Monday, March 26, 2012

Serious and banal thoughts on picture books

First, the serious.

It really annoys me when picture books have unequal gender representation. Is that just my humorless feminist side showing? But seriously, Gus loves books and reads them (asks Jon or me to read them) again and again and again. It is a very significant way in which he learns about the world. And if we want to raise our daughters in a world where anything is open to them, we also have to raise sons who do not think that they are superior to others or entitled to certain things based solely on their male-ness. Let me explain through some examples.

Gus has a book called Tommy & Minnie's Glitter Book Learning Colours. It is a seemingly innocuous little book with a dog (Tommy), a cat (Minnie) and other animal friends in various scenes, each one of which focuses on a different colour. The animals are actually very cute. But some of the writing is appalling. The first page:
Tommy is sailing on a sailboat. Minnie waves goodbye to him.
Firstly, to me, that is kind of boring. But whatever, lots of books that Gus loves seem boring to me. More importantly, why does Tommy get to do active, adventurous things while Minnie only stands on the side, watching? As a one-off, it doesn't really matter, but it is a pattern you see across lots of books and other media. Boys do things, girls observe.

Another pair of books Gus loves at the moment is about Fergus the Patch-eyed pup. The pictures are very sweet in these, and they have dogs and ducks (as well as pigs, chickens, and a cat in Fergus and Marigold!), which Gus obviously adores. The thing that annoys me about Fergus in the Park, though, is that, as Fergus strolls through the park, almost all of the people in the pictures are men or boys. These books have quite a 1950s feel to them, so at first I thought that was the reason for this and was going to give it a pass. But then I realised that they were copyrighted in 1997 and 98. So much for that thought. Pictures like these give subtle cues to the reader that the world is only populated by men, or that they are the ones that matter. Again, one book isn't going to make a difference, but if every book that Gus reads has 80% men or boys, then a pattern starts to emerge for him.

Also, in these books, Farmer Bob is Fergus's owner. Farmer Bob has a wife, who is seen on two pages in Fergus and Marigold, and even speaks at the end of the book. What is her name?, you ask. Good question, wish I could answer it for you. She is just called Farmer Bob's wife. Why?! Can't the poor lady have her own name? I may be getting overly upset about this one, as I have long-standing issues with being referred to only in relation to my husband. I love being a wife, and it is a major part of my identity, but please, do not for any reason call me Mrs Jon Lastname. I am not sure why I hate this so much, but I can already feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about it!

I am not sure exactly the best way to counteract these kinds of messages about gender that are only going to become more prevalent as he grows older and consumes a wider variety of media. The blog Pigtail Pals Redefine Girly talks a lot about media literacy and helping our children critically assess the images that are presented to them in the media. This is something I will definitely try to work in more as Gus grows. At the moment, I mostly just change offending phrases as I read the book--which of course will only work until he can read them himself. (I also do this with songs and nursery rhymes as well. My two little dickie birds sitting on a wall are named Polly and Paul instead of Peter and Paul.) Choosing different books is definitely an option, but these books were gifts so we couldn't make decisions pre-purchase, and there are other good things about them, so I hate to banish them completely. Most of Gus's books are about (mostly gender-less) animals, but a couple of books that I think have good gender representations are 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle (male and female factory workers, a female truck driver and male ship captain), The Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton (main characters are a tiny hippopotamus and her daddy), and Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (both Paul and Judy do a variety of activities).  I like that these books just show people (or animals!) doing lots of things, and it doesn't matter if they are male or female--it is very organic and unobtrusive.

And now the banal

In the book I mentioned above about Tommy and Minnie, the last page is about how "Tommy and Minnie are enjoying nature". Do you notice anything strange about the picture?
Tommy and Minnie are enjoying nature.
So much so that they are going to cut it down and take it home with them.
 Why yes, they are chopping down a tree!  And they seem to have already felled a couple of others. Why oh why is this a picture in a children's book, especially under the caption "enjoying nature"?! I don't think that bird is going to be enjoying nature too much once you chop down the tree that its nest--and unhatched eggs!--are in! But, at least we can say that both Tommy AND Minnie are participating in this activity :)

What are your favourite books to read with toddlers or preschoolers? Do they have any books that just annoy you?

1 comment:

  1. I am extremely nitpicky about books, and I can see exactly why the ones you mention are so frustrating. I'm shocked at some of the things that get published and distributed, and I think often about writing my own books to make up for some of the lousy ones out there. Perhaps you'd like to collaborate ;)