To shelter or expose: A rant on children’s literature.

I’ve been thinking a lot about kids’ books lately.  What makes a good kids book?  The story? The characters? Does it need a moral?  Does it have to teach a lesson?  When I say I’m thinking about kids’ books, I really mean toddler books, or early pre-school age… books appropriate for a 3-year old.  Books appropriate for a child that has outgrown board books and picture books with few words.  She wants  a story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because Sophia LOVES books.  Some days it’s literally ALL she does is to sit and look at books.  These are her favorite topics: Disney Princess books, Max and Ruby books, OLIVIA books, Blue’s Clues books… Can you see a few questionable ones, there? Let me tell you a story.

If you follow my blog, then you might remember this story and picture. (It’s the painting the face blue with “make-up”episode…)  Well, what I found out the next day was a copy of a library book that I hadn’t yet looked at entitled Ruby’s Beauty Shop by Rosemary Wells.  This is a pretty adorable story (if you like Max and Ruby) about Ruby playing pretend make-up and beauty shop with Max.  Max eventually breaks off on his own and paints himself with hair dye.  YES!  You heard me right.  He PAINTS himself with hair-dye!  Exactly like Sophia did with my acrylic paints!  She was acting out the story!  Now, granted, this is also a story that is on a Max and Ruby episode by Nickelodeon… and, she has probably seen it… But no doubt, we had this particular book from the library at the time of the offense…

This isn’t the first time that she has acted out scenes from books.  She loves to play babies just like Olivia in OLIVIA and the Babies. She loves to play Little Red Rubyhood from Bunny Fairy Tales. She has an insane memory for lines from the stories and loves to recite them.  This is also not the first time she’s gotten in trouble from reenacting something from a book.  I decided after the initial embarrassment of finding Ruby’s Beauty Shop, that it’s normal for her to reenact, healthy even, and this is a good way for her to learn appropriate behavior.

WAIT, though!  She never would have even thought to paint her face blue with my paint if she hadn’t seen/read this story!  So, there’s the question:  Do we shelter our children for the sake of reducing possible misbehavior, or do we expose them and thus encourage teaching opportunities?  It’s the same age-old question that parents face when they consider homeschooling… (One of the questions they consider, I realize.)  Maybe, she’s too young for these books. They specify “reading level” for these books, but that’s not the same as age-appropriate content, is it?  Here’s the thing, though:  She’s excited about looking at books.  I don’t want to discourage that.  My hope is that excitement about looking at books will turn into excitement about reading books, and isn’t that one of my goals as a mother–to encourage learning and success in school?

Hmm.  So, back to what I think about these books, these kids’ books.  Max and Ruby books are silly.  Max is always getting into trouble, and it’s never clear that what he’s doing is wrong.  He’s never punished, and his parents are nowhere to be found.  But, Sophia LOVES them.  They make her laugh, and she loves retelling the stories.  Olivia.  Well, Olivia is honest.  The story line is honest and it’s great story-telling.  She’s just a kid being a kid.  Her parents are doing the best they can, and they are not always perfect.  For example, in OLIVIA, a CALDECOTT HONOR BOOK, Olivia has this conversation with her mother:

“Only five books tonight, Mommy,” she says.

“No, Olivia, just one.”

“How about four?”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Oh, all right, three.  But that’s it!”

If this was intended to be a story of a mother showing exemplary parenting, then it failed miserably.  (We have a strict 2-books-at-bedtime policy here at the Spicer house.  We waiver only on VERY special occasions.) This is an example of a child manipulating. And a parent getting manipulated. Like I said, the story is honest.  I get that this happens.  I’ll admit that it happens at our house, too.  But, is it appropriate story material for my 2 1/2 year old?  There’s much more questionable behavior in there that I would loathe for Sophia to copy: Olivia replicates a painting from the museum and throws paint all over the wall. (She gets a time-out.) She doesn’t nap when she’s supposed to. (No punishment.)  She scares her little brother with a mask in order to get him to leave her alone. (No parental acknowledgement.)

Do I want my children’s books to be neutered in order that I can spoon-feed behavior-training?  Teach by example (Johnny is a good little boy.  See how he goes to take a nap when he’s supposed to.) or teach by story?  Isn’t the latter more like real-life, what it looks like to live in the world?  And, isn’t that what we’re raising our kids to do.  I want to raise children to become adults to be successful in the world.

I have very few “Christian” kids books, that is to say that they were put out by a Christian publishing company.  I’m not talking about Bible storybooks.  I’m talking about cheesy books like God Loves Your Nose.  We’ve been gifted a few like these.  And, may I say, I really don’t care for these books.  They’re boring.  They’re poorly written–lines seem to be put in just to finish a rhyme, making little to no sense, with little to no story line.  It’s fine that they furnish an opportunity to talk about God or a particular truth.  I’m cool with that.  But, don’t all books furnish an opportunity to talk about God or a particular truth?  If I’m in conversation with my daughter?

Woah.  This blog is really turning into a rant.  I haven’t even talked about princess books.  I don’t even know where to start there, but my sweet, precious daughter is absolutely in love with pink and princesses.  And, at the very least it provides an opportunity for us to talk about exemplary behavior.  And, COOKIES!  What is it about so many preschool books having cookies in them?  Cookies for morning snack?  Is this just a line to make kids happy and come back to the book.  Think, authors.  Think about my children and how reading about cookies makes them want to eat cookies… ALL THE TIME!

Okay.  I’m done.

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9 Responses

  1. You’re the BEST!! love your thoughts.

  2. I love the little insight into your thought trails…so great! This is a thought-provoking topic for sure! I have many of the same questions you do. You ended up talking about this, but I think ALL of those books present opportunities for learning…learning about “correct behavior” but even more so about heart issues of respect, gratitude, kindness, selfishness, etc. Of course, we miss many teachable moments, but we do try to discuss characters and stories that we read. Not only do we want our kids to love books/reading/stories, but we want them to learn to THINK about what they are taking in as well. I know you get that…just my thoughts expounding on yours. 🙂

    • That’s great, Carmen. I actually don’t think about “heart issues” a lot. I confess that I tend to focus on behavior… I’ll have to think on that some more. I’m sure “heart issues” come through somehow, but they definitely aren’t front and center, or thinking about them that way definitely isn’t. I know I don’t use that terminology, anyway. I wonder if it’s a ‘follow the rules, and the heart will follow’ kind of mindset…. Eeen-ter-esting. Thanks for helping me think about that.
      I also love that you said that you want them to learn to THINK about what they are taking in. Of course, I do, I just don’t think about it a lot. I know when I read as a kid it was JUST about reading, just about getting into the story. In school it was just about answering the ‘fact’ questions of the stories. It was never about thoughtfulness. How do we encourage our children to think? It’s the English teacher’s dilemma, right? Teach them grammar, teach them to write perfect sentences… but, teach them to think? I guess, I sort of just hope that Sophia will get it. She’ll get that a kid’s attitude in a story isn’t what Mommy expects from her. I don’t know. How do we teach ‘heart issues’ without focusing on behavior? Tricky. I know that I’m more concerned with my daughter’s heart than with her misbehavior. I often let her get by with things because I know heart… Hmmm. So much to think about.

  3. Great rant! I am sure I will have think about this soon. As I read your post I couldn’t help but think about imagination and the role of literature in developing that part of our minds. I think it is SO important. I think the mimicking at this age is part of a developing imagination. I am not sure how that fits in with helping our kids develop good character. All I know is that I read a lot as a kid, imagined all sorts of stuff, probably got into some trouble because of it, and I love God, others and generally I am not a brat:) .l Love these conversations!

  4. I have been deeply impacted by the unlimited amounts of books my parents surrounded me with as a child. My memories link to imagination and wonder, not really learning behaviors. i have a feeling your little girls are VERY imaginative tots (look at their creative parents!) and I wonder if your daughter wouldn’t have imagined what she could do with that acrylic paint even without Max’s suggestions. She bound to find ways to explore her world and think outside the box! **I write this as my daughter is shredding Kleenexes and placing then all over the kitchen floor and in our dog’s hair!!! I have so much more I could share about the benefits of children’s literature, but I am going to have to go intervene so that the dog will stop eating the shredded Kleenex! Angela, I think your question and thoughts are wonderful. I think, as parents, we will continue to ask that guiding question at every age….to shelter or expose?

    • Shelley, you may be right about her painting her face anyhow. It was a strange coincidence that she had a make-up brush AND paint. I’m sure any 2-year old could get the idea to paint their face! 😉 I wish I could see little Mercy. I bet she’s a doll.

  5. the cheesy book I gave Abby was meant to be fun, not intellectual, not “Christian” because she wouldn’t understand, but just plain old fun. Relax moms you have a long way to go and alot bigger fish to fry.

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