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Children’s Books that Bother Me
As I have noticed an interest in children’s literature among Ricochet commentators, I would like to write about some less interesting books we have recently received as gifts. Many people may disagree with me. After all we received these books as gifts, and I see from the Amazon reviews that they are much loved with some folks. “Amazing”, “wonderful” and “gorgeous” are the words that bubble up when people discuss this book. I disagree and Ricochet seems the place to air misfit opinions, especially when I suspect the consensus has been established by leftists. I think generally speaking there is far too little judgement these days and I think children’s behavior, parenting and children’s books as well as other cultures and religions should all be fair game for civilized discussion.
The first example of a book that bothers me is the much loved Benji Davies book, Storm Whale, published in 2013 and given to our kids by a (liberal) friend, who, excuse me but it’s true, last read a book in its entirety in 1998 and who is guided entirely in these things by his wife, a lefty with the sense of humor of a doorknob, in part to contest my ideologically worrisome assertion that today’s children’s books aren’t good because they have very few words on the page and no plot. I thanked him enthusiastically, and we parted on the best of terms, but The Storm Whale only confirms my suspicions that any children’s book published after 2000 (or even earlier – I am a hardliner) is worthless.
First of all, the protagonist’s name is Noi. What kind of name is Noi? Of what origin? It’s clearly superior to John or Peter, and if you read your child a book in which the protagonist’s name is Noi then you are obviously an educated, openminded, interesting person with cool sneakers who would never read Kai and Tabitha a story about a boy named Tom or a girl named Laura.
Noi is a funny, genderless, rootless little thing, clad throughout the whole book in a sort of close-fitting black cap that seems to fasten under his chin and the obligatory classic French mariner t-shirt beloved in the high-income enclaves where Storm Whale is a hit (full disclosure: my kids wear them), among parents. I doubt any child could ever truly relate to such an insipid muppet.
Noi lives alone with his father, a fisherman. Again, my alarm bells were going crazy here. Single father. (“There are all sorts of families, Kai!”) A single mother would push all sorts of buttons. And why are women always depicted as maternal? What nonsense! Men can look after small children. Even macho working-class men, as Noi’s father clearly is. (He is in fact the sort of brute that repels the sort of people who adore The Storm Whale, but we shouldn’t split hairs). The social messaging wallops the reader.
Noi doesn’t go to school or play with toys, but wanders around bleak wintry northern beaches, depicted with self-conscious artistry by Davies (clearly angling for praise for the pictures), and one day finds a whale which he takes home and puts in the bathtub. As one does, especially the kind of helicoptered, hyper-scheduled child for whom Storm Whale is intended. His dad makes him put it back in the sea, and that’s a Good Thing, because of Nature.
When I dutifully read this aloud to my daughter (it takes about 11 seconds to read and is therefore good for parents who have more important things to do), she looked blankly back at me at the end and said “OK”. Children are very alive to adult machinations. We then went off to get a book from the Arthur series by Marc Brown or Russell and Lilian Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances, both of which were written in prehistoric times when there were girls’ restrooms in schools and children were gendered and had mothers and fathers, who were women and men, respectively.
The second book which we received as a gift and which also bothers me is Quentin Blake’s Mrs Armitage Queen of the Road. Quentin Blake will be familiar to many as the illustrator of the Roald Dahl books, famous for his angular sketchy illustrations of angular, quirky, long-nosed Hampsteady-looking people.
Anyway, Mrs. Armitage receives a car from her Uncle Cosmo (again, these Quirky names) and she and her dog Breakspear (more Quirky) go for a ride and Mrs. Armitage drives really terribly. Bits of the car breaks off over the course of the book until it basically looks like a motorcycle and eventually Uncle Cosmo and his motorcycle gang adopt Mrs. Armitage and that’s Really Funny because you as a sophisticated urban parent can chortle quietly to yourself about the hilarity of a motorcycle gang going to the Crazy Duck Café to drink banana fizz and how funny it is that Mrs. Armitage, who’s clearly an art history professor type, is now wearing a studded leather collar bequeathed to her by the gang sexpot, Lulu. But kids don’t really know what a motorcycle gang is, or why it’s supposed to be funny, or why Lulu would have a studded collar and a bare midriff. But it does encourage a sort of faux sophistication in the child that in turn elicits beaming pride from the parent.
My kids didn’t get it at all. It was met with blank silence and requests for another story – they felt cheated and I was embarrassed. Nothing like a child for effortlessly calling out phoniness.
I think many of these books are written to épater self-conscious hipster parents, with very little time on their hands, who worry about the traditional character of the old children’s classics. I am incredulous that there are parents who cuddle their children at the end of a long day over The Storm Whale or Mrs. Armitage Queen of the Road. In any case, neither of my kids has ever requested either book after the initial time. I imagine that these are books for people looking for “new kids’ books”, because they are wary about the old ones and their repressions or their oppressions. There is no moral in these books unless it’s something performative and faddish, like liberating the whale you caught. Quirkiness is obligatory. Interestingly, these newer children’s books are very uncomplicated, compared to some of the complexities explored in A Bargain for Frances, in which Frances the badger tells Thelma her treacherous friend, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?” Or Rosemary Wells’ board books about Max getting the advantage over his bossy sister Ruby or Ira who hesitates to bring his teddy bear to a sleepover for fear of being ridiculed by his best friend, who ends up having a teddy bear himself. Children don’t need to think about motorcycle gangs or liberating captive whales. We are overthinking this.Published in Education
As an author, I would like to point out authors write books people buy, because “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
So who buys children’s books? Typically, it is not children, especially children in the read-aloud age. It’s children’s parents and adult friends and relations who buy books for children. Authors of 21st-century children’s books know this. They also know many of those those adults are more likely to buy “enlightened” books than entertaining books. Plus, book publishers are “woke” nowadays, especially those publishing children’s books. For them the message is more important than the book’s literary quality or entertainment value.
Read to your small kids anything by Mo Willems. Hilarious. They will beg you to read them again and again.
I quite liked the Knuffle Bunny ones.
And this is why so many modern books for children (and especially for teens) are so terribly written.
Here’s my favorite:
Not “Antiracist Baby?”
Right. Those last two books are not children’s books. They’re books for woke adults who think like children and who use them to indoctrinate children.
I like to think they have the advantage of being boring, so aren’t likely to pollute the kids’ minds.
I’m convinced one of the reasons Harry Potter became a worldwide phenomenon was because it appeared after a couple decades of children’s books that were chiefly published for their pedagogical content or their liberal didacticism, and along came a book that was simply . . . fun. And kids ate it up.
I’ve mentioned that I work at a public library. The scourge of woke, boring, preachy, stifling, propagandistic children’s books is real and growing. Here are just a few I’ve come across in the past few months. Apologies for not including links–I’m on my phone. They are all well-reviewed and Google-able (and, probably, available at your local public library!).
Julian is a Mermaid (Latina grandmother encourages grandson to dress up as a female/mermaid)
Not my Idea (white people discover that they are racist)
Something Happened in Our Town (white people learn about how police shootings affect black people)
Introducing Teddy (a little boy decides he’d rather be a little girl and that’s a-okay!)
Jacob’s New Dress (same as Julian is a Mermaid but with a white, uptight dad who needs to learn the error of his ways)
I could go on and on. I’ve become convinced that there is a concerted effort among teachers and librarians to mainstream this stuff. It’s pretty shocking once you start paying attention.
This is actually the most striking thing about these books: how dreary and heavy-handed they are. There’s no sense of adventure or fun or discovery and no lightness of touch with the story telling. It’s all eat-your-vegetables-because-transgender-racism-is-a-huge-problem. Wheeee.
What I find offensive and insipid about that story and the illustration you shared: Mrs. Armitage could not go to the cafe as she was, but needed to don the uniform. To fit in.
Upon first reading your post, I thought Noi was the whale’s name…! I am ok with quirky, especially quirky names, since Dr. Seuss was a big part of my growing up library experience. By the way, the First Lady, Mrs. Trump, gave a gift of Dr. Seuss’s books to a library I think, in Maine, or some liberal state, and they were rejected. Can you imagine? I don’t remember the full story. I see your point. How old are your kids? The book stores when they were open prior to the virus, were being transformed before my eyes. Modern novels lacked the depth and quality of many classics, and were virtue signaling wrecks. The children’s dept. I haven’t browsed in awhile, but I am curious as to what is being offered. When I go on line, it’s also material like Kara has two mommies, or some other “teaching” that is current.
I loved the Bad Kitty books…….
Thank you for this analysis.
PS – Any Ricochet member that would like a copy of my book, geared to 3 to 8 years, message me with your name and address and I’ll send you a free copy, autographed if you tell me your child’s name. It’s kinda cute…………..
Bobbsey Twins were good. Eventually the Hardy Boys. And I remember being amazed by Pippi Longstocking when my older brother and sister were reading those books.
I don’t remember any book I read back then having a political message.
I am once again reading childrens books, because I’m learning German. If any German speakers out there have any suggestions, I’m all ears.
Oh my gosh, I almost forgot the worst one. Keep in mind this is a board book for toddlers. I’ll repeat that. It is geared toward two-year-olds.
C is for Consent.
Your entire post is wonderful, @tocqueville, but I especially loved these bits. Also, the Frances books are the best.
For years, my dream has been to be a children’s author – picture books and maybe chapter books and middle grade novels. But I’m beginning to doubt that will ever happen since I tend to think and write in a style that’s more like yesterday’s than today’s. Sigh.
Hi ! I have encountered you in the comments before. I don’t know how you can stand working in a library these days. Have you encountered the whole drag queen thing? I cannot believe that is happening!
Actually those are actual propaganda. Those books I mentioned here are more insidious.
My kids are 4 (soon 5), and 7. Children’s books are a nightmare. I rely on my own childhood. With the older one we have sort of bypassed the little kid books and we’ve been reading chapter books for a while.
My colleague was reading that to her son.
Thank you. We LOVE Frances.
Charlotte – that really is appalling. I’m going to look these up – I want to know what publishers are pushing this stuff.
When my wife worked in the Nashville children’s library, a list of “somebody should write this” book titles floated around, and it was pretty funny stuff. I recall these three:
Curious George and the Electric Fence
The Divorce Was Your Fault
Mommy Drinks Because You’re Bad
Now might be the time to dip your toe into the children’s book writing pool – it is hard to get published but you can self-publish these days. You still have to promote yourself – a no virtue signaling children’s book would be refreshing!
I was once given a picture book that was super depressing, about a cat that does drugs and dies. I can’t remember the title. It was given to me by a friend who’s gotten it for their kids because the cover was very appealing, but then read it and had second thoughts. I’m not convinced it was actually meant for children, but instead was meant for adults and was only in the format of a children’s book (i.e. “Hey, if we can have cartoons for adults and comic books for adults, then why not picture books?”). It didn’t really work.
In that vein, I unsuccessfully tried to find the title of the book online, but instead found this list of depressing children’s books. Apparently, destroying childrens’ joie de vivre is an entire genre.