Tag Archives: Fairy Tales

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

30 Nov

Book sculpture (Image by Ellen Forsyth used under CC 2.0 via)

Perhaps you are looking for gifts for little ones this holiday season. Or perhaps, like me, you simply know a staggering number of kids who will all have birthdays in the coming year. For either scenario, here is a sample of excellent—i.e., not boring or ugly—picture books that help raise diversity awareness through reading. All of these books have been featured in my workshops for pre-school teachers about helping minority children feel represented and teaching all students to see minority kids as their equals. They are divided into five categories based on objective.

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Books That Know Not Every Family Is Upper/Middle Class with a White, Straight, Biological, Married Mom and Dad… The most delightful thing about pre-schoolers is that they have almost no idea what “normal” means. Of course they are surprised by the extraordinary, but they don’t place value judgments on it until someone older teaches it to them. Critically analyzing the media images and stories kids consume is crucial because the media not only educates them about the world beyond their doorstep, but it instills them with subconscious ideas about what kinds of people society believes deserve to appear in books, film, and television. Kids are of course individuals and some may be temperamentally predisposed toward narrow-mindedness, but a preemptive strike against prejudice never hurt anyone.

 

 

 

Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis (available in German & Spanish) – A story of adoption as told from the point of view of the child. “Tell me again how the phone rang in the middle of the night and they told you I was born. Tell me again how you screamed. Tell me again how you called Grandma and Grandpa, but they didn’t hear the phone ’cause they sleep like logs…”

 

 

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams – A story that portrays poverty without uttering the word. The daughter of a single working mom tells of the day they lost everything they owned in a house fire. They’ve been saving up every spare cent they have to buy a big comfy armchair for their new home ever since. In the end, Mom finally has a place to lie back and rest her sore feet when she comes home from work at the diner, and her daughter can curl up to sleep in her lap.

 

 

 

Two Homes by Claire Masurel (available in French & German) – A boy proudly shows off his two homes. “I have two favorite chairs. A rocking chair at Daddy’s. A soft chair at Mommy’s.” The parents are portrayed as having nothing to do with each other, while always beaming at their son. “We love you wherever we are, and we love you wherever you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (available in Spanish) – Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first American illustrators to feature everyday black children in his stories. All of his books portray kids growing up in inner city neighborhoods. This is a brilliantly illustrated, very simple story about a boy enjoying freshly fallen snow in every way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis – Written in verse, Susan swings, makes faces, sings songs, plays tricks, splashes in the water, rides on her dad’s shoulders, races in the back of a go-cart. Susan also happens to use a wheelchair.

 

 

 

What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg (available in German & Spanish) – A book about reproduction (sperm, egg, uterus) that leaves out gender (mom, dad, man, woman). No matter how many people want to ignore it, plenty of kids have been born via IVF, surrogacy, and to LGBTQ and intersex parents. This book allows those kids to have a conversation about where they came from, while emphasizing that your family is the people who were waiting for you to come into the world.

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Books For Extraordinary Situations That Have To Be ExplainedThese stories get into the specifics of certain disabilities, conditions and diverse backgrounds, but there is no reason they should not be read to every child.

 

 

 

Thinking Big by Susan Kuklin – This book is out of print, but well worth the search, portraying a day in the life of an 8-year-old girl with achondroplastic dwarfism. She is great at painting, but needs stools to reach things at home and school. She has friends who hold her hand so she won’t get left behind on hikes, but she talks openly about the kindergartners who call her “baby.” She loves going to Little People of America meetings, but she loves being at home with her mom, dad and younger brother best of all. This book accompanied me from pre-school to fifth grade, read aloud by my new teacher to the class at the beginning of the school year in order to explain why I looked different from the others and to encourage my classmates to be upfront with their questions.

 

 

 

 

 

I Have A Sister My Sister Is Deaf by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson– A day in the life of a hearing girl and her deaf sister. They play, argue, and help each other out, while explaining deafness as a mere difference in terms young kids can understand. The story has a gentle, poetic rhythm. On a deer hunt, the narrator explains, “I am the one who listens for small sounds. She is the one who watches for quick movements in the grass.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Book of Colors by Rosana Faría (available in French, German & Spanish) – Like the illustrations, everything is black for Thomas, so when it comes to colors, he smells, hears, and feels them. “Red is as sweet as a strawberry, as juicy as a watermelon, and it hurts when it seeps out of a cut on his knee.” The images are embossed for the reader to touch. The Braille alphabet is provided at the back of the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

People by Peter Spier (available in French & German) – A superbly illustrated celebration of human beings and cultures all around the world. We have different skin colors, noses, hair styles, holidays, favorite foods, alphabets, hobbies, and homes, but we’re all people. It should be noted that this might be a bit of an information overload for children under 4.

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Books About Moments When Diversity Is Considered Disruptive… These books empower kids who have been teased or interrogated for standing out. They can also be used to teach a bully or a clique how to understand and accept harmless differences. Some teachers rightly express concern over introducing the problems of sexism or racism to a child who has never seen a boy in a dress or a black girl before. Doing so could foster the notion that we should always associate minorities with controversy. Save them for when conflict does arise, or when the child is old enough to start learning about history and intolerance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (available in Arabic, German, Panjabi, & Urdu) – Grace is a master at playing pretend. When her class decides to put on the play Peter Pan, she’s told by some know-it-all classmates that she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. She shows ’em all right.

 

 

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (available in German) – Penguins Silo and Roy live in a New York zoo and are utterly inseparable. The zookeepers encourage them to take an interest in the lady penguins so that they can soon have baby penguins, but to no avail. Silo and Roy build a nest together and end up adopting an egg. When Baby Tango is born, the three of them couldn’t be happier.

 

 

You Be Me – I’ll Be You by Pili Mandelbaum (available in French) – A biracial girl tells her white dad she wishes she looked like he does. Dad explains that he is milk and Mom is coffee, and she is café au lait. He says she is beautiful and sometimes he wishes he looked like her. Soon they’re dressing up in each other’s clothes, she’s braiding his hair, and he’s powdering her face. She wants to go into town and show Mom. On the way, they pass by a beauty shop and Dad points out how many white women are curling their hair and tanning their skin, while so many black women strive for the opposite.

 

 

“Sick of Pink” by Nathalie Hense (currently available only in German, French, Japanese, Norwegian & Portuguese) – The proud musings of a girl who likes witches, cranes, tractors, bugs, and barrettes with rhinestones in them. She knows boys who sew pretty clothes for their action figures and who paint daisies on their race cars. When grown-ups shake their heads and tell them, “That’s for girls!” or “That’s for boys!” she asks them why. “That’s just the way things are,” they tell her. “That’s not a real answer,” she deadpans.

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Fairy Tales Beyond White Knights and Helpless Princesses… Even the most iconoclastic of people have their fantasies of love and heroism shaped by folklore. Yet the idea of revising Western fairy tales to make them less stereotypical has been met with a strong backlash. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate for kids to read Sleeping Beauty, Little Black Sambo or The Five Chinese Brothers, there is no harm in providing them with additional legends about love, valor and wisdom to make our cultural heritage more inclusive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Dragon by Sherry Garland – Selected tales from Vietnam that rival any of the Grimm’s fairy tales in adventure, imagination and vibrancy. Many of the stories are supplemented by explanations of Vietnamese history that provide context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sense Pass King by Katrin Tchana – A girl in Cameroon outsmarts the king every time. Besides being one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century, Trina Schart Hyman was a master of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in her many, many picture books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen – A Scottish ballad wherein a young maiden rescues her true love from the clutches of the evil faerie queen. In the end, she wins both his freedom and her clan’s great stone castle back. Not suitable for easily frightened children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer – A fearless girl triumphs over a ghost, a witch, a troll and a devil on her way to Grandma’s house in the bayous of Arkansas. Some of the best illustration there is. Think Little Red Riding Hood had she managed to outwit the wolf on her own.

 

 

 

 

 

The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci – A Cinderella story of sorts set in the backwoods of the South. An elderly wise woman uses magic to help a kind, obedient girl escape her cruel mother and spoiled sister. In the end, she rides off to the big city in a carriage. (With no prince involved, this one passes the Bechdel test.)

 

 

 

 

 

King and King by Linda de Haan (available in Czech, Dutch & German) – It’s time for the prince to hurry up and get married before he has to rule the kingdom, but every princess who comes to call bores him to tears. The very last one, however, brings her utterly gorgeous brother, and the king and king live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch – After outwitting the dragon, Princess Elizabeth rescues the prince only to be told that her scorched hair and lousy clothes are a major turn-off. She tells him he is a bum. “They didn’t get married after all.” She runs off into the sunset as happy as can be. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the humor in this story.

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The Best Book on Diversity To Date…

 

 

 

Horton Hatches The Egg by Dr. Seuss – A bird is sick of sitting around on her egg all day, so she asks Horton if he would mind stepping in for just a minute. He is happy to help, but the bird jets off to Palm Beach the minute she is free. Horton continues to sit on the egg while awaiting her return. He withstands the wind, the rain, a terrible cold, and three hunters who insist on selling him and the egg off to the circus as a freak show. Throughout it all he reminds himself, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” After he becomes a media sensation, the bird comes back to claim her prize.

Whenever I used this one in the classroom, I would ask the kids whom the egg belongs to. The 3-year-olds, with their preliminary grasp on logic, would always give the black-and-white answer: “The egg belongs to the bird because eggs go with birds.” The 4- to 5-year-olds would invariably go the other way, plunging into righteous indignation over the injustice of the bird’s demands: “The elephant! The egg belongs to the elephant because he worked so hard and he loved it so much and she just can’t come back and take it!” In the end, the egg cracks open and out flies a baby elephant bird, who wraps his wings around Horton. This is Seuss at his best, showing that loyalty makes a family.

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Today’s Princesses: Teaching Them “That Self-Absorption Is The Same As Self-Confidence”

10 Mar

When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company.  I still have a hard time remembering that.  Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal.  Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America.  Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.

I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well.  It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.

For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems.  Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity.  Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty.  Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.”  And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets.  I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.

The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase.  As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes.  I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on.   Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.”  Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures.  They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit.  They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men.  They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know.  They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to. 

Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:

There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy.  And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.  They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms. 

Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at.  Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t.  A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives.  Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?      

Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands.  Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series.  Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance.  Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at.  However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen.  Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not.  The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience.  Their cadres of friends were coed.  They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled.  Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses.  But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:     

 

Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet.  Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon.  Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike.  Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism?  How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters?  Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.

Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink.  But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.

 

 

The Make-Believe Dwarfs of My Childhood

3 Mar

lookism

(Image by Paul Bailey used under CC license via)

 

Though it often can be the best way to get a message across, art complicates politics because it mixes matters of taste with matters of justice.  One lends itself to reason, the other doesn’t.  Too often sentimental feelings about a film or song with offensive elements will result in fans denying the offense altogether.  “Little House on the Prairie isn’t racist!  I grew up on it and I turned out fine!”  Maybe you did thanks to your innate curiosity about the experiences of others or inspiring teachers in your life, but you didn’t learn anything valuable about civil rights from that book.  I grew up on Dumbo and I think it is an artistically brilliant film with many good messages, one of which is the problem of lookism.  However, getting a white actor to put on his best black voice to play a character named “Jim Crow” in the heyday of the minstrel shows was a supremely stupid idea.  We shouldn’t deny ourselves our personal tastes, but that shouldn’t preclude calling out the artists’ mistakes.   

Likewise, we shouldn’t cry wolf over artwork that simply doesn’t match our tastes.  I’m one of the few people on earth who doesn’t enjoy The Lord of the Rings—I saw it for the first time in my twenties and fell asleep—but that’s primarily because I get bored by fantasy epics that are predominantly serious.  (I’m not wild about The Chronicles of Narnia either.  If there’s going to be magic, I prefer the tongue-in-cheek tone maintained in the worlds of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum or the Pirates of the Caribbean.)  It is sometimes difficult to divorce my dislike of the style from my annoyance that the Lord of the Rings definition of a dwarf receives more attention in almost every corner of our culture than the one based on reality.  Google “dwarf” right now in the image search and see how long you have to wait until a real human being is featured.  But neither Peter Jackson nor J. R. R. Tolkien is solely responsible for this; the latter of course drew this definition from the fantasy tradition.  And the use of dwarfs in fantasy is not always problematic. 

Peter Dinklage has demonstrated that dwarfism is no more important than skin color or foot size in Game of Thrones.  And while I couldn’t sit through Lord of the Rings as an adult, I have a special place in my heart for the 1988 film Willow, which was panned by almost every critic I respect.  Perhaps my nostalgia and childhood crush on Warwick Davis blinds me to the film’s artistic faults, but my enjoyment of it was rooted in politics before I even knew the word “politics.”  Because for once a dwarf was the main character.  And he looked like a real dwarf; he wasn’t wearing any pointed ears or goblin nose or orange face-paint.  And I wanted to be Sorsha, the bad-ass warrior princess.  Yes, she’s a damsel in distress during the final battle, but it’s 3′ 6″ Warwick Davis who wins that battle for her, not buff Val Kilmer. 

While I’m uncomfortable with fantasy’s tradition of insisting that dwarfs are a separate race and thus, in many cases, non-human, I loved Willow for giving both the dwarf-sized people and the average-sized people names free of connotation (“nelwyns” and “dakinis”).  They are neutral words that demonstrate one of the advantages of neologisms.  (Though I’ll admit the film’s line “Stupid dakini!” has echoed in my head at various points in my life.)  The film also uses the fictional word “peck” as the thinly veiled equivalent to “midget,” an insult the eponymous character must endure from dakinis throughout the film, adding more gravitas to his saving the day and personal appeal to dwarf viewers like myself.  Too often in fantasy, physical characteristics are indicative of personality traits.  This is an occasionally racist, always lookist device that disenfranchises hideous hags, macho musclemen, dark demons, pretty princesses, and innocent invalids.  Willow offers a welcome respite.  As sappy and as simple as the message is—anyone can be a hero—it bears repeating.

Speaking of lookist, I also adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a kid.  I always played Snow White, of course—what child doesn’t imagine themselves as the attention-getting protagonist?—but I was also secretly proud that the first feature-length animated film, one of the most famous of the Grimms’ fairy tales, included dwarfs who weren’t ludicrously unrealistic.  They were kind, they had no mysticism and, as much as I loved her and her poufy dress, they had far more personality than Snow White herself.  For these reasons, I didn’t mind using them as an example when children asked me about my size.  My mother once said, “We’ll write to Disney and tell them most dwarfs aren’t bashful or dopey at all!”  I recall at the time wishing she wouldn’t put a damper on a film I loved so much, but now I am grateful to her for fostering such moral vigilance in me.  

Because once I hit puberty, I instantly saw the problems.  Like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and scores of other films, Snow White asserts that male characters who are disabled or deformed can never hope to get the girl.  Considered innocent, asexual people, they are doomed to the Friend Zone.  And women with disabilities?  There aren’t many fairy tales about them.  The story emphasizes even in Snow White’s name that looks are everything.   

My childhood in combination with my experience with dwarfism endowed me with a nostalgia for stories I nevertheless was forced to analyze critically as I grew up, so I cannot deny either.  Everyone should keep a healthy distance between one’s understanding of the world and fairy tales.  My partner and I used the above image of Snow White on our wedding invitations, although we changed the slogan to “Everyone Is Beautiful”—a lesson I did not learn from Snow White herself, but from learning how my dwarfism conflicted with her.