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.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Let it Go

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Well, it's happened. After holding the line for years against letting badly-written Disney princess books into my house, unless they come from the library and go right back there, I have finally succumbed. I blame Frozen.

I'm sure that in your work at the bookstore-inside-a-toystore, you're aware of the Frozen-mania that has gripped children ages 4-10 in recent months. Eleanor and Isabel went to see the movie last fall, soon after it came out, and retained an enormous number of lyrics from that single viewing. Then "Let it Go" became inescapable (have you seen it sung in 25 languages?), and Isabel became obsessed with Elsa, the powerful but emotionally-stunted snow queen who can shoot ice from her hands. She got Frozen dolls for Christmas, and is planning a full-family Frozen costume for Halloween. For several periods this winter, we had to address her as "Queen Elsa," or she wouldn't answer.

And then there are the books.

At Barnes & Noble right now, there's an entire Frozen section: Little Golden books, sticker books, junior novelizations, early readers -- the Random House/Disney site has two pages of them. Several of Isabel's friends have the early readers, and these thin little books with their flat writing have become the latest object of desire. Last week, I watched seven 4-year-olds abandon their picnicking and tree-climbing in the park to press around a mom reading a Frozen book. It's just as alluring as the ice cream truck: literary kid-crack.

So when Eleanor's school held a book fair, I went ahead and got Isabel the book she wanted: A Tale of Two Sisters . A little literary reference there in the title, eh? Don't get excited -- that's as good as it gets.

Here's where I'm torn: I love books. I love watching my children grow to love books. I want books to be objects of desire for them, want them to be excited about sharing books with their friends. I want Isabel to want to learn to read, and this reader is the first book that's made her willing to try to identify the words she's looking at. Sitting with Jeff a couple of nights ago, she read aloud every instance of the names "Anna" and "Elsa," and was able to read a few smaller sight words as well.

But oh, it is so badly written. There's no author listed -- in every way, it feels like a commercial product rather than a book. Each sentence goes out of its way to drain any sense of drama or life from the story:

It's as if the publishing house believes that simple must equal boring, that there is no art to paring down a story and writing it in easy-to-read sentences. (I wonder as well whether some of these sentences are actually easy to read: the vocabulary in the book feels like it's hitting a variety of levels, including words like "kingdom," "search," and "listen.")

Would it really be so hard to do it better? Read a little Dr. Seuss, some classic Else Holmelund Minarik Little Bear, any of the amazing books we've touched on in our many posts on learning to read. I suppose that if the books are selling like crazy, there's no incentive for improvement, but I wish there were.

In the meantime, I'll focus on the positive message promoted at the end of A Tale of Two Sisters:

I'll take what I can get.

Love, Annie


  1. Hi, Ladies! If I blogged about reading in our house I could have written this post! We also caved this spring and finally let our 4yr old watch her first movie - Frozen. That same reader your Isabel has made its way into her Easter basket. Our house is filled with wonderful children's literature, both classics from Dr Seuss and Maurice Sendak and Beatrix Potter as well as some really wonderful more modern books like "When Amelia Smiled". I'm justifying it, in this case, as being one of those moments of following your child's interests to get them to read. She's an early reader, working hard with Level 1 and BOB books, and if this pure bit of marketing keeps her up just a few minutes later to talk through what I find to be an empowering story even if its written form is sorely lacking, then maybe it's ok. At least that's what I'm telling myself!

    1. Tamara, I'm right there with you! Thanks for commenting!

  2. At least Little Bear's author is named Else. ;) I feel the same way about Frozen and books based on movies....I felt like I was hearing myself speak when reading your blog. You may start a revolution of reading....bring back Betsy/Tacy books, Madeline, Elsie Dinsmore, The Five Little Peppers, Pollyanna, etc!

    1. Thank you, Ellen! We're doing our best to keep the classics going in our house. Happily, we've spent many more hours with Betsy-Tacy than with Anna and Elsa (though with the song renditions, I'm afraid it's getting close).