In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Social issues embedded in picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

These books sound fabulous -- I'll clearly be reading some of them myself before Eleanor is ready to go there. It strikes me, though, how dark their themes are. This is a comment (a complaint?) I've heard a lot about recent YA books, though I'm not sure how different they are in tone from previous generations. Do you think books for teens have gotten darker or weightier? Is this necessarily a bad thing if it's true?

I think about this as we've been reading a lot of Patricia Polacco in our house. Her picture books often touch on weighty or at least societally complex issues, but the touch is light and the illustrations filled with swiftness and joy.

I first came across Polacco's wonderful book Chicken Sunday long before I had kids, when I was right out of college and teaching at a boarding school. That year, I was part of a group of teachers who met once a month to talk about "issues of educational equity and diversity." For one meeting, our assignment was to find a children's book with themes of diversity. I think we were supposed to do a swap with the books after the session, but everyone wanted to keep the books they'd picked, so we all took our own home again.

Chicken Sunday

What I like about Chicken Sunday is that it isn't preachy. It's the 1950's, I think, and the narrator is white, and her best friends and adopted grandmother are black, and the hat-maker is Jewish, and the complexities are there underneath the narrative, but they're not made too explicit. The grandmother talks about how the hat-maker had "a hard life," and in one illustration you can see a number tattooed on his arm, but that's all that's mentioned. So there's this other level that, at some point, Eleanor can notice and ask questions about, but for right now, it's a story about the kids wanting to save up to buy an Easter hat, and being unfairly accused of throwing eggs, and doing something creative to get the hat for their grandmother.

When I was looking recently for good books involving same-sex couples, you mentioned Polacco's In Our Mothers' House, with the caveat that the story isn't as good as some of her others.

In Our Mothers' House

Like Chicken Sunday, In Our Mothers' House is told in retrospect. The narrator is one of three children adopted by a warm, loving lesbian couple (the kids call their mothers Marmee and Meema). They live in Berkeley, and all of their neighbors are totally accepting of them except for one family, where the parents keep their kids away. The most explicit this family's homophobia gets is when the mother tells Meema and Marmee: "I don't appreciate what you two are!" Then she walks away, and everybody else in the neighborhood hugs them. It's enough to spark a question in a child reader: why doesn't this mother like their family? Polacco leaves the complexities of the conversation to the parent reader. Mostly, I appreciate this approach.

I'd like the book to be a little less episodic -- here's another warm, loving thing that happened in our house or neighborhood as I was growing up -- and to have more of a single narrative. That said, it does part of what I want it to do: provides pictures and text that normalize the idea of a household with two moms, and with adopted kids of different races. Eleanor's first reaction to the book was not positive: she sighed as we got to the end and said, "This book is long." But then when we went to pick which books to return to the library that week, she wanted to keep it. We've renewed it twice now, and she's asked me to read it to her multiple times. What's her favorite part? When Meema and Marmee, who always wear pants, don huge flowing dresses to host a mother-daughter tea at their house. So, she's 3.

The other two Polacco books we're reading regularly were your recommendations as well. And because you put it so well in the email you sent to me recommending them, I'm going to quote you here:

Go out and get Thunder Cake.
A girl and her babushka'd grandma, on grandma's farm, see that a thunderstorm is brewing. Girl is scared. Grandma says they have to make a thunder cake before it hits, so they race. To the cows for milk, the chickens for eggs, etc. It has those lovely energetic Polacco people and animals with hands and feet going in many directions. And the last page, after the two sit down to their cake as the (slow-moving) storm crashes, is the recipe, complete with a secret ingredient.

I also really like The Keeping Quilt, which follows a quilt through many generations of Polacco's family. Don't know if this one will read to Eleanor a little too slowly, like Our Mothers. I've given it as a wedding gift, because it's so full of family. She of course has a pretty serious quilter for a grandma, so it might resonate.

Eleanor loves them both. The Keeping Quilt doesn't feel slow at all, but again touches on so many periods of history, here especially Russian Jewish immigrant history, that there is a rich layer waiting for her to get a little older. And, of course, there are a lot of wedding dresses for her to look at.

Love, Annie

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