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children’s books

Truly feminist picture book recommendations and paternity leave is over

Woo hoo! Had to share this lovely post responding to my recent post championing Elisabeth’s call for picture books with varied female characters and a gender balanced cast. Whew. Were you able to connect all those dots? Hope so. I don’t have much time to preen my writing because A. is back to work today. Sigh.

I’ve been weepy as a willow for the last 24 hours. Having his presence at home for 7 weeks (yes, SEVEN) has been nothing short of miraculous. He provides an extra set of arms for bouncing babies or wrangling older boys. He installs sliding glass doors where once there were windows.

dining1 dining2

Pretty amazing, huh?

And he also makes tea in the morning with the perfect amount of sugar and milk.

I miss him.

I also feel like a big fat wuss for feeling this way, since he was around for SEVEN weeks. Thank you, A’s boss, for setting up your company policy to allow your employees to have access to the Family and Medical Leave Act even though you’re not legally required to, since you employ way less than 50 people. And thank you, State of California, for having the California Paid Family Leave program which made it possible for us to afford SEVEN weeks without A’s salary.

I don’t know a single person whose partner has been able to take this much time off after the birth of a baby. Not one. And may I please say that that is ridiculous. And sad. And just plain stupid.

I’ll keep my rant short, but it seems to me that one of the most basic things a country can do to support its people is to support its newest members and those bringing them into the world. And expecting new moms and dads to just ally-oop back to work lickety split puts tons of stress on new families. And directly influences mental and physical health of parents, health outcomes for newborns, and emotional lives of siblings to name a few. I don’t have the time or energy to go looking for all of the studies and articles that I’m sure have been written about this (if you have any at your fingertips, please share!!) but I’m sure that babies and parents are healthier and happier when parents are able to stay home and settle in for more than 5 minutes.

Here I am all weepy as hell and I got seven (SEVEN!) weeks of support from my partner, not to mention tons of food and childcare from friends. I know I could have handled it if A. wound up with the typical, all-American 1 or 2 weeks off, but I’m oh so grateful that I didn’t have to. And I know that there are tons of folks out there that don’t have a choice. And that makes me angry. Political rant-y angry.

Baby C is waking up, and there’s grocery shopping to do and J to pick up at one. I’m off to my solo parenting immersion.

Hope all is well with you, dear readers.

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.

Leading ladies in children's picture books: Mrs. Armitage

Way back when, I posed this lament and request for good children’s picture books with girl and women main characters. Thanks to all of your amazing comments, I’ve had a hold-list a mile long at our library. We’ve been reading like fiends in these parts and have found some real stand-outs. Three books that stick in my mind and that we have gone back to the library for again and again are the Mrs. Armitage books by Quentin Blake.

It all started with Mrs. Armitage on Wheels.

Don’t you love her already?

It’s basically a children’s book version of ‘pimp my ride,’ only the ride is a bike and the detail crew is Mrs. Armitage and her faithful dog Breakspear. And if you feel like Blake’s illustrations remind you of something, you’re right! Quentin Blake drew all of the pictures for Roald Dahl’s books. Blake is also a wonderful storyteller–these are books that you will genuinely enjoy reading out loud.

Then there’s Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave.

Similar storyline–only this time, it’s a surfboard.

And Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road.

In this one, she un-pimps her ride and then winds up playing billiards and drinking cans of banana fizz with her Uncle Cosmo and his friends at the Crazy Duck Cafe.

Go forth. Read. Enjoy. And relax knowing that you’re reading a story to your kiddo that shows off a rad leading lady.

Toddler sleep update

Well, thanks to all of your helpful comments responding to my cry for help, things are going a bit better on the sleep front.

Your suggestions reminded me of something that I knew deep down in my heart–J is getting bigger all the time, and I will probably always be a few steps behind, thinking he still might need his crib or only drink 4oz of milk at one sitting or that he’ll want to sleep swaddled until his mid 40s.

So I did it. Thanks to my trusty IKEA-supplied Allen wrench, I turned his crib into a toddler bed.

J explores the joys of toddler-bed-dom.

I was definitely terrified of what chaos might ensue, and also just clinging lazily to old routines. It just takes so much damned energy to construct a whole new set of bed time procedures. But it seems that we’ve done it.

Naps are still the real challenge–we’ve gotten him to fall asleep in there on his own for nap time once. I was so giddy with excitement that I had to take a picture:

All other times, he has either fallen asleep nursing (which I must say, I think I am finally ready to give up at this point) or he has never fallen asleep and thus had “quiet time” which consists of bursts of quiet or loud play alone in his room, punctuated by opening his door and having chats with me. I have yet to find a way of enforcing quiet time that feels right to me. The one thing I haven’t tried that I might is turning on an album and saying that he has to stay in his room until the music ends. I welcome any other tips you might have.

Nighttime is much simpler. My friend B sent me this very applicable quote from this website, which seems quite helpful especially for the 0-1 set.

I want to be clear that we are talking about BEDTIME. This is the time you put your child to bed. The only rule is that they stay in bed. You can’t make an older child sleep (nor can you make them eat or poop FYI). This is why we don’t call it SLEEPTIME. As a parent your job is to give them an age-appropriate bedtime, a soothing consistent bedtime routine, establish the limits (primarily that they stay in bed), and then leave. What they do at that point is up to them.

Does that mean it’s OK for your 2 YO to sit in their bed awake and talking to themselves for 45 minutes? It sure does!

Is this a form of torture? No it isn’t! Learning to entertain themselves, care for their bodies, or (*gasp*) spend a moment of the day without constant stimulation is actually really healthy! As adults, what do you do when you can’t fall asleep? You lie there and think quiet thoughts until you DO fall asleep. Your child is learning to do this too.

I found this particularly helpful and found the extra added reinforcement of a Goodnight Moon pop-up book that J and I found on the street corner the other day. Granted, many of the pop-ups had been torn off, which is probably why this book had been jettisoned by its former owner, but one function that remained delightfully intact was the pop up of the little bunny who goes to bed in the great green room. There’s a little tab that you pull and the little bunny sits up, and if you push it, she lies down. But she doesn’t get out of bed. Because she knows it’s BEDTIME. I explained all of this enthusiastically to J and really put some ooomph behind it. I’ve been reminded of the power of ooomph by this post about intention that my blogging friend Turned on Mama wrote. (And she also happens to give great sex advice to boot.)

Anyhoo. He bought it. He stayed in his little bed and fell asleep. And he’s done that a few nights now. Of course, it’s not always perfect. Sometimes he clucks around in there for what seems like forever. Other times he gets out of the bed and winds up falling asleep like this:

I mean, he did technically fall asleep in his bedroom. Though maybe his nose didn’t…

But I can handle that.

On girls, women and dads in picture books

Alright folks. The clock is ticking. J has been napping for an hour already and I have to see if I can get this sucker up in a half hour. Go!

So I’ve been relentlessly pursuing picture books featuring female characters with power and agency. Thank you so much to all of you who commented here and on facebook. I’ve compiled all of your recommendations into a list and have maxed out the number of holds I can place at the Berkeley Public Library.

Here’s what I’ve found so far: some of the recommendations wound up being books with girls in them. Not books about central girl characters doing things like being themselves, which might include riding bikes or playing with dolls or rolling in the mud (or all 3!), but simply books with a girl character, however minor. While that’s a start, I have to internally cringe a bit. Really? Can’t we set the bar a bit higher??

So after reading the first pile of books I placed on hold,  I’ve found that in books that do have a central girl character, they often go out of their way to show that “Mom could be an astronaut” (My Mom, Browne) or “She’s pretty cool, for a girl” (Meggie Moon, Baguley). As in, “Just in case you didn’t know already, this is an exception to the rule. Most moms don’t have exciting jobs and most girls aren’t cool, but once in a while…” Couldn’t we just say, “She’s pretty cool” and   show mom being an astronaut?

The other thing I’ve found is that when girl characters are uplifted, they often take a dig at the boys in the story–like the little girl who re-evaluates her baseball playing brother and his friends. “It doesn’t really look like that much fun after all” (Ladybug Girl, Somar and Davis). This dynamic doesn’t sit well with me either.

So here’s my revised mission: To find picture books for the 2-5 crowd with central girl or women characters who, simply by virtue of being themselves, expand our images of who women and girls are and what they do, and who don’t have to give anyone else a smackdown in order to do that. Any revised suggestions? My apologies if one of the books you’ve already recommended fits that bill. I can only check out so many books from Berkeley Public at one time.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find. For now, my favorites I’ve found so far are Zen Shorts

and Knuffle Bunny Free.
Neither book is a ringer in terms of my revised mission, but they both have good girl characters and are a pleasure to read. I also liked Ladybug Girl alot, if not for the dig on her brother, and J really likes Meggie Moon. Apparently he’s not offended by the boys who boss her around or begrudgingly admit to her coolness. Perhaps its because they build boats and ships and cars out of old junk. I have to hand it to him there.

I’ve been talking up this whole girl/women characters in picture books thing a lot lately, and had a notable chat with a dad I met at a toddler birthday party this weekend. He said something like, “Here’s the real challenge: find a book that has one of those girl characters you’re looking for and a dad who’s not an idiot.” He went on to talk about how the Dad characters in books he reads to his daughter are most often shown as detached and, essentially, stupid. And I’d been chewing on this conversation when Voila! I ran across this post on one of the blogs I read today.

Well hot damn. I believe that’s what they call serendipity.

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.