Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters

Photo: Covers of the books Lola Loves Stories (girl and her dad reading a book), Ada Twist, Scientist (a girl with lab goggles and boy below her), One Hot Summer Day (a girl looking up at a city apartment) and The Paper Bag Princess (a girl in a paper bag facing a dragon). Text: "Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The girls are missing.

Children’s literature is remarkably devoid of female main characters. As a recent video illustrates so drastically, in a study of more than 500 children’s books, 25% had zero female characters. Even though there are loads of animals that could easily be female, they’re almost always identified as male.

Even when there are female characters, they’re often relegated to a stereotypical role, like the stick-in-the-mud, the mom, or “the vain one.” In children’s media, just under 20% of female characters had jobs or specific aspirations.

Just like in the broader popular culture, boys in picture books get to go on adventures, solve problems, and save the day. These stories teach our children that either girls don’t get to do fun things or have to stay in society’s prescribed roles.

In contrast, both little girls and boys need female characters in books! While little girls need to see themselves represented, boys need need to know that the story isn’t always about them – and that it’s a good thing.

Bringing down the patriarchy can start at your child’s bookshelf. Here are some of my family’s favorite books featuring girls as main characters. In addition, a number of these books feature girls of color, which are even harder to find.

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Children’s Book Week: Postmodern Fun with the Physical Form

Post-Modern Fun with Physical Kids Books.jpg

It’s Children’s Book Week, so I have a couple of posts featuring some of my favorite children’s books.

Today, I’m featuring books that use their physical form to their full potential. They bend what can be done with a book without relying on anything but paper, ink and an enthusiastic reader. Plus, many are much more post-modern than adult books while still being awesome for kids.

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Children’s Book Week: Kids’ Lit for Lit Geeks

Kids' Lit for Lit Geeks

It’s Children’s Book Week, so I have a couple of posts featuring some of my favorite children’s books. Check out last year’s posts on the topic: Passing Down My Beloved Books, Bizarre Children’s Literature, and Tips on Reading to Babies.

Today, I’m celebrating some children’s books that draw on a rich history of literature and more importantly, make you look smart in front of your kids. These books all reference other books, especially the classics. In other words, a geek’s dream.

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A Single Bell: The Saratoga and North Creek Railway’s Polar Express

There’s just something about little kids and trains. When you put Santa in the mix, it’s a guarantee for Christmas magic. So it was a lovely gift for our in-laws to give Sprout a ride on the Polar Express run by the Saratoga and North Creek Railway as his big Christmas present.

The Polar Express is an actual train ride modeled on the famous book that was made into a movie. Both are about a little boy waiting on Christmas Eve to hear Santa’s sleigh despite his friend telling him it isn’t real. A magical train picks him up, along with a number of other children, and brings them to the North Pole. When the boy is picked to receive the first gift of Christmas, he requests a bell off of Santa’s sleigh. On Christmas morning, he discovers it makes beautiful music, but his parents think it’s broken. As time goes on, his friends and sister lose the ability to hear it, but his belief in the magic of Christmas allows him to always hear it.

While I had read the book ages ago, my father-in-law adores the movie. With a local train company offering a “Polar Express” package, he wanted to bring Sprout on the real-life version.

We boarded the train at night in our pajamas, just like the children in the story. I chose pajama pants and a sweater, but my in-laws decided to go all-out in full-body one-piece fleece jammies. Instead of the train picking us up at our house, we had to drive out to the station, pay $5 for parking, and trudge through the parking lot in the rain.

Not the most magical, but they did a lovely job once you actually got in the station. A huge Christmas tree took up most of the entranceway, flanked by a Polar Express themed gift shop and murals.

Polar Express Christmas tree

The train further built upon the plot and themes of the story, decorated in its holiday best. Pine garland wrapped around the overhead luggage storage, bright presents stored there instead of suitcases. Once the train started, “chefs” and waitstaff pranced down the aisles, skipping and kicking up their feet. As they didn’t do anything “waiterly” except pass out styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and sugar cookies, their main job was to be hilariously enthusiastic, which they did quite well. Sprout slurped down his hot chocolate, which was little kid friendly lukewarm. In addition to distributing goodies – just like in the book – the waitstaff also sang Christmas carols and showed children the pages of the book as the narration played over the loudspeaker. The conductor even made his rounds and stamped our “golden ticket.”

After a very slow 30 minute ride, the train arrived at the North Pole itself. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidental, but the cell service was so poor that there was no way to figure out its location. It did preserve the magic a bit! As we approached, we gazed out the window at a “village” bright with multi-colored lights staffed by “elves” dressed in red and green. The combination of the dark and the train slowing down created the illusion of it seeming quite large. As we approached, Sprout stared out the window, transfixed by the fantastical sight.

North Pole Polar Express

Unlike in the book, no one got out of the train. Considering it took 20 minutes to get everyone on the train in the first place and the weather was crummy, it was very much for the best.

Instead, the elves and Santa came to us! They boarded the train, elves in the lead. Although I asked the elves to take a photo with Sprout, I didn’t expect one of them to pick him up. Considering his earlier skepticism about sitting on Santa’s lap, I winced, but he didn’t cry. But in the one decent photo we have, he doesn’t look super-thrilled. Then Santa made his way down the train car, stopping at each family to take photos and bestow a single (not real) silver bell to each child. As he entered, Sprout cried, “Santa!” While he was excited to get the bell, there was also no way in heck he was allowing Santa to pick him up.

The only critique I have of the trip was the presence of one character who isn’t even in the book. As the book is just over 30 pages, they obviously had to add quite a bit to the movie to pad it out to a reasonable length. One of those additions was a hobo, who in the “real life” version yelled a lot and simply didn’t make a lot of sense. He was vaguely scary, confusing if you hadn’t seen the movie, and generally didn’t fit in with the whole aesthetic.

Overall, the Saratoga and North Creek’s Polar Express was a lovely concept come to life. The full-sized train was a delight and was the first time Sprout had been on a non-subway train. I can’t say it will be a holiday tradition – this may be the last Christmas for us in upstate New York – but I can see why it could become one for many families.

In Defense of Scary Stories for Kids

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My job as a parent is not to protect my child from monsters; it’s to teach him how to fight them. Because, one day, sooner or later, I won’t be able to protect him, whether that’s because of physical distance or just a stage in life. So in the meantime, I want to expose him to children’s stories with monsters, stories that give you nightmares and make you hide behind the sofa.

A few months ago, I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a beautiful book dripping with childhood half-remembered thoughts and fears. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, who manages to make the mythic so very personal. His stories – even and especially those for children – tap into narratives bigger than us, dredge the dark parts of our minds and bring out the terror, but also, the strength, courage, and beauty. He says that parents are more scared by his book Coraline than children, because it’s about parents’ fears as much as their children’s. Similarly, a quote from Maurice Sendak at the beginning of The Ocean at the End of the Lane expresses this balance between children’s and adults’ fears perfectly: “I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

Much of my other favorite media covers the same territory: Doctor Who, Lost, SeaQuest DSV, X-Files and Harry Potter. Unsurprisingly, my taste in children’s literature runs along the same lines. As the source of this blog’s title, Where the Wild Things Are is a favorite of mine. Notably, the Wild Things aren’t the scariest thing in the book – Max’s loneliness is. But it’s also what draws him home on the end.

Reading and watching these movies and books, I want Sprout to feel fear, understand its roots, and learn how to channel it. As the Doctor says in Listen, fear is a superpower. When you fear something, you know that it’s important for some reason. Maybe the fear is of something physically dangerous like a rattlesnake or as socially harmful as being seen as stupid. What we fear and how we react to it reveals our values, even if we don’t want to admit them. Being afraid of people who are a different race is racist. Being afraid of looking stupid means we value intelligence, while fear of looking mean means we value compassion. We need to look long and hard at our fears, whether to change something about who we are or find ways to confront them.

Besides monsters and fear, the other common element in all of these stories are protagonists who face the dangers armed with skill, bravery, sharp wits and compassion. Many of them explore unknown places and meet different cultures with a sense of wonder and joy. To quote the under-appreciated Craig Ferguson on Doctor Who, the show is about “The triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” Although I enjoy superheroes and their drag-out brawls, they can never have my heart like these non-violent (or minimally violent) heroes.

While stories about ordinary children facing ordinary problems have their place, stories about protagonists facing foes bigger than our reality have a special role. To children, everything is bigger than them. So if this character can resolve this huge problem, maybe they can too.

I want Sprout to learn from these characters because the tactics they use against fantastical monsters are applicable in real life. While he will never have a (properly functioning) sonic screwdriver, he can be kind and smart. He can approach people who are different from him not with fear, but a respectful interest in listening to their stories.

And he can work together with them. Heroes in these stories never work alone – they almost always work in teams. They may feel alone at times, but they know they can find refuge in the welcome of their friends and family. They realize there is no such thing as a lone wolf, that no one can do good individually, unconnected from community.

These stories provide patterns to help my son band together with others to form communities outside the damaging systems of power, whether the toxic politics of high school or the restrictions of our industrial food system. Open mics and community gardens alike can be refuges and places we can break down walls.

I want my son to experience scary stories because they provide a foundation to build a life where he can stand up against the true monsters of this world: hate, injustice, greed and unjustified fear. If you don’t learn to deal with make-believe monsters, how can you handle the real ones?

What were your favorite scary stories as a kid? What did you get out of them?

Book Club: Why Richard Scarry’s Busytown Has the Worst City Government Ever

Book Club – quirky critical and social justice takes on children’s literature. Otherwise known as what happens when someone interested in pop culture and political analysis has read the same bedtime story for the 100th time.

Richard Scarry’s Busytown has the most incompetent municipal government I’ve ever seen, despite the fact that I live very close to Washington D.C. The urban planning is an utter disaster, the roads make Beijing’s highways look orderly, and the safety standards and training are non-existant. Urban designers take note – except for its astonishingly resilient citizens, Busytown is everything you don’t want your city to be.

To start with, the city’s traffic patterns and the resulting crashes are atrocious. We have two Busytown books (Cars and Trucks and Things that Go and Lowly Worm’s Applecar), both of which feature multiple car crashes or near-misses. For example, one accident involves at least 17 different vehicles, including a squirting mustard truck, a chinaware truck, a flour truck, a whipped cream truck, a tomato juice truck, and an egg truck. While thankfully, “no one was badly hurt” but it will “probably take a Million Years” for the mechanic to fix everything.

Scan from Cars and Trucks and Things that Go of a huge crash

The roads all appear to be multi-lane with no actual stripes to distinguish between them. There are few or no traffic lights or stop signs, with individual police officers directing traffic at overcrowded intersections. There are multiple turn-offs with no merge lanes, like drive through hamburger stands on busy highways. The roads appear to be constantly under construction, with minimal markings and barriers. The roads themselves go through dangerous areas with a lack of supporting infrastructure, as “shortcuts through the mountains” result in dangerous falling rocks. (The roads also appear to cut right across ski trails, which can’t be safe for the skiers.)

Beyond the physical infrastructure, there is clearly little municipal support for regulation. Enforcement of traffic rules is minimal, with one clearly dangerous driver being pursued by a single (but very determined) bike cop in one book and another completely ignored in another. Vehicles vary in size from tiny pencil cars driven by mice to huge multi-story tourist buses. Many of them appear to not pass modern safety or emissions standards, including pickle and banana cars. One even transforms into a helicopter and balloon, while having no obvious method of propulsion.

Scan from Cars and Trucks and Things that Go of a tractor that's fallen in a pond

The complete disregard for safety extends to the municipal staff, who clearly need better training and performance standards. They make the beleaguered Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority look staggeringly competent. A crane driver steers straight into a lake. (That wasn’t very smart, indeed.)

A steamroll driver loses control of his truck, which runs over several cars. A car carrier operator drops a car into the ocean. Six different dump trucks in one area dump their loads at the same time because of vague misheard directions from a citizen.

Scan from Cars and Trucks and Things that Go of cars run over

Lastly, the city is extremely auto-centric. While it’s not safe for drivers, it’s disastrous for bicyclists and pedestrians. There are sidewalks, but cars veer onto them on a regular basis, knocking over parking meters. There are no bike lanes or separated paths. There is a police officer on a bicycle, but even she rides on sidewalks to avoid the multiple crashes. Instead of bicycles, even the children are gifted toy cars that they’re allowed to drive on the road!

While Busytown looks pro-urban upon first glance, it is a classic example of a poorly planned, shoddily managed semi-suburban area. It is certainly a product of the time. Parents interested in finding good neighborhoods for their children and city planners alike can learn from this disastrous mess.

Hidden Gems on my Son’s Bookshelf

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Sprout has a lot of books – a consequence of being part of a family of avid readers and a grandchild of a retired teacher. While some are classics, some make us question our mental health, and others are just plain weird, there are a few that are both not particularly well-known and absolutely wonderful. They made their way onto his bookshelf in a variety of ways: received as gifts, picked up second-hand, and discovered at book festivals. They have both beautiful illustrations and lyrical text.

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Reading it Up in the Suburbs: The Gaithersburg Book Festival

Hearing one of your favorite authors speak is one of the great joys of being a fan of authors who are still alive. For such purposes, we have the huge National Book Festival in D.C. Unfortunately, while it’s still attracting amazing authors, it hasn’t been nearly as appealing since it moved off the National Mall to the Convention Center. While it was easy to stand in the back of an outdoor tent and leave if Sprout got fussy, it’s much more difficult to be adaptable in a smallish, packed room. Fortunately, we’ve found a less glamorous but more inviting alternative – the Gaithersburg Book Festival. As Gaithersburg – the suburb just north of us – isn’t exactly known for its high culture or literary scene, I didn’t expect much. But my low expectations turned into pleasant surprise when we attended the Gaithersburg Book Festival last weekend.

Walking in, there were two very welcome things I noticed that the National Book Festival doesn’t have. The first was a gaggle of local food trucks serving a huge diversity of food. The National Book Festival has a couple of crummy tents selling boring tourist food like hot dogs and terrible pizza, so this was a big step up. We brought a picnic because we were trying to stay cheap, but I appreciated their presence.

The second was a table run by Book Crossing, a worldwide network of people who want to share and trade books with each other for free. Because I’m ridiculously susceptible to the lure of free books, I browsed the kids’ table. It doesn’t count if it’s for my son, right? I picked up a counting book with lovely nature photos (Counting on the Woods) and was moved to see that it was in honor of a little girl who had passed away. Reading her story on the family’s Facebook page , I was almost brought to tears. She was from suburban Virginia and died after getting hit by a car while riding her bike. As a family biking advocate and someone who wants the roads to be safe for everyone, I am both saddened by the circumstance and honored to be able to celebrate this little girl’s memory through this book.

Strolling through the Park that hosted the Festival, I was struck by how much larger it was than I expected. There were tents beyond tents, a sea of white points dotting the landscape. The children’s area was almost as large as the National Book Festival. While they didn’t have an entire Magic School Bus trailer or PBS tent, they did have Clifford the Big Red Dog, a whole tent of kids’ entertainment, and most importantly, a fenced playground. The tents were also a lot smaller, which made it much easier to hear and see the authors.

We wandered by the children’s entertainment tent just as they started a puppet show of Where the Wild Things Are. It was a very different set-up than I had ever seen – they used paper cut-outs of the characters, switching out the backdrops and lighting as the scenes changed. The puppetry was pretty simple, with the puppeteers wiggling around characters on sticks, but it was effective enough. Instead of having the characters speak, a narrator read the book, accompanied by music. Hilariously, the parts in the land of the Wild Things had an arrangement of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as the background music! Not what I would have chosen, but its melodic darkness was surprisingly appropriate.

Next, we caught the ending of a talk by the author of Goatilocks and the Three Bears. The author recruited a few members of the audience to play the various parts in her book, including the three bears, the eponymous goat, and the house itself. As more than half of the “actors” were kids who didn’t quite know what was going on, it was pretty adorable. In the background, they showed the book’s illustrations, which involved said goat gobbling down not only Baby Bear’s porridge, but also his chair and bed!

Finally, the talk our family was waiting for arrived – the author and illustrator of Dragons Love Tacos! This book is so beloved that Sprout renamed Figment the Dragon to Taco because of it. The collaborators (Adam Rubin and Dan Salmieri) are a couple of youngish guys, close to Chris and my age. They joked that they knew what kids thought were funny not because they had kids but had never really grown up. (I admit that’s one reason I love reading to Sprout. At least the first time, most of his books are pretty awesome.) As an example, they mentioned that when they first met, one brought the other a taxidermied squirrel as a present, toting it around town the entire night. Anyone who has the guts to do that deserves some credit in my book.

Dan Salmieri holding up a copy of Robosauce

They then offered us the first look anyone in the general public had at their new book to be released in September, Robosauce. Unlike Dragons Love Tacos, I immediately loved this book. I won’t ruin it, but it has a surprising and cool twist that makes it both unlike any children’s book I’ve ever seen and very much in the new tradition of using books as objects in ways that iPads can’t replicate. We’ll definitely be picking it up for Sprout when it comes out.

Adam Rubin and Dan Salmieri with a monster picture created from children's suggestions

This is our blurry photo, but the one on Dan Salmieri’s Instagram is much better.

To keep the energy up – an hour-long talk for kids is long – they played a game. They asked members of the audience to name different objects that could be body parts of a monster, from a monster’s hair to its ears to its feet. The kids came up with some very interesting answers, from microphones for a head to cupcakes for hands. The best one was a oil tanker car for a neck, which was promptly followed by a very loud, long train whistle – the park backs right up to the railroad. As the kids volunteered ideas, Salmieri drew a cobbled-together beast, which ended up looking rather scary-adorable.

To wrap up our time at the festival, we made a stop at the playground while Chris got Sprout’s book signed and then headed out via the book tent. We already own Dragons Love Tacos, but I wanted to buy Sprout a commemorative book from the festival. In celebration of spring and gardening, I picked up Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. The Gaithersburg Book Festival tent also had three major advantages over the one at the National Book Festival. It was run by Politics and Prose, one of our very few local bookstores, whereas the National one is run by Barnes and Noble. It had a little kids’ corner with chalk and crayons, which was great while we were waiting for Chris to check out. Lastly, it had a program where you could buy a book for the Book Festival to donate to a needy family. We decided to share the Dragons Love Tacos love with another kid who might not have his or her own library at all.

While I didn’t know what the Book Festival was going to be like at first, I appreciated its geographical closeness to us (rather than having to haul all the way into D.C.), intimacy, and kid-friendliness. We’re very fortunate to have such a great celebration of books so nearby!

How to Introduce Books to Your Baby to Help Them Love Reading

Text: "How to Introduce Books to Your Baby to Help Them Love Reading / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photo: Four children's board books on a wooden table

“Where everyone is napping,” I read, as my baby crawled off my lap. Soon, he was across the room and out the door. With him gone, who was I reading to now? As cute as The Napping House is, it’s not the book I would pick for myself.

Babies are not easy audiences. Nonetheless, reading to them is essential. The American Pediatric Association appears to agree, with a recommendation to read to children – even babies – every day. While “every day” is tough, it’s still a good goal. But besides remembering to do so in a sleep-addled state, the idea of reading to a squirming baby can be intimating.

From my experience, here are a few tips for reading to very young children:

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Children’s Book Week: Bizarre Children’s Literature

Did you know this is Children’s Book Week? My posts this week are going to focus on reading to children and children’s books, from the weird to the patience-building.

There are some things you remember from childhood as odd, blurry phantoms, cloaked in a haze of nostalgia and strangeness. You always wonder if what you remember was less weird – or perhaps more! – than you recall, warped by a child’s view on the world. If you’re really lucky, some of those things are books. I had a book growing up like that about dogs that lived in a city like humans, a canine version of friends. The main character had a bulldog as a boss and moved to a little stone cottage in the woods at the end. These days, my Mom and I can find no trace of this book on the Internet, not helped by the fact that our best guess at the title is the rather obvious but most likely wrong Dog City. Perhaps due to the loss of this work of my childhood, my Mom appears committed to keeping Sprout’s bookshelf well-stocked with picture books that are just plain odd. Between my mom’s contributions and others, he’s starting to have quite the collection of surreal books. None of them are nearly so awful as the ones on this Cracked.com list, but I hope a few leave their fond, vague traces in memory.

Edamame and Edapapa cover with two beans in a pod
Edamame and Edapapa: This book is about a mommy bean and a daddy bean with a pet sesame seed. The only things that distinguish them from each other is that the mommy bean (Edamame – say it out loud) has a pearl necklace and the daddy bean has a luxurious mustache. One day, a paper crane drops off a baby bean for them. The End. It’s short, it’s based on a very silly pun and it’s adorable. But anything that involves talking plants – especially ones that use phrases like “teeny weeny beany” – is inherently weird.

Secret Life of Squirrels cover with a squirrel checking a mailbox

The Secret Life of Squirrels:This book tells the story of a “very unusual squirrel” that cooks on his grill, plays the piano, reads, and cleans his house more than we do ours. None of this would be that odd for children’s literature, except that the book is made up of photos of real squirrels interacting with tiny domestic tableaux. The author actually handcrafted little beds, chairs, bookshelves and ice cream stands, smeared peanut butter on them and took photos of squirrels when they came to investigate. It’s the sort of hobby that if it was your friend, you might suggest joining a Meetup group. But as the author now has a best-selling children’s book, what do I know?

Dragons Love Tacos cover with a dragon gobbling tacos
Dragons Love Tacos: According to this book, dragons love tacos and parties. But not spicy salsa, because then they get indigestion and will burn your house down. What makes this one odd is how it blatantly and purposely ignores all cultural trappings around a renowned mythological creature, creating an entirely new take in only a couple of pages. Also, the fact that the kid actually has his house burn down is kind of shocking. The success of the kid’s dragon taco party also raises a lot of questions – How did he advertise this party? Where do dragons get their community calendars? Have dragons just been going to Taco Bell in disguise (like the animals in Little Dee) and we’be been missing it the whole time? While I thought this book was kind of dumb at first, I now respect how weirdly radical it is. Sprout has also given it his ultimate approval – Figment the Dragon has now been renamed “Taco.”

This is Not My Hat cover with a small fish with a hatI Want my Hat Back / This is Not My Hat: It is very rare when a children’s book involves one character eating another, especially when the protagonist is the one doing the eating. In both these books, a top predator gets its hat stolen (a bear and a large fish respectively), finds the perpetrator, and then presumably eats them. While it’s possible there was a peaceful negotiation (as one hopeful child asked the author in a story he told at the National Book Festival, “What happened to the bunny?”), it seems extremely unlikely. Especially because the bear in I Want My Hat Back says, “What bunny. I would never eat a bunny.” Riiiight. Perhaps the most bizarre thing is that you totally feel like the thief deserves it, even (and especially) in the book where the narrator is the thief!

Any Maurice Sendak book besides Where the Wild Things Are: Where the Wild Things Are is odd by itself, but his other books make it look like Dick and Jane. When we were at the library, I flipped through some of his books and was frankly shocked – not offended, just surprised – at how bizarre they were. From full frontal nudity to children kidnapped by goblins to cartoon homeless people, his books mine the depths of dark innocence. Some of them have the same feel as the old fairy tales, with things that lurk in the woods and pose true dangers to children. I suspect they are an acquired taste for adults, so used to relatively simple ideas in children’s stories and not the surreal grotesque. I need to give them a second look, quite honestly.

What are your favorite weird children’s books?