Why do I write children's book reviews?

November 5, 2017

I see other people talking about poor quality, or questionable content in classic children's books on the internet, and even in responses to my own reviews on YouTube or Amazon. A lot of people don't understand why someone can get this worked up about a children's book. It seems to them that if it's only a children's book, it's not supposed to be high quality literature. It's not written for adults.

Recently on Bookriot, Rachel Wagner blogged that the classic book "The Little Engine that Could" unnecessarily repeats the phrase "boys and girls", saying, "I don’t see the point in differentiating gender in that moment. Is it just showing that some toys are for girls and others are for boys? Or to just be hyper-obsessed with a gender binary? It might just be that it’s an old book, but challenging this type of language is important nevertheless." One commenter, self-described as a "bleeding-heart liberal," told Ms. Wagner her energy "should be funneled toward actual injustices, because they're happening around all of us every day," and described Ms. Wagner's discomfort with the repeated phrase as "pretty ridiculous", since, "The book was written in the 1930s.... It was a different time and place." The commenter went on to suggest that Ms. Wagner should "explain to [her] child that women and men have more choices about [how] they live their lives than ever before and that life in 1930 was pretty restrictive." The article this suggestion was written in response to was titled "How to Read Problematic Baby Books" and the first sentence begins with, "When I'm reading a book to my two year old..."

What two year old is going to get that kind of commentary? I'm not sure at what age children can grasp that kind of nuance, but by that point most of them have moved past being read "The Little Engine That Could". Most young children can't have a serious conversation about discrimination, or hatred. Most young children can't have a serious conversation about what they ate for lunch.

While I agree with the commenter that this phrase in this particular book might not be the strongest example of this kind of problem, it's one that's endemic to our society. It's important to look at these things.

People tend to have a haze of nostalgia—this warm glow—associated with a book that they used to read or had read to them as a child. I have this as well, and that's why when I review books that I had as a child, I make that very clear. I want to show people who read my reviews that I have this bias, despite trying to overcome it. I try to look at these books with fresh eyes, though I know there's no way I can truly do that, because nostalgia is inescapable.

But a lot of the books that were written decades ago are still popular today. That's what it means to be a classic: it's old and people still like it. The problem is, these were written for the children of those times. They very much are products of their time, and we should take a second look at them.

I don't want my child to have inaccurate information. I just read a book that I'm going to do a video review on later because I had so much to say about it, called "The Reason for a Flower" by Ruth Heller. It was presented as non-fiction and educational, and had a lot of great scientific information in it, but some of the stuff was just flat-out wrong. And that's not okay. You can't say, "Well, it's for kids, it won't be completely accurate." I understand that they're not going to go into the nitty-gritty details of flower reproduction and make analogies between that and animal reproduction. Clearly, that's out of the scope for this kind of book. But to imply that, for example, the magnolia flower's family was alive at the same time as the apatosaurus and the stegosaurus is flatly inaccurate. And Ruth Heller wrote an entire book called "Plants That Never Ever Bloom", which I have not had a chance to review yet, but the front and back covers of the book are completely decorated with mushrooms. Mushrooms are not plants. This book was written in the 1980s, and mushrooms have been identified as fungi, as different from plants as plants are from animals, since the 1950s.

You can't excuse these kinds of things in books that are written to educate. You can't excuse racism, or sexism, in books that are written to entertain children. Because they will pick that up. Even Dr. Seuss, an amazing writer and artist, has quite a bit of racism in his books. "If I Ran the Zoo," published in 1950 and usually believed to be the first use of the word "nerd", contains wonderfully creative and funny creatures of all kinds, including a family of deer whose horns are all connected to each other, and a canary whose throat is so long "if he swallows an oat/For breakfast the first day of April, they say/It has to go down such a very long way/That it gets to his stomach the fifteenth of May." Among these fanciful creatures are rather disturbing stereotypes of Asian "helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant", Africans, and Russians; animals being carried by "eight Persian Princes" in a basket (whose names the narrator says he doesn't know, suggesting that they're unimportant despite being princes); and a literal suggestion that he will place a chieftain of a mythical desert nation in his imaginary zoo as an attraction.

That type of thing is not uncommon for older books. Dr. Seuss, beloved children's author, was a product of his time. His books are a product of their time. The vast majority of his books, especially the ones that are still highly popular, are perfectly acceptable. Many children's books were even ahead of their time, and that's wonderful. But there are bad ones out there. And there are children's writers who don't understand that their books have messages. And that the messages that are coming from these books are not necessarily the ones that they are intending to give.

I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I will say, for example, that Dr. Seuss did not intend to say that middle easterners are equivalent to animals and should be kept in zoos. But that's what message comes across, and it's not okay. That's clearly a major reason that "If I Ran the Zoo" is no longer popular. But you can definitely still find it at libraries. I don't want somebody to just go down to the store, and pick up a copy of a book like "If I Ran the Zoo" and give it to their coworker's wife for their baby shower or something. You have to be aware that this stuff exists.

The things that children are surrounded with, they will pick up. They will learn them. You don't have to be explicitly racist for children to learn racism. You don't have to be explicitly sexist for children to start thinking that girls are only supposed to like pink. Or that boys can't like pink or princesses, and girls can't be doctors or police officers. It's in our culture, and we need our children's books to reflect the best of us. We need them to be held to higher standards than adults' books are, and I don't think they are.

The Caldecott Medal, by far the most popular and famous of children's picture book awards, is awarded to picture book illustrators. The Terms and Conditions page of their website says, "The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration," stating that "other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book." But you can have a book, an effective picture book, with gorgeous illustrations with a terrible message. "If I Ran the Zoo" was a 1950 Caldecott Honor Book.

We need our children's books to represent the best of society. We need our children's books to be progressive, because that's what our children need to learn. We don't want our children to get ancient, outdated ideas from people who probably would not have written such things today. We don't need these books. And I don't want people to read them to my kids.

My kids are currently pre-literate. That's why my site focuses on picture books: because those are the books that adults read to children. And when an adult reads a book to a child, that adult is sending a message just by that action. They are saying, "Here is something that I am comfortable with. That I agree with. And I would like to pass this message on to you." Just by being an adult in a positive relationship with a child, you are a figure of authority. You are a role model. The vast majority of the books that are available for kids right now are just boring. There's not much to them. They're innocuous. I don't care about these books. I'm not personally going to read them, but you're welcome to read them, even to my children. These are the ones I classify on my site as "meh." (Well, I'd read them if my child requested them, because they do that sometimes. Frigging "Good Night Moon.")

But there are books that I will not read to my children. I will not read my children "The Pout Pout Fish." Because that book sends a message, and I do not agree with the message that book sends. It's just like I wouldn't read my child propaganda, from any side, from World War II. It's the same idea. As a mother who reads to her children, I need to be a role model. And this needs to happen with every person reading to children.

All I can say from my standpoint is, I have control over what is read to my own children. When I rate a book as "bad" on this site, I'm not saying the book isn't high quality. I'm saying, "Avoid these books. These are not books which should be read to children." There are so many better books out there. There are so many wonderful books out there. And we need to find those, and read those instead of the bad ones.

I'm aiming at the books that are read to children, because those are the books that are most difficult to have a discussion about. You can't have subtle bad things in there. Children just don't get nuance at this age. It's like satire. You can't read satire to a child of preschool age and expect them to get the joke. No matter how much you explain it, they're not going to get it. But people often suggest that we do this with those books. That's what nostalgia tries to get us to justify, and that's not okay.

The primary purpose of my reviews is to seek out the problem books. I'm not saying I'm going to find everything. Other people have found messages in books that I didn't find. In some cases I think these messages are not there. In some cases, I think the message isn't as harmful as they find it. And in other cases, I just didn't see the message the first time around. But I think it's very important for us to look at what we and others are reading to our children. Just as much as people say that we need to make sure that we pay attention to what television shows our children watch, or what games they play, we need to look over these books that they consume. The vast majority of children's books that I own were given to me by family members. In many cases, I believe those people did not closely read the books before they gave them to me. Adults will be drawn in by a pretty cover, or an interesting-sounding story, and not realize what the book is truly about. They might even be drawn in by the fact that the books are used and inexpensive, or that they're being sold by a charity. I am very picky about the books that I buy for my children. I read through them and make sure that there are no inaccuracies I can see, and that if they have a message that it's one I agree with.

I try to find obvious cases of sexism and racism, but I know I can't catch all of that. I realize that I'm coming from a place of privilege. As a woman, I can probably catch more sexism than men, but I'm white. I grew up in the suburbs. I'm an upper middle class American. I know that I can't see these things, because I haven't been there. I'll admit that. I wish I could. I wish I knew all the answers. I wish I knew how to inoculate my own children against prejudice. But I'm doing the best I can, and for someone to say that what I'm doing is worthless, that it's frivolous, because it's just a children's book, and that children's books aren't meant to be meaningful to adults, and that the true message of a children's book isn't important... is absolutely absurd. That person is looking at the world through rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, and sugarcoating the "good old days."

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