Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Shelf: Ladybug Girl and Contemporary Kid Culture

I am not a collector.  At least not of physical things.  I'm a collector of memories, which sometimes come in the physical form of writings or photographs, but every decade or so I sort through old photographs and journals, and discard most, keeping only the few that are the most beautiful, the most representative.

(This has changed a bit with the onslaught of technology, which allows me to "keep" ALL my photographs and writings on this one small laptop.  I'm not sure how that will change me...)

However, if I were to be a collector, I would be a collector of books.  Not rare and out-of-print books (although some of them might grace my shelves inadvertently) that would sit around collecting dust in the hopes they might be worth something someday.  Not books that I've read over the course of my life and feel the need to have surrounding me like blankets on a cold winter's night.  (I rarely hold onto books that I've already read - save a few - because for the time being, and hopefully forever, they are always available to me through the public library system) No...not adult books at all.  Children's books.  Those are the ones I'm thinking of; those magnificent pieces of art so often overlooked and not taken seriously because...well...they are for children.

But no matter how stunning and profound adult literature might be, it meets its equal (if not superior) in the realm of children's literature, where art and story-telling meet to create a penetrating beauty that stays with us for the rest of our lives.  As adults, we so often forget about these books - from simple, four-page picture books without words to the young-adult novels - and how they've shaped us as human beings; our emotions and morals, our goals and dreams.

It is not often that we see adults out in the coffee shop reading (or re-reading) The Bridge to Terabithia,  or The Giver, by Lois Lowry for the mere sake of reading them.  They are children's books, people think, why would I waste my time or intelligence reading them?  (I was actually recently accosted for re-reading The Catcher in the Rye)  But I really think people are missing out here.  These books might be written in a simpler, more age appropriate language than what we are used to, but they still have the potential to move us in ways that any more mature book would. 

As a child, books gave me alternatives to the world I was living in.  They fed my dreams.  They gave me hope.  These messages are still available to us as adults if we just get over ourselves enough to revisit the books we so loved as children.

One of my favorite parts of parenthood is being able to revisit these beautiful books and share them with my children.  To watch their faces, totally engrossed in color and form as they listen to a story that both brings them out of themselves - to places I could never take them - and also deeply into themselves as whole human beings. 

We don't own a lot of books at the moment, because it is so much more fun to order them online through CWMARS and wait with anticipation for them to arrive at our local library.  (Any book we could ever imagine, and they are all there for us!) The girls are happiest when they just have a handful of books to chose from at one time, and they enjoy reading them over and over for the three weeks they stay with us.  And then we say hello to some different books... and the cycle continues...

Because I am so passionate about children's books, I've decided to devote a little section of my blog to some of the books we are enjoying at home each month.  (I might even add a little about the books I am reading too.)  It will be a fun way for me to share our favorites, as well as a way for me to remember all the books I would like to include in my collection someday.

That said, there are a lot of crappy children's books out there too, and oddly, I'm going to use my inaugural blog to talk about some books that I'm not too crazy about.  And so we begin...

 For most of Emerson's life, I have been able to go to the library - either with her or alone - and carefully sort through books while she played.  I had plenty of time to peruse the shelves, choosing only the books that I deemed worthy of reading.  But recently, Emerson has shown a lot more interest in perusing the book shelves with me - a habit I am happy to encourage - which has lead to a lot more fielding, and a lot more compromise.  I still say "no" to some books she chooses after looking them over, with the excuse that they are "too old" for her, or "a little scary,"  (rather than say that they are trashy pieces of shit, which is what I really think...)  but a lot of times, books that I wouldn't necessarily choose end up in the bag.

Ladybug Girl, by David Soman and Jacky Davis, was one of these books.  (Actually, our first Ladybug Girl book was Ladybug Girl at the Beach, the most recent book in the series)

When Emerson handed me the book, my first instinct was "no."  The illustrations looked too cartoony, and some of the bold text seemed a little negative.  But as I read it more carefully, I thought the message - a little girl going to the beach for the first time and overcoming her fear of the ocean - was nice, and I could always edit the few negative lines.  (Ah, the joys of children who can't yet read...)  And the book was nice.  So nice that when I noticed that three other Ladybug Girl books had been published previously, I decided to try them all out. (Which was unavoidable, really.  Emerson's ability to find a book in the stacks at the library is uncanny for a little girl who can't read)  I was excited after reading "a story about courage," to read "a story about imagination and empowerment!" and "a story about friendship and compromise."

But my expectations came up short.

For one thing, there is the entire superhero culture, where the kids are always fighting some "mean robot" or "scary monster."  I have nothing against comic-book superheroes - larger than life figures like Spiderman or Captain America - but are they really appropriate for four and five-year-old children?  It's one thing if older children become entranced with superheroes through reading, but I can't help but think that the representations of superhero figures in a picture book are a direct link to TV culture - fast, action-packed, and violent.  Granted, I am fine with reading Emerson a story about a wolf who gobbles up seven goats while their mother is away, and then has the goats - still alive! - cut out of him while he sleeps and replaced with stones, the weight of which cause the wolf to drown.  Violent - yes.  Larger than life - no.  We don't have to be superheroes to carry out acts of superhero proportions.

But I digress... the entire superhero element is not what bothers me the most about these books.  (Nor is it the fact that the older brother is consistently rude and disrespectful of his sister - this may be "normal" to some people, but it doesn't fly in our house)  What bothers me most about these books is a few things.  The first...
 Does anyone else have a problem with this picture?   A little girl, pouting in a room filled with a million toys, complaining she has nothing to do.  Nothing to do? You could start by cleaning your room...

This is the theme of the first Ladybug Girl book.  The one that claimed it was a story about "imagination".  Little Lulu's parents have things to do (gasp! parents have lives?) and today - seemingly the first time in her life - Lulu has to "figure out her own fun-time, okay?"  (Double gasp!)  Lulu's reply:  "How am I ever going to do that?"  

Are you kidding me?

Has our culture really come to this?  Are our children really so mentally crippled and entitled from having everything they want and having their parents entertain them all the time that they can't even figure out what to do with free time?  That they need to learn about how to have imagination in a book?

Emerson has never in her life said "I'm bored" or "there's nothing to do,"  and she doesn't think I'm here merely to entertain her. She has a great time with very little, her imaginative world is rich and full, and one of my main goals as a parent is to keep it that way.  I'd rather expose Emerson to role models who are creative, giving, and good, even if these characters aren't "real."  It is my hope that throughout her life, Emerson identifies more with the unconventional and assertive, with the benevolent and the brave, with Anne of Green Gables and fairy tale heroines, rather than the whiny, spoiled children - and adults - she will encounter again and again throughout her life.

Another problem I have with these books is their transparent didacticism.  It's another thing that is considered "normal" in our culture now - constantly talking with kids about their feelings (which are really not their feelings, but our, very adult, feelings) and trying to teach children abstractions they cannot developmentally conceptualize.

I liked our first experience with Ladybug Girl so much (at the beach) because it was subtle.  There was no inner dialogue going through the little girl's mind.  She never seemed to realize that she was afraid of the ocean, although her actions told us that she was.  And she never said to herself, now I will fight my fear and go into the ocean.  How can you fight a fear you don't even know you have?  She just found herself in the water after the tide had washed her bucket out to sea, and she mindlessly went to retrieve it.  That -to me- is true to the world of children.  Yes, they have fears.  No, they don't analyze or articulate them the same way we adults do.  They just act.  Or they don't act.  And that's that.

In the two Ladybug Girl books concerning friendship, however, all problems are dealt with analytically - so unrealistic for a young child.  So far from their world.

Lulu's stomach feels funny.  She didn't mean to hurt Kiki's feelings.  She'd never want to do that in a million years.  It's just that she was having so much fun that she didn't think twice when she blew out Kiki's candle.  Lulu just wanted things to be the way she had imagined them.  Now that she sees Kiki is upset, Lulu wants her friend to know how sorry she feels.  But what if Kiki doesn't understand?


Lulu and Sam glare at each other. Neither one of them says anything.  Then Lulu sputters, "You don't want to do anything I want to do!"  "And you don't want to do what I want!" Sam grumbles.  Lulu's cheeks are getting hot.  She is very frustrated!  Why doesn't Sam want to play?  She definitely didn't have this problem on the way to the playground.  It was easy to have fun then.  Maybe she should just go play by herself.  And then Lulu has an idea... 

Does this sound like the mental process of a small child?

I recently read an article titled "Can Morality be Taught?" by Patrice Maynard, and this is what she had to say:
       Every child, every human being, has within his heart and soul a "still small voice" that knows what goodness is and constantly is reminding us and urging us to follow that path.  To lecture to this innate sense of moral truth is to insult the child and to make him or her feel untrusted and unrecognized...  Cynicism results whenever the teaching of right and wrong behavior is abstract and overdone.
Her alternative to "teaching" morality through heavy-handed ideas, is to "show" morality through enchanting stories; stories that are alive to children and that call upon that innate sense of goodness which lives inside them.  And most of all, stories whose goal is not to teach, but to tell a story.

        In fairy tales, as in all true stories, there is a critical moment when the hero or heroine faces a decision.   Often the decision, wrongly made, causes everything to go terribly wrong. Children sense these moments.... At this point the children collectively hold their breath and inwardly exclaim, "No! Don't do it! There's something wrong with a bargain like that." ...
      The children are right, of course... 
      Such a moment and such a story provide moral lessons in living pictures to the children.  Greed dims clear thinking.  A rash deed can have dire consequences.  Bargaining with living things is not a good idea.  One should be wary of the power of temptation.....
      [ At the end of the stories] a wrong is made right; there is a transformation brought about by good and courageous acts.

Instead of preaching to young children about what is right and wrong, instead of trying to get them to name and express their feelings (all of which I really think the young child is incapable of doing on a conscious level) why not let them enter a world that speaks to them; a world where right and wrong are clear-cut and easily recognizable; a world of the senses and imagination...

Imagination.  Right.  That is my final problem with the Ladybug Girl series.

 An army of giants bars their way.
Luckily they're asleep, and the Bug Squad carefully tiptoes past them.
She runs across the yard to the pond.  Her brother calls it a puddle, but she knows it's big - so big she can see trees and sky inside the water.  There might even be a shark in the deep part!
Ladybug Girl jumps in anyway!
"Oh no!" yells Bumblebee Boy.  "That Scary Monster is trying to get your dog!  He needs our help right away!"

In the worlds of Emerson - "Mommy, that's really a puddle."  And of Ophelia, who can often be found eavesdropping, "where's the scary monster?"  Yes, Ophelia...where indeed?  Where are the giants?  The lakes?  The monsters?  And in turn, where is the real bravery?  The true heroism?

Children live through their imaginations, and this view of imaginative play is a realistic one, through the eyes of an adult.  The irony is, that although children spend their days in this fantastic world, they take things quite literally.  Yes, sunflowers can be giants and puddles can be oceans in the context of play, but this is not play, this is a book.  Why not use real giants?  A real ocean?  Something that would leave the child being read to with an authentic feeling of courageousness, instead of the image of a little girl running through a puddle? (Which is how children see it...)

Something more like this?
(From Elsa Beskow's "Children of the Forest")

Again, children don't need to be "taught" how to play, and they don't understand double meanings.  Why not just allow them to inhabit the world where only they can live?  It's a magical place, a place that will take them far in life, and a place that will disappear all too quickly on it's own, without the help of "realistic" books with "real-life" lessons. 

And yes, the irony is not lost on me that I have spent my first blog ripping apart an innocent children's book in analytical, critical, adult fashion.  These books are very sweet and I'm sure the authors had wonderful intentions in writing them.  They're not horrible (so much better than a lot of the junk out there I wouldn't even let grace my bookshelf for a New York Minute) and people love them. (New York Times Bestsellers! And I won't even begin to go there...)  They're just not my thing.

But I'm not the only critic in the house, and there is a certain almost six-year-old who has other things to say.
(As she jumps through the sprinkler) "I'm Thundergirl!..."

Next up: many short, positive blogs about books I love!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stop. Look. Walk.

After a year of coasting along with my bigger little girl in her happy five-year-old place, I'd almost forgotten that big changes are on the horizon for her.  And then something happened.  She stopped in front of a crosswalk and read a sign.  Stop.  Look.  Walk.  

I always knew it would happen - this reading thing - but it always seemed so far ahead in the future...  something to look forward to in the upcoming years, but not now.  Now she is such a little girl; a little girl  who has yet to pluck the fruits of phonemes and syntax from the tree of knowledge; a little girl who doesn't even have these fruits within her reach.

But somewhere within her, she has found a ladder.  (Or is growing taller... which could explain all those dresses suddenly rising above the knees)  Just a moment ago she was a little girl asking me how to spell everything, painstakingly writing each word as I dictated - letter by letter.  Now, out of nowhere, she is reading - or trying to read- everything she sees. 

It really is amazing, this emergent literacy stuff, and how if kids are left to their own devices (in a society that places high value on the written word) it will often just occur naturally.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  But between word recognition, context, and yes, phonemes, Emerson is blossoming into a literate member of society in front of our eyes.  

The world will never be the same again...

Now my little girl is getting ahead of me (way ahead of me) on the bike trail, and instead of waiting for me at those stop signs, she is stopping, looking, and riding across the streets (some quite busy intersections) all by herself.  As I walk behind her in the distance I sometimes feel a prick of fear, but it is tempered by large amounts of trust and pride.

And is that a loose tooth in there?  

Such big happenings for such a small girl - each one a reminder to slow down and notice the details of everyday, because they won't last forever, and we shouldn't want them to.

Stop.  Look.  Walk.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Perfect Day

As temperatures climbed toward the nineties, we drove past the lake at a state park and watched throngs of people try to find space on the sand and in the water.  A little farther along, we turned onto a side road and into a small dirt pull-off.  We walked through wild grasses, flowers, wintergreen and honeysuckle until we reached our special spot.  No bathrooms, no hot-dog cart, no one smoking our screaming at their kids.  No traffic, no fees, no sand in your face, no lines to tell you where you can and can't swim.  Just a handful of people, laughter, cool water, two very amusing dogs with no need for leashes, and peace.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday America

"Mommy, since it's the Fourth of July, I'm only going to pack things that are red, white and blue..."

 The girl may not know what the party's all about, but she knows how to dress for it...