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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Problematizing the middle child

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the three-child-family recommendations!  I've thought about Peter Pan recently at bedtime, singing "Tender Shepherd" from the stage version: "One in the meadow, two in the garden, three in the nursery, fast asleep."  Something to aspire to.

In preparation for Barleybee's arrival, my awesome brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Grace, bought Isabel a book focused on the middle child for her birthday last month.  It's appropriate in two ways.  First, though we didn't know it at the time, Jan Fearnley's Martha in the Middle mirrors the family structure we're going to have, with two older girls and a younger boy.  Second, because of Eleanor's initial difficulty pronouncing "Uncle Michael," the girls call him Uncle Mice, and this is a book with all-mouse characters.  It was a sweet, thoughtful gift.

Unfortunately, it's also one of those books that problematize a thing which is not yet a problem, and which we hope won't become one (see Julius, the Baby of the World and my problem with itBedtime for Frances, etc.).  The premise of Martha in the Middle is that Martha doesn't like being in the middle of everything.  Her older sister Clara gets praised for being "big and sensible."  Her younger brother Ben gets praised for being "cutesy-wootsey."  Martha feels unnoticed, uncared for, unwanted.  She decides to run away, and on her journey meets a frog who expounds on all the ways that the middle is best:

They looked at the tall sunflowers.  Martha nibbled on some of the sunflower seeds.
"See, the seeds are in the middle," said the frog.  "That's the best bit."

Martha begins to join in on the celebration of the middle, and ends up returning home, feeling quite good about herself ("I think the middle is special") and going off to play again with her siblings.

We read the book with Isabel and Eleanor once, when it arrived, and that night I hid it.  Isabel was so intent on the story, and is so interested in acting out the roles of different characters, that I fear repeated readings will give her a chip on her shoulder before Barleybee is even born.  We'll keep the book in reserve, in case that's how she feels somewhere down the line, but it's not a book for now.

Wait just a second, Annie, you may be saying.  The book you're hiding away sounds like it has almost exactly the same plot as Noisy Nora, the book you've been touting.  It's also girl-girl-boy.  Nora and Martha are both responding to feeling neglected by their parents in favor of their younger and older siblings.  Both girls choose to run away as a result.  For goodness sake, all the characters in both books are mice.

What's the difference?  Part of it, I think, is style: Rosemary Wells's rhymes are sharp and funny, the refrain is fabulous, there's a rhythm to the book that is utterly infectious.

Here's how Wells starts out:

Jack had dinner early,
Father played with Kate,
Jack needed burping,
So Nora had to wait.

First she banged the window,
Then she slammed the door,
Then she dropped her sister's marbles on the kitchen floor.

"Quiet!" said her father.
"Hush!" said her mum.
"Nora!" said her sister,
"Why are you so dumb?"

And Wells is economical: where Fearnley's text says more about Martha's feelings directly, Wells's brief lines accompanied by illustrations of Nora's increasing frustration capture the sense of wordless freak-out I am so familiar with in my own children:

Sometimes, less is more.

I want to leave you with another Expanding Family question: can you recommend some good kids' books about adoption?  There are two new lovely adopted children in our friends' lives this year, in different situations, and I'm wondering what's out there for their families.

Situation #1 (which I mentioned briefly here): a white couple who have recently adopted an African-American baby at birth.  She's their only child.  Bonus points if the book also includes dogs, as their family does.

Situation #2: Eleanor has a good friend, just turning 5, whose family is adopting a 1 1/2 year-old Ethiopian girl.  Some of the same racial depiction questions here: white parents and older sister, black adopted child.  But other questions, too: are there books out there that discuss becoming the older sibling to a little sister or brother who's not a baby?

Love, Annie


  1. I haven't read either of the first two books mentioned above but I have a question about the 2nd. Mainly the use of the word dumb. My oldest doesn't go to preschool until next year so I realize I'm fighting a losing battle here but dumb is a word not allowed to be used in our house. Do your kids pick up on words like that in stories and then repeat them? If so, how do you counteract it? Saying we don't say words like that seems a bit rich since I'm reading them the book. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Katherine! It's funny -- between my own childhood and my parenthood, I've probably read Noisy Nora a hundred times, but it wasn't until looking at the Amazon reviews for it a year or two ago that I realized the use of the word "dumb" was controversial.

    In my own experience, my kids haven't picked up on "dumb" as a word to call each other because of the book -- it's such a joyful explosion of family love by the end that that aspect of the language isn't the takeaway. And "dumb" isn't presented in a positive light: in the story, Kate repeatedly calling Nora "dumb" is one of the things that clearly makes Nora feel bad, and leads to her running away.

    If my kids did start calling each other "dumb" because of reading the book, I might use the book as an opening to talk about how calling someone dumb makes them feel: When Kate calls Nora dumb, how do you think Nora feels? Do you want your sibling to feel that way? Would you like your sibling to say that to you?

    If you're fighting an active battle against "dumb" in your house, this might be a good way into the conversation: it allows kids the thrill of saying the illicit word in a context that's not mean or hurtful, while also talking about why it's a word that can be hurtful when you use it in real life.