The Children's Book Garden

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

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.


Toni Morrison’s Cool Grandma February 9, 2010

There are several reasons to love this book by Toni Morrison and her son Slade Morrison, not the least of which is that you get a recipe in the back for the peanut-butter fudge for which the book is named. I love that!

It’s also a really fun book about a grandmother babysitting her daughter’s kids – and instead of following the mother’s planned activities (watch tv, go to playground, etc.), she reads to the kids, leads them in a sack race, lets them play doctor on her, conducts a dance party, makes them awesome food, and gets the kitchen messy with fudge. The mother returns home and is at first shocked and angry at the mess, only to smell the fudge and recall her childhood and all is forgiven.

And of course, the book gets points for featuring a single, working mother, an energetic senior citizen, and people of color without being about any of these things. My four and two year old children loved the colorful images and the simple rhyming.


Three Cheers for My Abuelita February 2, 2010

My AbuelitaMy Abuelita

Tony Johnston, Yuyi Morales (Illustrator)

You probably know that we here at the Children’s Book Garden tend to favor books that feature diversity of all kinds – ethnicity, culture, gender, family types, etc. We like a varied world – and we want our kids’ books to reflect it.

But I should say, if I haven’t made it clear in previous posts, that sometimes “diversity” gets done in all the wrong ways. Any book that makes you feel like there’s an arrow and a caption over a drawing that shouts “Look! A black kid!” just doesn’t cut the mustard. Books “about” a divorced family or a “different” kid in class tend towards didactism, lectures, finger-wagging, and, most aggregiously, BORING writing.

So, it’s with great enthusiasm that I recommend My Abuelita. It’s NOT a book about diversity. Sure, there’s plenty of “nontraditional” (for white America) aspects to it: a boy living with his grandma, a grandma who is probably overweight, characters of Hispanic origin both in color and in their practiced cultural heritage (what they eat and do). There’s Spanish terminology and a cat named Frieda Kahlo. And the grandma is a senior citizen who still has something to live for!

So: It’s off the charts for authenticity, originality, diversity.

But so what? It’s an awesome book! The illustrations practically jump off the page, they are so vibrant, robust, gloriously colored, just fabulous and bright. And it’s a fun story! The quirky grandma leads her grandson through their morning routine of bathing and eating breakfast and getting dressed while she warms up her voice for her job that day as a storyteller, and it’s silly and fun and well-told.

By the end of the book, the little boy says that he wants to be a storyteller when he grows up, just like his grandmother, his abuelita. And so did I!

There’s so much love in this story – between the characters – for beauty – for story. The rich textures in the language are part of the delight, but they don’t stick out or detract (I for one hate reading Dora books, because the Spanish included feels like a lesson).

I highly recommend My Abuelita. And, I also want one in real life, if you know of any.


Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman December 22, 2009

A sweet lullaby of a book, Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman lyrically weaves a prayerful blessing to what seem to be goddesses for the protection and self-fulfillment of a little girl, who is pictured in various iterations of diversity and age.

Words can be worrisome,

people complex,

motives and manners unclear

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,

free from unkindness and fear.

Illustrated in big, abundant strokes by Charles Vess, each page’s pictures swell from the paper with the music of the words. The book enchants my daughter, and it would make a great gift for any little girl or for a newborn.

And again, the British are ahead of the game – as I said, the girl is sometimes white-skinned, sometimes not.

The only question I have is what the heck is a blueberry girl? If anyone figures this out, or talks to Neil Gaiman anytime soon, let me know.


Goldilocks with Dreds

Filed under: Books for Girls,Diversity — Maiaoming @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

For some reason, the British seem a little bit further along with integrating children’s books regarding race. Not that I’ve done some large-scale survey contrasting US vs. UK books, but I am taking donations if you’d like to pay for one…

I’ve become a huge fan of Nick Sharratt, British children’s book author, for his colorful, interactive art and accessible language. This particular version of Goldilocks, part of a series of fairy tales by MacMillan, follows the traditional plot line in funny, rhymed quatrains.

And it’s just nice that the main character’s gold locks are in dreds, and her skin is not white.

I’m glad for my kids to have fairy tale characters imprinted on their imagination in a range of styles and a variety of colors, to reflect the world we live in, not Germany in the 1800s.

Another book with a contemporary and folkloric feel is Madlenka by Peter Sis. If you’re familiar with Sis’s work, you know he’s created a beautifully illustrated panoramic work, whatever the subject. In this story, a little girl goes around her New York city block telling all her neighbors about her loose tooth, each of whom hails from another geographic part of the world – India, China, Germany – so that by the end of the story, when her parents ask her where she’s been, Madlenka very honestly replies, “I’ve been around the world!” Quite an accurate reflection of New York.

My fellow blog author, Mary Beth, pointed out something that bothered her in this story – Madlenka’s little friend, who is African American, says “Cool, baby,” and Mary Beth felt that was a bit dismissive (she can correct my portrayal of her discomfort)… And yes, it seems like an odd representation of the African continent – all of the other characters speak the language of their home country – this girl kind of sticks out. But I actually like that her roots, however long past, receive the same kind of treatment as the others’ –

Of course, living in Charlottesville is nothing like living in New York (and don’t get me started on that issue – you people who think it’s the same need to check yourselves before you annoy me further) so I’m not sure how much sense this story makes to my four year old. I mean, she recognizes where Virginia and China and England are on the globe – which I guess means she’s ready to graduate high school – and she’s learning Spanish at school – but the concept of different locations and languages is still challenging to her, I believe.

Which is why I do think books like Madlenka and Goldilocks are important for developing a child’s worldview. We need our books to introduce us to a world broader than that on our street or little town.


Books About Biracial Children November 13, 2009

Filed under: Diversity,Family Structures,Preschool books,Uncategorized — snowbrice @ 3:26 am

There are only a few books about biracial children available.  A fact that I find quite distressing since I am the mother of biracial daughters.

The three books I like most are:

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster and illustrated by Chris Raschka is about a little girl’s visit to her grandparents’ house.  They have a window at the front of the house that is very special and magical.  It is the window to the kitchen where all the fun takes place. My children love it because it reminds them of going to visit their grandmother.



The Aunt in Our House by Angela Johnson and illustrated by David Soman is another book that features a biracial family where the mother is black and the father is white.  Again, the story is not about the racial makeup of the family.  It is a very mysterious story because you are not sure why the aunt has come to stay.  This book is good to get children talking about their own experiences.  Children may say that the aunt is sick, that she has lost her home, or that she has recently divorce.  I found this to be a good book to read tochildren in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade.



Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, is one long poem describing each member of the family.  It is told in a way that sounds like children describing the differences between each other.

It is beautifully illustrated and has a sleepy tone to it that makes it a perfect bedtime book.





The one book about being biracial that I DESPISE is You Be Me, I’ll Be You by Phil Mandelbaum.  The book features a child with a white father and black mother.  While Mom is at work, Dad and daughter are hanging out at home.  The daughter asks her dad why he and mommy look different.  So, in some twisted way of showing the daughter that skin color is superficial, the dad suggests that they “trade” colors.  To do this, the dad smears coffee grounds on his face, and has the daughter put his hair in tiny braids all over his head and then puts flour on the daughter’s face.  They then decide to go out to meet the mom as she is walking home from work.

This book horrifies me on many levels.  Mostly,  I cannot believe that a book which features a man in “black face” would be considered appropriate for children.  The book was originally published in Europe, and as one reviewer said, “should have never made it across the Atlantic” (Loch-Wouters, Menasha Public Library, WI).



So, what books about racial diversity do you like/hate?


Single and Loving It November 7, 2009

Told through the voice of her niece, Miss Rumphius reads like a family memory shared around the dinner table.    Miss Rumphius travels the world until she is exhausted and then she settles down in a cottage by the sea.  After that, she risks her reputation, roaming the countryside flinging lupine seeds into every nook and cranny in order to make the world a more beautiful place; a task bestowed upon her by her grandfather.

Happily unmarried women are a rarity in children’s books.  I love Miss Rumphius because she is a single woman who follows her bliss. She lives her life according to her own dreams and goals.  She is true to herself and keeps her promises to the people she loves.  These are values that I hope to instill in my daughters.  I want them to know that it is good to invest in your own happiness and that you do not have to have a partner to do this. Not that I am hoping that they spend their lives as single women.  I want them to know that the best choice is the one that works for them.