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.


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.