The Children's Book Garden

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

Kindle for Kids: Now, for sure, the End is Nigh June 22, 2011

My girlfriend was about to enroll her six-year-old daughter in a summer reading program with Barnes & Noble until she realized that by doing so she was entering to win a Kindle (well, probably a Nook). For her kid. Then she stopped.

Which reminded me that I needed to write about how much I loathe the electronic book craze that’s happening. I realize that by doing so I sound like an old-fashioned old lady, Luddite-lite (I AM blogging, so I can’t be All Luddite, right?). But I don’t care.

You may argue that, just as culture transitioned from an oral tradition to the written word, and then from books to visual media, Progress take various and shifting forms of communication and story-telling – and one isn’t better than the other, but the quicker, the more portable, the less cumbersome, the better.

Of course, using that logic, we should return to the oral tradition, which was extremely portable and definitely not subject to fires or electronic rights hang-ups.

But I digress. I don’t agree that every change is either

a) unavoidable or

b) an improvement.

Cultural shifts occur through human choice, and we can be mindful about which paths we take, which options to exploit.

As for ‘progress’ or ‘improvements,’ inventions, new technologies – these often have both positive and negative effects, some we don’t see for decades or more. But whatever the effects, I think we can look even closer at the experience, and weigh the costs and benefits.

The Options of Experience vs. Convenience

For instance, there’s the issue of pregnancy in hospitals. Many people advocate for home births, for a better experience. I personally care less about the experience than I do about safety. So, I’m fine with medicalized birth.

Guns, on the other hand, are great for protecting against snakes, but I don’t think anyone should experience the power of killing another person with a gun. I think it does something to our brains. It’s not just the power, but the lack of effort required to shoot a gun; it’s too easy to point and shoot. Point and click. Touch and go. When certain activities become too easy, we treat them too casually, and shrug off the consequences, because we literally, physically, do not feel or experience any. We’re into convenience, at the expense of experience.

How we choose to structure and frame our experience – whether it’s education, entertainment, socializing, transportation, whatever – changes the context and tenor of the experience itself.

  • Shopping on Amazon vs. visiting a store
  • Having a conversation in person vs. on Facebook
  • Going to live theater vs. watching a movie

Virtual reality is not “bad” – but it does insert an interface between the person’s physical body and senses and the physical reality of the world. Stripping out the information our bodies get from our physical senses lessens the amount of information we’re getting; depletes reality a little; and leaves those senses, our sense of our physical selves, our sense of our bodies, to wither from lack of use.

Five Reasons to Stick with Real Books

And that’s reason number one for me thinking e-books are harmful, especially for kids:

1) It will train a child’s consciousness to understand the self as divided and separate from the body and the world. The lack of the anchor of a physical book separates your mental experience from your physical experience; reinforces the false notion of a division existing between mind and body, a cultural understanding that allows us to divide reality and subjugate parts of it.

2) It will affect the growing brain. We know too much about the brain now NOT to bet that interacting with an electronic reader will have a different effect on your neural networks than reading traditional books will, especially when the brain is young and growing.

3) It will hurt your eyes – there’s a reason heavy computer users are encouraged to take a break from staring at the lit screen. Eye strain, headaches can result from prolonged exposure. Not so with the printed word.

4) The experience is less pleasurable – and reading should be pleasing! I argue this based upon my own subjectivity mostly – but also just in terms of the physical, sensory engagement of each – with a regular book, you feel its weight, touch its texture, smell the pages – you write in the margins, you dogear pages, you can flip back and forth…

5It will instill a value of convenience over experience: it doesn’t matter if it’s enjoyable or not, moral or not, painful or not; if it’s fast and easy, it’s the better option. FYI: it is not.

Ever since Derrida and the other post-structuralists solidified the Cartesian dualism that has ruled Western culture, I feel like we’ve given up on real life. OH well, we’re saying; we’re hitched to Progress, and it’s killing the planet and giving us stress and cancer, we’re stuck in ruts of war and competition and hierarchy, jobs we hate and economies built on cheap goods and suffering and There’s Nothing We Can Do About it.

I agree that we’re not going to fight the power and take it all down.

But I don’t agree there’s nothing we can do about it.

By firmly choosing values of experience over convenience, especially for our children, we can grow and retain conceptions of reality and self that will allow us to make choices that remove us from the drowning yoke of Progress.



Readability and Angst Against Licensed Characters Disease (AALCD) April 7, 2010

Don’t get me wrong. If you suffer from AALCD, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with you. I just worry that you’ve caught a disease instead of rationally considering your choices. Kind of like when people stopped eating carbs because they heard they made you fat; it was more a trend than it was a rational health choice, and for a few years there were some people walking around a little looney from the onset of ketosis affecting their carb-hungry brain functions. (“I just ate three pork loins and a pound bacon for breakfast! And I’m on a diet! I’m losing weight as we speak! No problem!”)

I’m alert to AALCD because of interactions like the following. I ran into a fellow mother and her kids one day on the Downtown Mall, and we were chatting about books our kids loved, like the Mr. Putter series by Cynthia Rylant. Mr. Putter, in case you don’t know, is a senior citizen who lives with a cat.

“I’m just worried,” the nameless parent said. “My daughter recognizes Mr. Putter now. I don’t let her read licensed character books – UGH – but what do you think? What about Mr. Putter?”

“Um,” I said. “I think the problem with licensed characters isn’t about them being recognized, exactly.”

“Well, they’re just awful,” the mother said. “But Mr. Putter is good. He’s not licensed, is he?”

So this wonderful mother knew that her kid needed to have a Sigg water bottle and ride a bike with no wheels and go to Montessori and play with wooden toys – according to the script of the Charlottesvillian, eco-conscious, elite, liberal code by which many in this town quite dutifully comply – but her choices were about that script, not about thinking through options for herself. And to me, that’s just as bad as herding along with the Walmart – plastic shoe – Disney princess – Dora yogurt crowd.

But, to the books. One of the main factors I consider when deciding whether or not I like a children’s book is readability – which I judge by the following criteria:

1) How fun to read is this book for kids? How easy to follow, yet challenging and interesting and clever?


2) How fun is it for me as a parent to read? Does the text work on the adult level at all? Is it a pleasure to speak the words aloud? Can I stand to do so more than twice?

Not all books score well on both counts – it can be quite tricky to find that golden balance. But those that do are the ones I adore.

A recent good example is One of a Kind, by Mary Ann Hoberman. This book, as well as her others, is fun to read aloud – really good poetry, clever, witty, fun, and it’s a pleasure to hear, too. The concepts explored are just interesting enough to have a double meaning to them – a symbolic level that actually speaks to me as an adult, as well as being simple and straightforward enough to interest my kids. It’s an excellent work. (Quick summary: The protagonist, Oliver Tolliver the dog, has a house with one item of everything in it. But he needs to be able to have friends over! The last line about how sharing his fruit so that, while his guests couldn’t each have a whole peach but every guest could have some – has socialist implications that piqued my interest.)

What’s not excellent is a book my son got for Christmas, a “look and find” Elmo book. I don’t particularly object to all “licensed” characters, on the basis of whether they have a license or not. But I do object to badly written books – and most of the Disney or other mass-produced books like this, whether it’s Dora or Sesame Street, tend to be:

a) Not written by a single author, which is a clear clue that they are produced for the purposes of making money by marketing a brand to kids, to get them and their parents to feel okay about the same characters on their peas or a video – ie, not written by an author burning to write something beautiful or interesting or to tell a story – not from an original creative mind or perspective –

b) Definitely not written with any delight imbedded for adults. This book is simplistic, straightforward, and terribly dull. Stupid. I mean, sure, it’s written for a toddler – “Elmo can wash his hands – you can, too!” but good god, the fun of the old Bert and Ernie used to be that the humor could appeal to adults. I remember my dad imitating Ernie doing the pigeon walk. It was funny stuff. This new crap doesn’t have any winks or nods to anything of interest – not in the language, rhythms of speech, not in the interplay of words and pictures – nothing. There’s no question, no investigation, no ambiguity, and definitely NO linguistic beauty. There is nothing lovely about the words. It is a degrading and insulting “book” – or advertisement, really. And a bad ad at that.

Another example of bad books: The Disney princess “books” that are basically badly written plot summaries of the movies. Again, no author, and really, no point to the book, other than to work as a brochure for other media.

Do I have a problem with a princess per say? With Disney? No. But do I have a problem with mass-produced drivel? Yes. Do I have a problem with people treating the context of a book with such insulting disregard? Oh, yes. And do I have a problem with stories that rely on stereotypes and overused tropes to move the dramatic action along – most of which treat women like mannequins? Why, glad you asked – yes, yes I definitely do.

When it comes to objecting to what kinds of characters our kids are exposed to, and what books we read to them, I believe the criteria should be applied to whatever the book is, licensed characters included or not:

-Is it readable, is it beautiful and interesting, for both adults and kids? Did it require intelligence to create? (I would like to note here that a few Disney films, like The Fox and the Hound, and The Aristocrats, are old favorites of mine; I don’t dismiss Disney out of hand because of gems like these.)

– Does it challenge old stereotypes, instead of reinforcing old ones?

– Does it engage the imagination, invoke the asking of questions?

Fancy Nancy, or Charlie and Lola, Arthur, Madeleine, Thomas the Tank Engine, Little Bear, or Angelina Ballerina, these are characters one might start viewing as questionable because they have television shows as well as books and/or might appear on gear (I saw Lola on a kid shirt at Target once). I think you can buy Fancy Nancy outfits and dolls. Etc. It is hard to discriminate about these things, because my son, for example, LOVES having Santa Claus on his pajamas. My daughter loves a fairy on her shirt. And if it’s one they know the name of, it’s even better. There’s fun and delight in that experience. My little boy’s imagination has been caught by images of male heroes – Superman and Spiderman – and I can see why. These figures have caught our culture’s thirst for heroes – they resurrect Greek and Roman gods – they are larger-than-life figures of magic and power – and I don’t find anything anti-human or problematic with that – per say.

We like having heroines and heros – Give me a t-shirt with Emma Goldman, Mae West, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Atwood… or a goddess… I’d wear it…

Which is why marketing works – and why figuring out when it’s going too far with the items your child has with the stamp of a particular character – the character now a brand, not a character in a book – can be so challenging. We want our heroes holy – not hawking sodas or life insurance (why, o why is Snoopy selling life insurance???).

I myself feel that most of the books featuring the characters above do meet the criteria I’ve established. And to be honest, if there were an Elmo or a Little Mermaid book that did so, as well, they would be welcome in my house, too. I don’t want any brand to dominate my children’s creative choices, whether produced by PBS or Disney or whomever. The damage does not come from the licensing per say – the damage comes from the simplistic nature of the characters and the stories that create them. The stories they represent. And the damage comes when our love for a princess or a frog becomes part of how we are manipulated by the mass media.

So, suffering from AALCD? You’re not alone. It’s a tough world to sift through, for any of us, let alone in wanting to protect our kids. Let us have high standards for what we want our kids to value, emulate, read, and adore – let us choose our gods – and our books – wisely.


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.


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.


The Happy Lion & Other French Colonial Fantasies November 25, 2009

the happy lion book coverThe Happy Lion reads so obviously as an allegory of cultural and species dominance, it’s hard to believe it’s really meant to be solely a children’s book. Written in 1954 by Louise Fatio, the story features a lion whose home

… was not the hot and dangerous plains of Africa

where hunters lie in wait with their guns,

it was a lovely French town with brown tile roofs and gray shutters.

The happy lion had a house in the town zoo, all for himself,

with a large rock garden surrounded by a moat…

So right away the opposing virtues of the “dangerous” plains – read, wild, uncivilized – Africa vs. the “lovely” French town – read civilized, under control – are established. The lion has been removed from his home, out of the nature, into society, and he may be alone and enclosed, but he is safe, which is to be prized over freedom, over one’s own nature.

And while the lion remains corralled, the people who visit him from a safe distance are friendly, and he thinks of them as friends – which is why he is so shocked and dismayed when, after his keeper leaves the latch undone and the lion goes to visit his “friends” in their houses (read zoo), they faint and run from him in terror.

“I supposed,” he said, “this must be the way people behave when they are not at the zoo.”

Of course, the lion does not realize that people consider him dangerous. He doesn’t understand that the fire engine that shows up is meant for him; just in time, a little boy comes and kindly walks the lion back to his cage, which he never desires to leave again. His ignorance of how he is perceived by his “friends” – as a predator, a threat – speaks of something beyond the consciousness of a lion.

In contrast to the adults in the story, when the lion first leaves his enclosure, he is greeted by other animals, squirrels and birds, who take no notice that he is “loose,” but greet him with a familiar friendliness.

The story shows how the dichotomies of nature vs. society, animal vs. human, wildness vs. civilization, freedom vs. control – and Western/white culture vs. African/black culture – not only determine how the adults interact, but completely structure the lion’s thinking as well. He never longs to roam free; he is happy to be walled in; he is happy with politeness and civility. That he so innocently does not understand that he is trapped by society not only makes his enjoyment of his domination poignant, but mirrors the plight of the humans in the story, too. The houses and walls and structures of control are so easily dismissed, by an unlocked latch – and then their ability to behave politely, to treat the lion with their usual regard and civility, goes right out the window. It’s the adults who act out of terror, who scream wildly, who seem lost without the lion’s barriers in place – society’s controlling mechanisms are somewhat flimsy, easily dismantled, and the effect is, to me, truly chilling.

I have no idea if Fatio intended her little story to be quite so pointed in its message about the weaknesses implicit in humanity’s attempts to subjugate the wild forces of nature, both within and without ourselves. It’s hard to imagine, though, that any writing in the 1950s and 60s that includes the landscapes of France and Africa – and we have to mention the Babar series, here, as well – can be read without the context of the historical colonial situations taking place in those decades. The French hold on countries like Algeria started to collapse – in 1954, the same year as the publication of The Happy Lion. Interesting coincidence, no?

BabarThe European imagination that underscored its attempts to “civilize” so many parts of Africa plays out in the Babar books even more explicitly. The elephants start wearing human clothing and using human weapons to war with other animals; they adopt human systems of organization in the form of royal hierarchies, and this is AFTER a human hunter kills Babar’s mother while hunting – right in front of him.

As one blogger writes in the British Times Online,

The Story of Babar and Babar the King are, as several critics have already pointed out, potentially dangerous and racist tracts. Cute as he may appear, Babar is worse than an unwitting and unreconstructed colonialist: his blacks are all silly “savages”, targets of ridicule with no positive valuation at all; and his apparently utopian foundation of Celesteville is riven by class and gender discrimination, not to mention bearing a passing resemblance to Leopold’s Leopoldville.

Both Babar and the Happy Lion come to accept and value being dominated for the sake of safety and being civilized, despite the trauma inflicted upon them by their oppressors – a common white fantasy about the slaves/peoples they have oppressed.

Curious George imageAnd then there’s Curious George (who first appeared in 1941). The creepily nameless Man with the Yellow Hat captures the monkey and treats him like crap – in Curious George Gets a Job, the Man seems to have abandoned George at some point, and only comes to get him so that he can exploit him for a movie deal. The parallels between George and the audience for which his character has been written – curious toddlers and preschoolers – underline the message of the natural/wild/animal instincts within the child that must be tamed, mastered, battened down so that the child can become an accepted member of society.

I’m not the first person to ever have some questions about the underlying messages of these books. In fact, as I’ve poked around the internet, many commentators make fun of this kind of analysis:

Earnest literary types have interpreted the first book as a barely disguised slave narrative. Have you considered that the man’s weird outfit could be a send-up of a colonial officer’s uniform? Or that George is brown and lacks a tail? (Lots of monkeys are brown and most species have visible tails.) Or that he is abducted against his will from Africa and brought across the sea to a foreign land where he engages in high jinks when the master is away?

This interpretation–surely the subject of many half-baked teacher-college lectures--was not on the mind of the Reys as they fled from the Nazis. Perhaps it is helpful to remember something that Margret once said of her books: “I don’t like messages. . . . These are just stories.

To which I say: Of course, they are “just stories.” All stories are “just” stories. At the same time, all stories use the material of the universe out of which they are created, and if we ignore that universe, we aren’t reading the whole story.

I don’t believe in banning books. In fact, I’m imagining that these stories will afford me the opportunity to ask some pretty hefty questions of my children as they get older, as well as to start some family research projects about the worlds that these stories describe. Where do these lions, elephants, and monkeys come from? Why do they want to live “here” and not in their homelands?

Am I worried that reading these stories to my children now will imprint them with colonial fantasies? That their ideologies of civilization – and their place within it –  will be structured by a value system that girds hegemonic practices?

Yes and no. As I read these books, I become more and more convinced that they aren’t stable narratives – meaning, the subtexts woven in these stories destablilize the seeming ‘message.’ Is the Happy Lion really happy – and could he be happy if he were free? Is the lion free? Is Babar really happy? George? I’m not so sure. And I think teaching my children, even at young ages, to sense those cracks in the wall of a story is more valuable than only providing them with a politically correct version of reality. Teaching them to read critically is key to teaching them to be individuals in a society that pumps out a lot of politically and culturally skewed messages.

And I want them, metaphorically speaking, to be like the kid who doesn’t flip out when the lion has left his moated cage. I want them to face the lions roaming on the street with the kind of kindness and civility that bounds across social and cultural divisions, that isn’t afraid of nature – and that isn’t afraid of themselves.