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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

in-defense-of-scary-stories-for-kids

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

hidden-gems_-less-well-known-but-beautiful-childrens-books-2

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.

Continue reading