The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Readability and Angst Against Licensed Characters Disease (AALCD) April 7, 2010

Don’t get me wrong. If you suffer from AALCD, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with you. I just worry that you’ve caught a disease instead of rationally considering your choices. Kind of like when people stopped eating carbs because they heard they made you fat; it was more a trend than it was a rational health choice, and for a few years there were some people walking around a little looney from the onset of ketosis affecting their carb-hungry brain functions. (“I just ate three pork loins and a pound bacon for breakfast! And I’m on a diet! I’m losing weight as we speak! No problem!”)

I’m alert to AALCD because of interactions like the following. I ran into a fellow mother and her kids one day on the Downtown Mall, and we were chatting about books our kids loved, like the Mr. Putter series by Cynthia Rylant. Mr. Putter, in case you don’t know, is a senior citizen who lives with a cat.

“I’m just worried,” the nameless parent said. “My daughter recognizes Mr. Putter now. I don’t let her read licensed character books – UGH – but what do you think? What about Mr. Putter?”

“Um,” I said. “I think the problem with licensed characters isn’t about them being recognized, exactly.”

“Well, they’re just awful,” the mother said. “But Mr. Putter is good. He’s not licensed, is he?”

So this wonderful mother knew that her kid needed to have a Sigg water bottle and ride a bike with no wheels and go to Montessori and play with wooden toys – according to the script of the Charlottesvillian, eco-conscious, elite, liberal code by which many in this town quite dutifully comply – but her choices were about that script, not about thinking through options for herself. And to me, that’s just as bad as herding along with the Walmart – plastic shoe – Disney princess – Dora yogurt crowd.

But, to the books. One of the main factors I consider when deciding whether or not I like a children’s book is readability – which I judge by the following criteria:

1) How fun to read is this book for kids? How easy to follow, yet challenging and interesting and clever?


2) How fun is it for me as a parent to read? Does the text work on the adult level at all? Is it a pleasure to speak the words aloud? Can I stand to do so more than twice?

Not all books score well on both counts – it can be quite tricky to find that golden balance. But those that do are the ones I adore.

A recent good example is One of a Kind, by Mary Ann Hoberman. This book, as well as her others, is fun to read aloud – really good poetry, clever, witty, fun, and it’s a pleasure to hear, too. The concepts explored are just interesting enough to have a double meaning to them – a symbolic level that actually speaks to me as an adult, as well as being simple and straightforward enough to interest my kids. It’s an excellent work. (Quick summary: The protagonist, Oliver Tolliver the dog, has a house with one item of everything in it. But he needs to be able to have friends over! The last line about how sharing his fruit so that, while his guests couldn’t each have a whole peach but every guest could have some – has socialist implications that piqued my interest.)

What’s not excellent is a book my son got for Christmas, a “look and find” Elmo book. I don’t particularly object to all “licensed” characters, on the basis of whether they have a license or not. But I do object to badly written books – and most of the Disney or other mass-produced books like this, whether it’s Dora or Sesame Street, tend to be:

a) Not written by a single author, which is a clear clue that they are produced for the purposes of making money by marketing a brand to kids, to get them and their parents to feel okay about the same characters on their peas or a video – ie, not written by an author burning to write something beautiful or interesting or to tell a story – not from an original creative mind or perspective –

b) Definitely not written with any delight imbedded for adults. This book is simplistic, straightforward, and terribly dull. Stupid. I mean, sure, it’s written for a toddler – “Elmo can wash his hands – you can, too!” but good god, the fun of the old Bert and Ernie used to be that the humor could appeal to adults. I remember my dad imitating Ernie doing the pigeon walk. It was funny stuff. This new crap doesn’t have any winks or nods to anything of interest – not in the language, rhythms of speech, not in the interplay of words and pictures – nothing. There’s no question, no investigation, no ambiguity, and definitely NO linguistic beauty. There is nothing lovely about the words. It is a degrading and insulting “book” – or advertisement, really. And a bad ad at that.

Another example of bad books: The Disney princess “books” that are basically badly written plot summaries of the movies. Again, no author, and really, no point to the book, other than to work as a brochure for other media.

Do I have a problem with a princess per say? With Disney? No. But do I have a problem with mass-produced drivel? Yes. Do I have a problem with people treating the context of a book with such insulting disregard? Oh, yes. And do I have a problem with stories that rely on stereotypes and overused tropes to move the dramatic action along – most of which treat women like mannequins? Why, glad you asked – yes, yes I definitely do.

When it comes to objecting to what kinds of characters our kids are exposed to, and what books we read to them, I believe the criteria should be applied to whatever the book is, licensed characters included or not:

-Is it readable, is it beautiful and interesting, for both adults and kids? Did it require intelligence to create? (I would like to note here that a few Disney films, like The Fox and the Hound, and The Aristocrats, are old favorites of mine; I don’t dismiss Disney out of hand because of gems like these.)

– Does it challenge old stereotypes, instead of reinforcing old ones?

– Does it engage the imagination, invoke the asking of questions?

Fancy Nancy, or Charlie and Lola, Arthur, Madeleine, Thomas the Tank Engine, Little Bear, or Angelina Ballerina, these are characters one might start viewing as questionable because they have television shows as well as books and/or might appear on gear (I saw Lola on a kid shirt at Target once). I think you can buy Fancy Nancy outfits and dolls. Etc. It is hard to discriminate about these things, because my son, for example, LOVES having Santa Claus on his pajamas. My daughter loves a fairy on her shirt. And if it’s one they know the name of, it’s even better. There’s fun and delight in that experience. My little boy’s imagination has been caught by images of male heroes – Superman and Spiderman – and I can see why. These figures have caught our culture’s thirst for heroes – they resurrect Greek and Roman gods – they are larger-than-life figures of magic and power – and I don’t find anything anti-human or problematic with that – per say.

We like having heroines and heros – Give me a t-shirt with Emma Goldman, Mae West, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Atwood… or a goddess… I’d wear it…

Which is why marketing works – and why figuring out when it’s going too far with the items your child has with the stamp of a particular character – the character now a brand, not a character in a book – can be so challenging. We want our heroes holy – not hawking sodas or life insurance (why, o why is Snoopy selling life insurance???).

I myself feel that most of the books featuring the characters above do meet the criteria I’ve established. And to be honest, if there were an Elmo or a Little Mermaid book that did so, as well, they would be welcome in my house, too. I don’t want any brand to dominate my children’s creative choices, whether produced by PBS or Disney or whomever. The damage does not come from the licensing per say – the damage comes from the simplistic nature of the characters and the stories that create them. The stories they represent. And the damage comes when our love for a princess or a frog becomes part of how we are manipulated by the mass media.

So, suffering from AALCD? You’re not alone. It’s a tough world to sift through, for any of us, let alone in wanting to protect our kids. Let us have high standards for what we want our kids to value, emulate, read, and adore – let us choose our gods – and our books – wisely.


One Response to “Readability and Angst Against Licensed Characters Disease (AALCD)”

  1. Mike Says:

    Wow, fantastic post. You put into words exactly what I was thinking about mass market disney princess books. And yet, there is the occasional sesame street book I, as an adult, enjoy as much as my kid. The single author test is a good one and usually right on. Great work!

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