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.


My Daughter Calls Out Eric Carle March 14, 2010

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Fairy Flight
Tracy Cane

The Rave: The Very Hungry Caterpillar one of those classically, well-proportioned children’s books that hits all the right notes:

  1. It teaches counting, as the steadily increasing numbers of fruit consumed by the caterpillar in question are tallied, using the tactile experience of actual holes in the pages, pictured as those eaten through each fruit – children love sticking their fingers through
  2. The contrast between the junk food – sausages and ice cream – that causes a tummy ache and the nice, green leaf that makes the caterpillar feel better promotes healthy eating
  3. The fact that the caterpillar still is nice and fat and becomes a butterfly even though it didn’t always choose the best sorts of food translates to a lesson that doesn’t chide, but shows how the learning process causes growth and change, not repudiation
  4. What a nice happy ending, a lovely butterfly. What a great story. Very satisfying. And the board game is fun for little ones, too.
  5. Also nice that in this story, Big is Beautiful.

The Problem: Eric Carle, yes, the Great Eric Carle, got his biology wrong.

My 4-year-old daughter identified this to me last week.

“That’s not a butterfly,” she said, when we got to the last page.

“Sorry?” I said, wondering if we were in some imaginary scheme all of a sudden (that can happen with this age group). “I’m pretty sure it is.”

“It came out of a cocoon,” Jo pointed out. “Only moths come out of cocoons. Butterflies have chrysalises. So it’s a moth.”

And yes. She is right. Eric Carle writes that the caterpillar makes a cocoon. And: according to Wikipedia and other sources, moths and maybe some other insects make cocoons. But butterflies – yep. Chrysalis all the way.

Dang, dude.

I have to say, we do read a lot of books featuring butterflies. Fairy Flight, a favorite with my kids right now, follows monarch caterpillars as they weave chrysalises, change to butterflies, and travel from Canada to California. I find the fact that the little girls in the book think butterflies are fairies or vice versa – and the images suggest this may be so – annoying – anthropomorphizing a creature in order to celebrate its wonder seems so egocentric –  but the story covers a wide landscape of imagery and science, geography and fantasy, and along with a couple other nonfiction books we have, obviously schooled my daughter in a few facts some adults – me and Eric, at least – didn’t know.

Dear Reader, Some Questions:

  • Have you or has your child ever found a factual error in a children’s book? How do you deal with it? Write the author a letter? Do we think Eric knows he made a mistake by now?
  • What do you think about fairies? I’ve always considered them harmless preschool lore (maybe not sexyified Tinkerbell). But they do point to a belief system that nature occurs only through tiny humanoids making things work – which a very religious person might find objectionable, but so does a person like me, who wants my kids to be able to see nature as working without magic at all…
  • Do boys get into fairies? Why just girls?

Funny how some very tiny books can bring out some very big questions!


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?


The Problem with the Penguin Book November 3, 2009

s-GAY-PENGUIN-BOOK-large… is not, as many have complained, that it makes homosexual dads raising a child seem normal – rather, the book’s framework of normal has the opposite effect.

I had heard about this book because a friend of a friend is doing a research project on it – I’d been complaining about the dearth of children’s books featuring diverse family structures – and so this sounded ideal – a true story of two penguin dads? How could it get any better?

I should say that my interest in books with diversity is not because I have some liberal agenda, but because I want the landscape of literary imagination to be varied, wide, and realistic. I want my children to be exposed to single moms, grandparents raising kids, biracial families, mult-religious families, poor families, rich families – because that’s real life; because it’s part of my story; because I don’t want just one story to dominate their view of what is okay and possible. I want them to experience a range of patterns and ideas for living, so that they have the resources for freely choosing what will work best for their lives.

Instead, most books for preschoolers feature the nuclear dream team of a mom, a dad, a kid, with a pet and a car and maybe a black neighbor.

So, back to the gay penguin book. My girlfriend bought it for my daughter’s fourth birthday, but after a quick perusal, she took it back.

She summarized the beginning as framing heterosexuality as the norm – ‘at some point, boy penguins start to notice girls. And the girl penguins start to notice the boys. But one penguin…’

No, no, no! This sets it up as if the gay penguin is a freak. K said it – “like Happy Feet only instead of dancing the penguin is gay.”(Someone is sure to joke about those things not being very different. )

If a book or a movie is trying to present diversity as a norm, setting up a background of usual behavior from which one person sticks out is not going to do the job. Showing a range of choices, behaviors, identities, all plausible and acceptable – that would work.

Heather Has Two Mommies, cliche though it may be, does in fact do this when all the kids in Heather’s playgroup draw pictures of their families – and they are all different. I actually liked this book. I came away feeling like it was about the variety of families that exist, not so much just about Heather’s. Still, it does read like a lesson more than an engaging story – I don’t want to read books about diversity. I just want diversity to exist in the stories.

For instance, in the Ella the Elephant series, Ella lives with her mother, just the two of them. In the first book, they are new in town – her mother owns/operates a bakery. There’s no explanation of where they came from, or why there is no father or other family – it’s not the subject of the book. But it’s there, in the background, – a working single mother – and their two-person family is stable, calm, and strong.

My girlfriend pointed out that what disappointed her most about Tango is that it misses such a huge opportunity to take some cute animals and tell a story about love in its many forms that kids would truly enjoy.

What disappoints me is that the book apparently has received a great deal of positive kudos from the gay community, when as far as I’m concerned, it starts off by accepting some clearly heterosexist / biased views of human sexuality. There are enough gay people in the world – not to mention people who are transgender – that it’s not factual to set up the norms as being heterosexual attraction. So, I’m disappointed in this penguin book. It’s a “true story” that ducks being completely true.  And don’t we have enough of that in the world, and in our stories, already?


Author Cynthia Rylant Gets it Right

Author Cynthia RylantOn the Diversity Scale, which I just invented, I give Cynthia Rylant an 8.

The author of several series of children’s books (as well as novels and poetry), Rylant’s characters include positive portrayals of the elderly (Mr. Putter), kids with single parents (Annie and Snowball), and people who enjoy eating who may be on the portly side (Poppleton).

Why she didn’t win a 10? I haven’t noticed a great deal of racial diversity in her books, though some might argue that books populated by animals as main characters do, in fact, provide the idea of diversity, species diversity standing in for human racial diversity…

The Pitfalls in Children’s Literature

One of the things Rylant does especially well is to portray characters with flaws without pitying them or slopping on some heavy-handed didacticism about why the flaw can be overcome; she also makes her characters sympathetic and heroic without making them overly simplistic. It seems in children’s books, because of the eagerness to teach Important Lessons, as well as because of the format – which I wouldn’t say is simpler or easier, but requires a Hemingway-like precision with words – authors forget that to create a good book, you need to create well-rounded characters. Even for kids. Especially for kids.

Mr. Putter, the affable senior citizen, isn’t either just soft and nice, and neither is he utterly ridiculous and irrelevant. His desire for a train set like the one he had as a boy, his reluctance to exert himself physically due to his ‘cranky’ knees, his willingness to serve tea or make a good cake for his friend Mrs. Teaberry, his penchant for sleeping and eating with his cat, are all very specific elements of Mr. Putter’s character, his age, his personality, and they make an old person a real person, with feelings and wishes a kid can understand. And Mrs. Teaberry’s taste for cheesy toasters and new adventures even make me giggle. The series wins an A+ for being both entertaining to my kids AND to me – the true test of a good children’s book.

And we just discovered the Annie character from the Henry and Mudge series. She’s a little girl who loves frilly dresses and shiny shoes – but also “throws a mean Frisbee,” climbs trees, and plays with toy submarines. She and her dad and her bunny live next door to Henry. No need for Rylant to directly address that Annie’s family structure diverges from Henry’s two-parent home – instead, she shows the two families and the love within and between them, and the point that diversity exists and that it’s okay is clearly made without any overt statement of such.

Yes, it’s the old “show don’t tell” admonition for writers – one of those cliches that deserves to be repeated and taken to heart. Rylant definitely understands the power of a good story, and I highly recommend her works to kids – to families – of all kinds and ages.