When imparting a lesson, there’s a fine line between sharing knowledge and sounding didactic.
But when it’s done right, a lesson imparted via picture book is nothing short of art. It combines our most noble goals as lovers of children’s books: the desire to help kids grow up to be their best selves and the desire to entertain their incredible imaginations. Here are three recent picture books that seamlessly combine those goals, teaching an important lesson (or two!) while entertaining children and adults alike.
Let These Be a Lesson: Three recent picture books that seamlessly combine education and entertainment
Gemma Merino, Anthony Browne, and Lauren Castillo artfully bring together entertainment and education in their books, providing all the rest of us a refresher course on how it’s done.
Tell the Wolves I'm Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt
June Elbus is a fourteen-year-old who likes herself.
That right there is a hopeful sign. And she's "flawed," in the 14-year-old sense, in that she's physically large, kind of nerdy (she likes Mozart and pretend play, and "nerdy," is a word she uses to describe herself), and largely friendless.
Her uncle is her best friend, and later on, her late uncle's partner steps in to fill that void.
To Brunt's credit, I didn't find myself thinking of June as a quirky character who was actually cooler than everyone else in the story but just didn't realize it. She's a fully developed character, but in fact she's a regular kid. She's not an undiscovered, unrealized super-cool gem, just a fairly average teen girl. Interesting, insightful, and a sort that some people will like, others won't. Just like most people in real life. So what Brunt is getting her readers to do is to root for a girl who is truly no more special than any other real kid.
That's what is so important about this book. June Elbus is average--no outstanding talents like her sister, an actor, and no great insights to share with the world. It's important to create a heroine who is special only because we know her well enough to see that she's a caring, loving, inquisitive person. A character we need to get to know in order to appreciate, and even then she's complex. More than once, I found myself wondering exactly why Uncle Finn so adored his niece. And there's no easy answer. It's not that she is secretly a brilliant artist (though he thinks she has talent) or because she is incredibly funny or an ugly duckling waiting to turn into a swan.
He loves her because she's June--a little nerdy, a lot needy, kinda funny, kinda puppy-dogish. Because she's his niece and he can see that she's a good kid and he loves her and she loves him.
Just like real life, where not every young adult can be a secret archer or divergent or great beauty or brilliant musician.
Most young adults just are who they are, and that's enough for the people who love them. June is a lovable, indelible character, just because she is who she is. I'm grateful young readers get to see that.
Some perfect books for same-gender parents.
When my sailor friends had their first baby, I bought them a whole stack of boat-themed baby books. My artist friends’ son got a stack of artsy kids’ books. My friend who was known as “Little Toot” growing up got a first edition of the classic book when his son was born (the result of my incredible luck at a used-book store, not any over-the-top generosity on my part).
Of course, my sailor friends are much more than just sailors, and my artist friends are much more than just artists. And “Little Toot” has been Dave for nearly forty years now. But those details are important aspects of who they are, and especially in the case of the sailing pair, those topics are going to be integral parts of their children’s lives, too.
So what books to give to a same-gender couple who is welcoming a new baby?
Let’s state the obvious first. The same-gender couple is far more than their sexuality, just as the sailors are more than their boat. But at the same time, any child’s parenting situation is a definite part of who he or she is. (Face it, when you’re a little baby, you can hardly go anywhere without at least one parent tagging along.) If your parents are same-gender, that’s part of your identity from day one, especially in a society that still makes a big deal—often negatively—out of such things.
There are a few books out there that are specifically directed at families with same-gender parents. Arguably the most famous one is “Heather has Two Mommies,” by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Diana Souza. (I am a big fan of Lesléa Newman’s writing and have been for a long time, long before my book-purchasing tastes ran toward children’s books.) “Heather Has Two Mommies” is a lovely book, as generations of children (and their parents) can tell you.
Another on-its-way-to-classic status is “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole. That’s about two male penguins who hatch an egg together. (It’s based on a true story, and if you have a few minutes to kill you can eavesdrop on a lively conversation about the sexual proclivities of penguins in the comments section of the amazon.com listing.)
In fact, there are a number of same-gender-parent children’s books out there. And there is inarguably a place for them, not only for children who delight at seeing their own situation played out on the pages of a book, but for any child. The blank slates that babies are, it’s good to have books out there that explain different animals, different moments in history, different seasons, different families, and people with different interests and loves.
But what’s also worthwhile is to see depictions of everyday life that pass without comment. Books in which the main character’s race, or gender, or parental status is of no more importance to the plot than his or her hair color.
Such incidental treatment of differences, over time, has the power to do no less than shape a worldview—a worldview in which different sorts of life situations are no big deal.
That’s why, in addition to books like Leslea Newman’s (she’s done a couple other children’s books about same-sex parents, as well), I have a few stand-by books that make great new-baby gifts for same-sex parents. (They are also, for the reasons discussed above, terrific books that make great gifts for any child.) These are books are about same-gender characters who have loving relationships. Are they sexual relationships? Well, it’s pretty icky to assign sexual anything to imaginary characters (witness the reaction to Jerry Falwell’s charge that “Tinky-Winky is gay”), and I do not know the personal or political leanings of either of these two authors. Nor do said leanings interest me all that much. What I do know is that these books feature pairs of same-gender creatures who love and nurture one another. Any child could recognize the love and commitment depicted in these books, and the recognition may touch a deeper level in children of same-sex parents. Either way, they are charming depictions of loving couples. And that’s good for everyone to see.
Holly Hobbie’s Toot and Puddle series: Yes, thatHolly Hobbie, whose name is forever linked in the minds of countless Gen-Xers with those homespun, bonnet-and-boot wearing little girls in profile we loved in our youth. She’s still writing, and her Toot and Puddle series is absolutely one of the best current picture-books series out there.
Toot and Puddle are two pigs. They are both male, and they live together in a picturesque little place called Woodcock Pocket. Toot and Puddle’s feelings for one another are so tender they could break your heart, especially when paired with Hobbie’s unparalleled illustrations. In “You are My Sunshine,” Toot has a case of the blues, and Puddle and their bird-friend Tulip try everything they can think of to cheer him up. In “Top of the World,” Toot goes for a walk and ends up on an around-the-globe adventure. Puddle follows him, and knows him so well that he’s able to guess his every move, meeting up with him in Provence.
Leo Leonni’s Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse and A Color of His Own: Both of these books feature a main character who is searching for something. In the first case, Alexander, a mouse, is searching for a companion. Alexander finds Willy, a wind-up mouse who is a beloved toy. Alexander wishes he could be a beloved toy as well, but then makes a magical wish that Willy could be real. The wish is granted, and the two mice live happily ever after.
In “A Color of His Own,” a chameleon is searching for his own color. To his dismay, chameleon learns that since his color changes with every surface he’s on, he is unable to stay one color, and so he doesn’t have a color that’s his own. An older, wiser (male) chameleon points out that if the two stay together, they will always be the same color as one another. And they do, and they are, happily.
These are simple stories, perfect for little ones. And the art is simply gorgeous—Hobbie and Lionni are masters of their craft. That makes these go-to baby gifts for just about any parent.
But for same-gender parents, these lovely books offer a subtle message: two people (or pigs or mice or chameleons) who love one another are the two best parents any lucky baby could have.
End of story.
Gramatky, Hardie. Little Toot. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. Print.
Hobbie, Holly. Toot & Puddle: Top of the World. Boston: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2002. Print.
Hobbie, Holly. Toot and Puddle: You Are My Sunshine. Boston: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1999. Print.
Lionni, Leo. A Color of His Own. New York: Pantheon, 1975. Print.
Lionni, Leo. Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse. New York: Pantheon, 1969. Print.
Newman, Lesléa, and Diana Souza. Heather Has Two Mommies. Los Angeles: Alyson Wonderland, 2000. Print.
Richardson, Justin, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole. And Tango Makes Three. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2005. Print.
If your kids don't say "poop" around you,
it's not because they don't say it at all.
It's because they think you're too humorless
to appreciate it.
You may have heard that, according to the ALA, Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books were the most-challenged books for kids in 2013 and 2102. The reason, according to the ALA site, were "Offensive Language, Unsuited for Age Group" [and, in 2013 but not 2012, "Violence"].
I have heard parents and critics say that the books are valuable despite their poop references, anti-adult themes and obnoxious main characters. And I hear what they're saying--which boils down, basically, to "at least they're reading." The hope is, in a nutshell, that kids will read these during the years that many kids lose interest in books (the years after picture books but before books are assigned in school). Captain Underpants will at least keep kids reading books until they're old enough to discover the wonders of Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Treehouse and, as I have promoted here, Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown.
But let me offer another view. Perhaps the Captain Underpants series are valuable precisely because of their poop references, anti-adult themes and obnoxious main characters. Here's why:
poop references: Little kids like to say "poop." It's a funny word that refers to a funny phenomenon. You say your kids don't (or didn't) use that word (and others relating to it) purely for comedic value? Sorry. If your kids don't say "poop" around you, it's not because they don't say it at all. It's because they think you're too humorless to appreciate it. Words can be funny. Words have power--to make people laugh, to make people cry, to make people angry. There are appropriate and inappropriate places to use certain words. Learning when and when not to say "poop," is a very small first step to learning about the power of words and how to use them.
anti-adult themes: Kids have very little power over their own lives. Don't want to go to bed? Tough. Don't like carrots? Too bad. Don't want to be physically removed from your friend's house and taken home for a nap? Doesn't matter. That's just the way childhood is. So imagine what it must be like to read about kids having ultimate power over their principal, turning him into an underpants-wearing superhero and back again! Amazing. Of course it's disrespectful. If it were possible to do it real life, it would be totally inappropriate and forbidden. But it's not possible to do in real life. It is, however, possible to imagine. Imagination is a totally appropriate way for kids to live out what they want to do but can't. In fact, they should be encouraged to do so. Keep in mind that in a little kid's everyday, real life, an adult can physically pick them up and remove them from one place and put them in another. So it's not all that hard to see why they'd like to read about that happening to a grown-up. And in his underwear to boot.
obnoxious main characters: George and Harold make trouble constantly, disrupt school, and mistreat their teachers and principal. Does any parent want his or her kids to act this way? Of course not. But what's wrong with reading about it? The events in the books are presented as outrageous and ridiculous. So, yes, the boys' behavior is outrageous and ridiculous. And kids love to read about things like that. About things they could never do, like fly or cast spells or start their own country. If your kids try to pull some George and Harold antics, tell them to stop.
The best thing about Captain Underpants books is that they teach kids that books (and adults who write them) can use the words "poop" and "tinkletrousers!" (now that's a funny word) Books can be about kids who do unacceptable things and outsmart adults. And adults can, like Pilkey, have a silly sense of humor and an endless imagination.
Books can be about anything. Anything. And they are a safe place to go when you wish things in everyday life were different, or just when you need a trip to an entirely new reality. I want my kids to learn that. That's why I want my kids to read Captain Underpants.
"His smile disappeared as quickly as pancakes at Sunday breakfast."
This simile rocked my world. Really. It's written by Donald J. Sobol and appears in one of his Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. I don't remember which one. I do remember reading it though--that line, I mean. I was probably ten years old and that sentence stopped me cold. I thought about a smiling boy, about a stack of pancakes, and about the absolutely unexpected connection that had just been made between them. That line has been swimming through my head, probably surfacing once a fortnight or so, for over 30 years. It's an amazing combination of poetry, truth and corniness--corniness that defines the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and has contributed to their present-day status as relics.
It's an unfortunate status, but the truth is that much of Encyclopedia's world is out of date. Let's start with his name: "What's an encyclopedia?" one of my kids asked. Then there's the bully, Bugs Meany, who has one of the most perfect--and most dated bully names of all time. Bullies today aren't considered bugs or meanies: they're considered little psychopaths at worst and troubled souls at best. Then there's the very strict gender divide: consider, for example, "The Case of the Girl Shortstop," about a girl named Edwina who enlists Encyclopedia to find out which jealous player on her team "ratted her out" to the coaches, who promptly dropped her upon learning she was actually a girl (she went by "Ed" when she played).
That's just a short list of the strikes against Donald J. Sobol's detective stories, in which kids call each other "meatballs" and refer to parents as "snoopy grown-ups." But there are compelling arguments to be made in support of the Encyclopedia Brown books' continuing relevance and value. In fact, these books use simple structure to create the very same type of fantasy world that sells out faster than pancakes at Sunday breakfast among young readers today.
Consider the kids' world in little Idaville. It's as mundane as mundane can be, with no magic at all--no wands or talking animals or shape-shifters or aliens. Yet, there is a kid with superpowers: Leroy Brown, who's so smart he's known by one and all as Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia is the son of Idaville's Chief of Police, and he's so smart that he's his father's "secret weapon." Sobol tells the reader over and over that crooks steer clear of Idaville because they can never get away with anything. Encyclopedia's hapless dad regularly comes home with head-scratching crimes, from embezzlement to art theft to murder, and summarizes them to his son over dinner. In every case, the solution is contained in the clueless cop's own words--it was there all along, but no single trained law enforcement officer in all of Idaville was able to catch it.
In the neighborhood, Encyclopedia is the enforcer; the superhero of the little guy. The kids who come to him for help are the youngest, the least powerful, and yes, that includes the girls. Encyclopedia outsmarts the bullies and gets the victims their proverbial lunch money back. In fact, in a couple cases I think actual lunch money was involved. He's Clark Kent solving the crimes that Clark himself would need to depend on Superman to tackle, and this young Encyclopedia Clark is a superhero precisely because he is compassionate and almost other-worldly smart.
As for the girls in the fictional world of Idaville, they aren't very prominent, to be sure. But their second-class status is an accurate reflection of a middle-class group of kids in mid-sixties middle America, where these stories are set. The girls don't have a lot of social power, and it's Encyclopedia who does the solving, but the girls face an uneasy tension between their place in the neighborhood and their desires.
A few books into the series, Encyclopedia takes on a junior detective, Sally Kimball, "The prettiest girl in the fifth grade--and the best fighter." The cases Sally's involved in are usually ones that center around a gender issue: Bugs Meany trying to get his cousin Bearcat to fight a girl, the aforementioned girl shortstop, a case that hinges on the number of layers in a chocolate cake served by a group of volunteer ladies.
Sally is a confident girl who is pretty, strong, and smart. She's also very aware of where she stands, gender-wise and power-wise. In the shortstop story, Edwina announces "Boys are rat-finks," to which Sally retorts, "Nonsense. Some boys are very nice." A few pages later, when discussing the fact that the adult coach won't tell Edwina who ratted her out, Sally takes on the topic of rat-fink men with this: "Men are all the same. They protect each other. They're afraid of what women can do if they get a chance." Remember, this is a fifth-grade girl talking about the cover-up of what the kids perceive as a crime committed against Edwina.
For his part, Encyclopedia is a little unsure about the whole gender issue. "When Sally was out to defend her sex," he muses in another story, "arguing was useless."
These are boys and girls who are aware of the gender divides in their everyday lives and deal with them as they come. Sobol is clearly sympathetic to the smart and capable girls like Sally, who want to (and can) do more.
Another Sobol creation that has stuck with me indelibly for decades is a girl who appears in a story about some kids who are startled by someone in a gorilla costume. I can't remember the details of the scene, but it's really the gorilla character that's important.
A girl in the story is carrying a cello case and tells the kids she can't have been dressed as the gorilla because she was busy playing the cello, but Encyclopedia immediately identifies her as the gorilla. Why? Because she is wearing a skirt so tight she can hardly walk. I even remember a drawing of her struggling to walk, knees together, one foot wildly out to the side. Encyclopedia deduces that her cello case must contain the gorilla costume, since she cannot possibly have just been playing the cello. Her skirt is far too tight for her to put the instrument between her legs.
As a young girl reading this, I loved it. This hapless girl is wearing a skirt so impractical that she can barely walk. She can't be a serious musician, clearly. Serious musicians don't wear skirts that tight. Serious musicians and, it turns out, criminals, need to be able to move freely and not be hampered by ridiculously girly clothing. Fantastic.
So. If you've got a kid in your life around 9 or 10, give him or her an Encyclopedia Brown book. Just try it. These short stories make perfect read-alouds while waiting in line somewhere or just before bedtime. Then you can figure out the mysteries together. On the surface, these tales seem quaint and out-of-date. But give them a try. They're actually canny stories--about powerful kids who outsmart the adults around them while navigating their own relationships and positions in the town of Idaville.
And I guarantee you'll find a line or an image that's just vivid enough to stick in your head for days, if not years.
The April 2014 issue of The Atlantic has a cover article that will get people talking: The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin. Ms. Rosin looks at a playground in North Wales, "the Land" where kids can play, largely (though not completely) unsupervised, with old tires, broken chairs and even fire. Against this backdrop, the author considers the changes playgrounds have seen since the 1970s, using their increasingly hyper-safe designs as a microcosm of our society's phobia of letting kids play unsupervised.
As I read this insightful and engrossing article (have you read it yet? That's ok, I'll wait...) I thought about my own parenting experience. I, like most of my peers, have pretty structured kids. I'm always telling mine to "go out and play," but their fenced-in backyard is not nearly so appealing as were the nether-reaches of my wooded backyard when I was their age. We used to go on "journeys," filling Tic-Tac boxes with juice (don't try it, it dribbles) and leaving for a couple blissful, unsupervised hours. My kids don't.
Does it matter?
Ms. Rosin thinks it does, and intuitively, I am inclined to agree. But the Atlantic brought to mind a book my daughter loved as a three-year-old: Be Good, Gordon, by Angela McCallister and illustrated by Tim Archbold (Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2002). A little boy named Gordon, who is very very well behaved, is convinced by his babysitter, one Lily Jigg-Popsicle, to be naughty. The two get muddy and howl at the moon and Gordon makes it back into bed just as his parents return home.
I said my daughter loved the book, but I have to be honest; she doesn't actually remember it (a fact that surprised me). I chose the book so carefully for her after searching the library for a picture book that would encourage a very, very good little girl to let loose and be naughty (even roar!) once in awhile. This mad search through the stacks was prompted by her refusal to leave my lap and dance during the music portion of our library's story time.
How could I get my toddler to feel free enough to stand up and "shake her sillies out," as the song went, with the rest of her toddler buddies? I couldn't exactly fill a Tic-Tac box with juice and send her on a journey at that age (or, as I admitted above, in the years that followed, either).
So did it work? Did Lily Jigg-Popsicle build her confidence and sense of adventure? It was only a part of the campaign I went on, which also included my vow never to answer for her and never to "guide her hand" as she drew pictures or made crafts. (Her bird-seed encrusted name poster was a big old blob during crafts time, yes, but who did the other moms think they were kidding with their own kids' perfectly scripted bird-seed creations?)
Hard to say. She is who she is, and I guess I'll never be able to pinpoint one book or one blobby craft project as forming her sense of adventurous self.
But when I asked her the other day if she remembered Miss Jigg-Popsicle, my daughter laughed at the name and said nope, not at all. I told her the story-time shyness dilemma and how I'd hoped Gordon's story would help solve it, and she asked "did it?" I considered the question and thought about who she is now, as a young teen: confident and dependable and willing to try fencing or karate or theater or honors math.
"I'll say yes," I told her.
Divergents are not the only elements of this story that diverge from the norm. That's why Tris matters.
Tris is a sister to Katniss: a tough, compassionate heroine who knows her way around a weapon. But it's not when Tris is firing a gun that she roars the loudest: it's the moment when she shakes Tobias out of his stupor.
Tobias and Tris are standing face-to-face in the control room of the Dauntless Compound. Tobias is "in a simulation," meaning that his mind is being controlled. He doesn't know Tris, and he's going to shoot her.
"'Tobias,' I say. 'It's me.' ... 'Tris,' he says, and it's him again. ... 'How did you do it?' I say. 'I don't know,' he says. 'I just heard your voice.'" (beginning of chapter 39)
And there it is. What's so great (and I do mean great) about this moment? It blows a hole in the princess fairy tale. Snow White, asleep in a coffin until her prince kisses her. Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty awakened by a prince's kiss. So entrenched is this tired cliche that it's the first thing Simon and Jared Grace attempt in their struggle to awaken Mallory in The Spiderwick Chronicles. ("Ew," they say, because she is, after all, their sister.)
In Divergent, it's Tris's voice, not her kiss, that awakens Tobias, but the concept is exactly the same. A helpless, hapless character is completely stuck in limbo until "awakened" by the hero(ine)'s love. Tobias was utterly helpless until the voice of his beloved snapped him back to reality. Woke him up.
It's a great moment because at last, here's a girl whose romantic love is life-saving. When else has that happened? There's the trope of a mother or father pursuing an unsavory lifestyle until thoughts of his or her daughter snap the parent back to reality, but a young woman's sexual love as the redemptive catalyst? That's just not a common (to put it mildly) plot point.
Tris's love is more powerful than any spell. If you're lucky enough that she'll share it with you, her love will save the day.
You roar, Tris!
Characters Who Roar:
characters who make things happen, rather than having things happen to them. characters with power in their lives, even in situations they can’t externally change.