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board books

The board book: friend or enemy?

If you’ve ever read a board book to a toddler, you may have encountered this one:

The overly wordy board bookAfter 5 pages, or maybe the the thirteenth time it’s toddled up to your lap, you start omitting large swaths of story. Why would anyone in their right mind put this damn many words in a board book? It’s like performing an interpretive dance for a telephone pole. When it’s over, you’re exhausted and quite certain it missed the point.

Or maybe you’ve read this one:The embarassing sing-along board bookIt cajoles you into making embarrassing sounds or singing strange little songs and when all is said and done, you feel like an idiot.

And of course, there’s this old classic:The terribly written board book

It may not make you sing, quack or read until you’re blue in the face, but this damn book is misery in disguise. It insults, it bores. It can turn a warm, soft, snuggle fest into Dissociation-ville USA.

Fear not, you listless, embarrassed board book reader. There is hope.

Between you and me, books don’t even matter yet.

For the first couple years, most humans tend to be into things like light and faces and fresh air and anything that happens to be on the ground. So if you just hang out near your kid and go outside once in a while, you’re probably good.

If you want to get all fancy by throwing a board book into the mix, then it might as well be something you find highly amusing. Or something that will entertain your kid while you go have a cocktail.

For the later, behold, the wimmelbilderbuchs of Ali Mitgutsch!

Ali Mitgutsch's board books
My awesome neighbor Slowmamma loaned me these!

These are “teeming picture books,” meaning that they have full-spread detailed pictures on every page. And a few characters who continue their story from page to page. Delightfully, unlike their Richard Scary counterparts, they have No Words.

Ali-Mitgutsch's board book inside page

That means you can create a whole elaborate narrative if you feel like it (?!) or you can do absolutely nothing while your small, pudgy friend “does some reading.”

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then my favorite board book will come as no surprise.Baby Mix Me A Drink board book

We have Lisa Brown to thank for this breath of fresh air and good ol’ renegade McSweeney’s for publishing it.

Inside, you’ll find visual recipes for those toddlers who tend to forget that mama likes two olives in her gin martini.

Most importantly, it aces the most important board book requirement of all:

It’s amusing as hell for the people who know how to read.

Going beyond "strong female characters" in children's books

One of you dreamy readers, specifically Elisabeth M., left a comment that really got me thinking last month. She was responding to this post where I put a call out to children’s book readers near and far to help me find some stories with good, strong female characters in them.

Here’s what she had to say:

I don’t just want books with “strong female characters.” I want books with “varied female characters.”  And, I want female SECONDARY characters. In other words, I don’t want one strong propaganda-piece for female empowerment leading a show that’s populated by and all-male supporting cast, over and over and over. The thing is, as long as we’re stuck with “strong female characters,” we’re still putting females in a box—a propaganda box—and we’re still making the story about “femaleness” to some extent. People say boys don’t want to read books about female characters; I think the answer to that is to make the stories big, to include (in addition) a healthy number of female-led stories whose scope goes beyond patriarchy, stories that deal with issues other than gender identity. How about neutral female characters? How about “regular people” female characters? Until we have balance in the stories – by which I mean, an undeniable female presence that isn’t calling attention to itself—we’re going to be raising girls and boys to look at “female” as “other.”

So here’s my mission (and I have NO idea how to find this) – books that have a variety of female types—not just “strong,” and not just “stereotypical,” but varied—and which include a neutral cast of 50/50 male/female secondary characters. (Why do all the friendly insects on the pages need to be male?)

Well yowza. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Elisabeth M., for this killer distinction. I’ve been sorting through my list to see if any books fit the bill: having a balanced number of females in them without being about “femaleness.” The best I can come up with right now are the Katie Morag books. They’re written for the 5-9 set, but J has been really into them as the fairly verbal 3 year old that he is.

Katie Morag is supported by a nice balanced cast of characters, including feisty Granny Island who is often on her tractor, Granny Mainland, the ferryman, Katie’s brother Liam and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. McColl.

katie1

The books really aren’t about “femaleness” at all, but rather life on the Isle of Struay, a hearty little island off the coast of Scotland.

katie2

There are also the Mrs. Armitage books which I already reviewed here.

I don’t have a great recommendation for 1-4 year olds. But I did love Sally and the Limpet. It isn’t about “femaleness” per se, though I think most of the other characters are male.

sallylimpet

So now, I have to pass Elisabeth’s question on—do you know of any children’s picture books with a variety of female types and a balanced male/female cast of characters? Do tell.

On female characters in children's books

I read Puss In Boots to J for the umpteenth time this weekend (he really likes the windmill and the giant ogre). As he was pointing out the essentials to me — bunny rabbip, puss-uh-boots, Marquis, King and, of course, the giant ogre — I realized that every interesting character in the story with any agency or power was male (there is no reference to the gender of the bunny rabbips). The only female character in the book is a princess, and she is only mentioned in association with her beauty and her love for the Marquis. This is hardly a revelation–we live in a male dominated world, yadda yadda yadda. But it feels quite different now that I’m reading these stories to my soft, little, wide-eyed boy. He’s going to become a man (I hope) and while he’s on his way there, I want him to have some literary associations with power and influence that are decidedly female.

The more stories I read after that one, the more insidious the dominant male character seemed to become. There was Goodnight Gorilla, which I figured would be benign at least, since its an animal book. But the zookeeper is a ginger-mustached man. And while we could call her “zookeeper lady” as I have been doing when I read this to J, it’s pretty clear that the nightgown-clad woman in the story is the zookeeper’s wife.

Next up: J’s other latest favorite, New Red Bike. A bought this in an attempt to have more bicycle media in our house, as J is a wheel-lover and we wanted him to read about more than just tractors and fire trucks. So it certainly does feature this less often celebrated mode of wheeled transport, but guess who the bike riders are? Sam and Tom. And they wear their helmets and share, but I just really wish at least one of them was a girl…

The most glaring instance of a male-centered children’s book on J’s shelf is one I’ve had some issues with for a while: The Truck Book. Once I finally learned that this book isn’t really meant to be read per se, in the same way that an encyclopedia isn’t meant to be read, things were much better. But I still can’t get over the last page.
I mean, sure, I can live with the fact that there is a bell curve of behaviors associated with gender and that liking trucks a lot tends to fall more on the boy side. But can’t we dress up a girl as a builder or a farmer? Among other things, it would make this page of the book look a lot less like a toddler version of The Village People.

After all this, I took some time to sift through his bookshelf to find some stories that feature girls, women, a heroine. Here’s what I came up with:

This was depressing, since 1) female main characters (influential, powerful or not) were only in 2 books out of, say, 100 and 2) the female main characters I did find were a pig and a goat.

So I’m on a hunt, people. I need some toddler books that have human females featured in them. A girl riding a bike, perhaps. Or a woman firefighter or helicopter pilot. We could get really crazy and hope for a children’s book featuring a female land owner. Or crazier still, a book about the town veterinarian and her husband.

Please send me any recommendations you have. I’m determined to gift Jonah with a female book or two for his 2nd birthday this week! I’ll keep you posted on any sweet finds.