One thing about raising children as an expat is that your local children's library doesn't have the same cultural filter as your children's library "back home". The differences can be subtle, and surprising. You see, where I come from, my local librarian was actively trying to create a culturally diverse set of reading material - a little Roald Dahl, some Zen Buddhism, and one or two folk tales from Africa. And the thing is, it's easy to list off the things you've read your kids that are also being read to children in Russia, Qatar, or Milwaulke. But how do you tune in to what you're not reading? Well, you could do a hit and run trip through your local children's library, like we did last week.
Here's a short list of recent stories:
- A book whose name I have already forgotten, so great was my haste to return it. The story revolves around a boy who is playing happily in his room one day when his friends drop by, unexpectedly. His grandfather comes up to the boy's room to ask him if he'd like to come down and play, and the boy declines. The grandfather advises him not to be grumpy, and he assures his grandfather that he is not grumpy, he's just not in the mood for unexpected visitors who are, after all, unexpected, and kind of just wants to finish off this thing he was right in the middle of doing before they dropped around unexpectedly. The grandfather, with a knowing smile, sits down on the bed and tells him an "allegorical" tale... about a fish who is playing happily in his anemone when ditto ditto ditto and ditto. In the end, the fish learns that he should "stop being grumpy" and play with his damned friends already. Moral of the story? It is not ok to be an introvert. (Secondary moral? Some people do not know how to write allegories and prefer to write bricks that will shortly hit you over the head thinly wrapped in what may technically be called an allegory.)
- Today, Maybe (Dominique Demers and Gabrielle Grimard). The story revolves around a girl who sits passively at home making tea and jam sandwiches and entertaining visitors and talking to her pet bird and basically guarding her chastity and honing her domestic skills whilst her One True Love travels all over the world looking for her (and probably developing a fulfilling career at the same time). In the end, he turns up, they lock eyes, and... I guess... we are supposed to believe that they just lived happily ever. Because they are destined for each other. What is that? That is a book which should be ceremonially burnt by anyone who believes in either a) gender equality or b) real-life relationships. Because, honestly. Grudging points for making the One True Love a bear, and not a white Anglo-Saxon prince (although the bear is still male).
- Why Cats Don't Wear Hats (Victoria Perez Escriva and Ester Garcia). The story is translated from Spanish, and the language retains a charming foreign air. Using a series of "logical" steps, the book explains that cats don't wear hats, because that would lead to a chain of events which would eventually necessitate the renouncing of the cat's essential "catness". To be a cat is easy, the book concludes, as long as you don't want to wear a hat. This is a delightful book about foresight, unintended consequences, the true weight of material objects, and the way one desire can lead to another, transforming you as you follow each call. Its subtlety begs discussion and allows the reader the freedom to frame the moral within his or her own set of values. (Reading the back cover, for example, gives the impression that the authors think they have written a book about the importance of being yourself.)
- John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (Jenny Wagner). A true classic. A dog and an old woman live happily together, until a black cat tries to join their household, invoking jealousy on the part of the dog. When the dog sends the cat away, however, the woman becomes sad and ill, leading the dog to relent in order to make her happy. The reader has the opportunity to learn not only that an extra friend doesn't lessen the original friendship, but that sometimes loving someone means putting their wants before your own. Again, the story is subtle enough to invite thought and is open to individual interpretation.
- Green Eggs And Ham (Dr Seuss)*. Another classic - the story needs no summary. Again, one of its strengths is its subtlety - the messages are there, but they are not explicitly spelled out. This also allows the book to grow with the child. The more obvious moral - that you can't decide if you like something or not without trying it - suits younger children. The less obvious moral - that just because someone annoys you doesn't mean you will dislike everything they have to offer - can come later on.
- MOM (Mom Operating Manual) (Doreen Cronin and Laura Cornell). This is a genuinely funny book, even if they did miss the opportunity to create a title joke by using a meaningful acronym (Mum Upkeep Manual?). Unlike another book which I also hastily returned and cannot now name, it does not employ sarcastic humour of the kind that its readership is unlikely to appreciate. (The other book contained advice such as: "Be sure to wake your parents up super-early so they'll have time to stop being tired before work." This book employs the type of humour which is not only funnier but less dangerous: "Your mum is likely not getting enough sleep if: 1) She has packed you a lunch of unsweetened cocoa and a raw egg." I know which I'd rather read to my preschoolers.) The inescapable message is that your mother has needs and will not function well if those needs aren't sufficiently met. Of course, realising that other people have needs and that harmonious relationships will result from having everyone's needs acknowledged and addressed is an important lesson which goes well beyond the home hearth.
Mel's recent post made me think about what our kids learn from the stories we tell them. Fiction is a powerful tool, because of its ability to engage a reader's interest and dispense with the bounds of reality. It can teach in ways - and on topics - that non-fiction cannot. I have this wild** idea that we should form an online picture-book club, to over-analyse what we are saying to our kids through fiction and make use of the internet to help set aside our cultural filters. It would be like any other book club, but less time consuming. If you want to join, please review a book you've read to or with a child (depending on their agegroup - it doesn't have to be a picture book if the kids are past that stage, neither does it have to be your own child - it could be a niece or the pupils in your class) on your own blog, provide a link back to this post, and leave me a comment asking me to add you to the list. I'd like to be mindful of the lessons I'm teaching.
Picture Book Club List:
- Be first!
*The Dr Seuss is part of our own collection, but seems to be a favourite at the moment.
**Obviously my definition of "wild" has changed since my teens and twenties.