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.

 

Big Bear the Patient Parent January 26, 2010

Tonight, I read Let’s Go Home, Little Bear by Martin Waddel to my daughters.  Big Bear and Little Bear are on a walk in the snow in the forest, when Big Bear decides it is time to go home.  Little Bear starts off very confident, frolicking through the snow, but then he begins to hear strange sounds that cause him a bit of anxiety.  Big Bear reassures Little Bear by explaining to him that what he is hearing is just the sounds of the forest: snow from a tree plopping to the ground, water dripping from icicles, etc.  All the while patiently guiding Little Bear home.

I like this book because it reminds me to be patient with my children.  It reminds me that the world is new, and sometimes scary to them, and I need to reassure them that they are safe.  I must guide my children slowly and patiently.

My daughters seem to get the message that their parents will protect them.  We will be watching over them as they frolic along in front of us, and we will explain the world around them when they are scared, anxious, and confused.

 

Love in The Secret Garden January 11, 2010

Regrettably, I never read The Secret Garden as a child and I missed out on one of the best books ever written for children.   Maybe if I had, I would have had a more positive outlook on life.  The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a follower of New Thought, and believed that positive thinking could heal everything.  And while I do not subscribe wholly to the same beliefs, I do feel that a positive outlook makes for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling life.

The main character, Mary Lennox, is often described in book reviews as a spoiled child who learns to to be good and giving .  While I will agree that Mary is spoiled, I don’t believe that she “learns” to be a good girl.  I believe that she is as good as any child, but she has been neglected and needs to love and be loved to to bring out her own goodness.  In the first few pages of the book, I was gripped by my motherly desire, to reach down into the words and pages and pull Mary to me.

Mary has spent the first ten years of her life in India being tended to by her “ayah”.  She never sees her parents, who, although they live in the same household, are more concerned with their social engagements than their daughter.  Her mother is vain and never wanted a child.  She never interacts with Mary, who only gets to spy on her mother from afar.

When her parents and ayah die in a cholera outbreak, Mary is sent to live with her previously unknown uncle in England.  He lives in the austere Misslethwaite Manor in Yorkshire.  Mary is struck at once with the gray and dismal appearance of the Manor and the surrounding moor.

However, it is here that Mary experiences her first acts of love and kindness.  First from her chambermaid, Martha, who refuses to dress Mary but chatter away with stories about her family in her most “broad Yorkshire”.  It is Martha who is so concerned with the sad, skinny, sallow Mary that she gives her a skipping rope.  Martha tells Mary she must go outside and breathe the fresh air and get lots of excercise.

Then, it is Dickon, Martha’s brother who shows Mary kindness.  He helps her in the secret garden.  He shows her how to plant seeds and tend to growing things.  Dickon has an uncanny ability to befriend every bird and mammal he meets on the moor.  Mary believes him to be magical, and is enchanted by his magic.

When Mary learns of her cousin, Colin, the biggest secret of Misselthwaite Manor, she learns to love.  Colin, much like Mary, has been pampered and spoiled his whole life.  Because his mother died while giving birth to him, everyone believes that he is ill and will surely die before reaching adulthood.  Colin, who has heard this his whole life, believes it as well.  Mary does not, and does everything she can to convince him.  She shows her love for him by bringing him to the garden where he also gains health and strength from fresh air and exercise.

Through their love, Mary, Colin, and Dickon bring life and love to everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.  Love and happiness spread as quickly as the cholera that took Mary’s parents.  But this virus heals the deepest and oldest wounds.

I recommend this book as a read-aloud for seven years and up and as a read-alone for children eleven years and up.  The author uses Yorkshire dialect, which could be hard for some children to read and/or understand.

One warning about this book: Indian people are referred to as “blacks”.  I was thrown by this initially and contemplated not continuing to read it to my daughter.  However, I used this as a teaching moment instead.  My daughter and I discussed how the term is used and how people in the nineteenth century used it.  We also talked about prejudice and how to deal with people who think that one group of people is better than another.

Overall, I love The Secret Garden because it reminds us that this life that we have is a magical and wonderful gift that we should be thankful for every moment.

 

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.