The Children's Book Garden

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

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?


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.


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.


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.


Did the Gifts Do it For You? January 8, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Female Characters — Maiaoming @ 2:25 pm
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ella sets sail book coverSo, due to my daughter Jo’s obsession with Ella the Elephant, and the limited number of copies in our local library, the fact that I enjoy reading the books over and over, I went ahead and bought three of the four available titles as a Christmas/Solstice gift. And I was so excited when I went to do so to see that a new one had been published, Ella Sets Sail.

Well, this Ella adventure was kind of a let down.

Reason One: In the other three Ella books, the plotlines are driven by Ella’s desire to be helpful.

– In the first book, she tries to save a bully’s life, risking her own life to do so, and her lucky hat saves her.

– In Ella Sets the Stage, she can’t figure out what to do for the talent show, so she works hard to put it on – and ends up saving the day for others and getting recognized at the end.

– In Ella Delivers the Cake, she helps her mother deliver a cake and runs into some challenges when she can’t say no to a bully taking advantage of her, but she pulls it all off in the end.

Ella’s characteristic of being helpful is complicated by her shyness, and this is what makes her loveable and interesting and causes tension in the plot. She gets into scrapes and almost into trouble by taking risks, saved by her hat, and we learn that her intentions are well-meant but that she does have to learn to set limits and boundaries. I certainly know what that’s like – when you want to be a nice person, it can be hard to say no.

In Ella Sets Sail, however, we don’t see the same Ella. Belinda the Bully manages to walk off with Ella’s money and hat at the fair – I don’t like Ella being SO passive – and when a storm starts up, the lucky red hat gets lost at sea.

Ella STEALS a boat to go rescue her hat. In a storm. By herself. Josephine actually finds this part pretty darn scary. And so do I! Ella can’t tell Belinda “no, you can’t have my money and my hat” but she’ll steal a boat and risk her life to go get the hat?? That’s not the Ella I know.

Second Reason: Ella’s boat gets stranded at another of the Elephant Islands, one she hasn’t visited before. She gets welcomed in by a family which has been drawn to look obviously poor. There’s a mother with a rack of kids in tattered clothes and Ella is startled that none of them have ever had pineapple cake. It’s kind of a cliched portrayal that does nothing for the plot or character development. The dad fisherdude shows up having rescued her hat and Ella goes home and eventually brings her new friends some cake.

But nowhere is the helpful Ella, trying to find herself or trying to fit in or trying be useful to her mother – no, there’s just wimpy Ella, idiot Ella, going after her hat and feeling sorry for some loser poor people.

And there’s something disturbing about the poor fisher elephant family. What are they doing in the story?

I’m hoping there will be more Ella books, and that they will get back on track with what is so tender and good about the first three stories. Ella Sets Sail definitely offers drama, but neither my daughter nor myself like it.


Angelina Ballerina: The Scary Side of the Mouseling Household November 25, 2009

Cover of the Angelina Ballerina bookAngelina Ballerina is a young mouse who loves to dance “more than anything else in the world.” She loves the art and sport of ballet dancing, tumbling down the stairs to breakfast in a plie’ and leaping over flowerbeds on her way to school. She admittedly dons a pink bow and dreams of becoming a “real ballerina” in a pink tutu. However, you get the sense that this dancing is her own very personal and ungendered way of expressing what she loves. She does in fact become a professional ballet dancer, completing a rigorous program with Miss Lily to perform at a reputable mouse venue – the kind of achievment many of our female-gendered storybook characters never reach.

Angelina’s forgetfulness, activity and child-like play relieved my inner critic. Phew: She gets to do stuff. But the turn of a page reveals Angelina’s mother, regretfully called Mrs. Mouseling (a name based on her mouse husband’s lineage, no doubt), teaching us all that those child-like behaviors are simply not acceptable: “You’re going to be late again!”…”your dancing is nothing but a nuisance!” Why on Earth is this mother trying to squelch these playful attributes? And more disturbingly, why is Mr. Mouseling simply reading on the couch the whole time?

Mr. Mouseling then takes the approach of encouraging the dancing. He suggests buying Angelina an outfit and lessons, which results in a large, fabulous package on the breakfast table. Why does he get to be the warm, insightful, supportive parent? Is it because he doesn’t have to deal with the everyday stress of making the cheddar cheese pies and getting the kid to school on time? Why doesn’t Angelina’s talent bother HIM? Is it because Moms and Daughters are engaged in a competitive battle? Is it because Mrs. Mouseling never had the opportunity to explore her dreams, and she resents having to wash the dishes and fix the tea while Mr. Mouseling pursues all of his cherished desires?

I’m not sure why Mr. and Mrs. Mouseling are thusly divided in their parenting contributions, but it coincidentally rings true for many women in heterosexual parenting partnerships, and it rang true for me just a year ago. The endless, mundane housework numbed my endorphins; my career-devoted husband came home too tired to want to give baths and eagerly played restless games with the girls. Hence, I did the yelling and he did the fun.

We eventually discovered the imbalance we had created and uncovered the roots of our rutted dynamics. We were socialized into a division of labor where he strove to embody the image of the ideal man, who is creative and prosperous and bringing home the bacon; meanwhile, I did what needed to be done – a situation I saw mirrored in the Mouseling household. Now, as a single, happily out lesbian mom, I no longer fight to find the joy in parenting, because I have joy for myself first and foremost. I abandoned the diaper-washing to immerse myself back into the work of helping families survive better. I also faced the heartache of a family break-up to claim my true identity as a gay woman.
I cheered for Angelina in her victory as an accomplished, “real” ballerina. Her ballet experiences taught her discipline, and channeled her energy so that she was better able to focus on eating her supper or walking to school. But I worried for the other lessons she was taking into that adulthood: Don’t offend the structure your mother has rigidly created due to her own despair; Like your mother, you must control and inhibit your dreams; and Dads are much more fun and supportive than Moms. And let the boys catch you sometimes (WTF).

Countless women experience both a dry well and a list of tasks that would make any executive shrink. The gender-laden pressures for mothers in our culture may be driving us to stifle our girls’ playful natures and rue their talents and dreams. Now that’s scarier than any children’s book.