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.


For the Love of Pancakes November 30, 2009

Filed under: Favorites,Single mothers,Uncategorized — snowbrice @ 3:09 am

I love pancakes, and so do my daughters.  I will pat my own back for a moment and admit that I make the most delicious whole wheat pancakes from scratch.  The brown sugar and extra vanilla make for an absolutely divine pancake experience.

However good my pancakes may be, I have nothing on Jack and his mother in Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes.  In this story, Jack really wants a big pancake for breakfast, but his mother is busy with chores, and he has to help gather the ingredients.  That should be easy, one would think, but not in this household.  Jack has to thresh the wheat, gather the eggs, milk the cow, churn the butter, and so on, just to make one pancake.  But I am sure that it is worth it.

Eric Carle is an extremely prolific children’s book author.  He is most famous for The Very Hungry Caterpiller.  His books are wonderful for toddlers because they are repetitive and brightly colored.  They teach young children patterns and sequencing.  They are also lots of fun for little ones to chant back to parents.

Pancakes, Pancakes takes the skill of sequencing to a more abstract level for slightly older children.  Children are aware of the finished product of pancakes, but in this story they get to learn where each of the ingredients come from.  It also raises their awareness of the complexities of the food on their tables.  Sort of an Omnivore’s Dilemma for the early elementary crowd.  My girls always ask lots of questions about wheat production while we read the book.  I have even taken them on an impromptu field trip to the water wheel at  Michie’s Tavern (near Monticello in Charlottesville, VA ).

And, to top off this great book, Eric Carle includes a very simple recipe for pancakes at the end.  Perfect!



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?