, she shows the two families and the love within and between them, and the point that diversity exists and that it’s okay is clearly made without any overt statement of such.
Yes, it’s the old “show don’t tell” admonition for writers – one of those cliches that deserves to be repeated and taken to heart. Rylant definitely understands the power of a good story, and I highly recommend her works to kids – to families – of all kinds and ages.