The Children's Book Garden

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

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.


Author Cynthia Rylant Gets it Right November 3, 2009

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.