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?


Five for Under Five: Amy’s Top Holiday Gift Ideas December 16, 2009

Take a book and make it a package! For the younger set, here’s books that make great gifts:

Princess Smartypants and Princess Smartypants Rules
Prince Cinders and King Change-a-Lot
Babette Cole
Make a package: Pair these pairs – or mix and match – of irreverent, romping tales with the usual royal dress-up gear – frilly dress, a crown – mixed in with some dragony dinosaur pets and some cowgirl boots for a complete package to widen a young girl’s imagination about the reinvention of princess-hood and a young boy’s burgeoning conceptualization of masculine desire.

Fancy Nancy Splendiforous Christmas
by Jane O’connor and Robin Preiss Glasser
Just published in October, this pleasing treat makes a fancy girl think.
The Complete Treat: Spend an hour in a thrift store stuffing a bag of lace, fake pearls, and other Punky Brewster-esque trimmings; for an extra dash of class, a book about France, some French music, and/or an introduction to learning French will tie learning into the story.

Harold and the Purple Crayon 50th Anniversary Edition
Crockett Johnson
A classic juicer for the imagination.
The Kit: Obviously – crayons. You can never go wrong with a lovely new package of crayons. And paper. No – don’t get that new stuff that doesn’t stain anything or that you erase. Go old fashioned. It’s a classic combo and perfect for the kid who has everything.

Mad About Madeline
Ludwig Bemelmans
Fun, adventurous, and French, this complete collection of the Madeline series will be a favorite. And the rhymes are fun to read over and over and over… a must for any book you actually purchase, unlike those library books you can dump off when you, the reader, can’t take it anymore…

More merriment: There’s the “learn about France” route, as mentioned above; there’s the dolls, the video, the accessories.

The Story of Ferdinand
Munro Leaf
The classic tale with simple drawings that inspires us all with an appreciation for a strong, masculine figure who prefers smelling flowers to violent displays. Buy it in English AND Spanish for those enterprising kids who are bilingual already and showing you up.
The Hilarious Combo: A bull chia pet! Or a miniature herb garden. I always think simple, easy-to-grow plants are amazing presents for little kids. They’ll enjoy getting their hands dirty, and they won’t stress when the thing dies.


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.


The Heroine Challenge November 5, 2009

“Pink, pink, pink,” my daughter tells me. “I want EVERYTHING pink: The sky, the ocean, the grass, food…”




Disney-Princesses1Bows, dresses, tights, skirts, “clip-clop” shoes.

Barbie dolls, Tinker Bell, Disney.

In an age where the marketers frequently host sleepovers with preteens to gauge their product interests, where frozen peas display Dora the Explorer and the 3T section of clothes at Kmart have bedazzled jeans and crop tops I wouldn’t let my teenager wear let alone my preschooler, it’s no surprise that the book industry has been stuffed to overflowing with a surfeit of Tacky Crap Books for girls that hype all the elements of being “feminine” that I’ve listed above – pink, glitter, lace, wings, crowns, ballet shoes adorn big-eyed ding-dongs whose sole goal in life is to acquire pink, useless clothing, grow impossibly long hair, and get married to a prince. And maybe, if they have any energy left, they get a pony. (Not to ride it, of course; just to brush its hair.)

And I’m not just criticizing the way the heroines are presented – most of these books don’t even try to deliver a good story. No interesting language or word play, no challenging ideas, often these movie-based “books” are just summaries the director’s secretary typed up for some random interoffice memo that the publisher attached to some copied images from the movie. Yet, they utterly fascinate my daughter – before I ditched them, she would hold them as if they were sacred totems – maybe the extra-large eyes on Ariel the mermaid hypnotized her?

Dora-the-explorer-large(A digression: Dora the Explorer’s big eyes are frankly frightening, as are those on Bratz dolls. I’m afraid some marketer somewhere dug up some psycholanalytical information about the addictive quality of big eyes and found some manipulative gold in this design… and notice that there’s a new “tween” Dora – who has grown her hair… disturbing… my daughter already tells me that girls have tweendoralong hair and dresses…as if having short hair and pants would change her sex?)

So a concerned and thoughtful parent faces the challenge of culling through the stacks and finding books the daughter will appreciate with heroines who have more in their heads than accessorizing and who look somewhat normal and whose expression of girlhood doesn’t revolve around enhancing her attractiveness to dull-witted royal dudes.

Thankfully, savvy authors with flair and sense do exist.

Some of my top favorite girl heroines  include:

  • Madeline
  • Fancy Nancy
  • Olivia
  • Angelina Ballerina
  • Annie (and Snowball)
  • Ella the Elephant
  • Stella (and Sam)
  • Lola (and Charlie)
  • DW (from the Arthur series)

Who are your favorites?