Inventing the Child - The Genetics of Pretty Things

I somehow imagined I’d be writing these kinds of articles more often, but one little drop in interest in books by my older daughter stops a lot of the material for them. But now it’s time for more, as I’ve found a bunch of new examples of both the bad and the good in children’s books that try to sell ideas to kids.

My daughter got this collection of sticker books for her 4th birthday which asks her to put a variety of clothes on different kinds of females. There is something slightly problematic in that because you can be sure there is not really an equivalent for boys available. There are actually four different books in one case and there are about princesses, friends, ballet dancers and fairies. So, what are these girls up to all day? (Some of these girls are just wearing underwear because they haven’t gotten any stickers – yet!)

“They are always busy, because everyone expects them to be dressed perfectly.” The conclusion is not, “They should resist this conformity!” but “So, dress them. Perfectly!” The three princesses are then solely defined by which clothes they like and what they like to “do”: going to balls or to the park.

They drive in a pretty carriage with pretty bags and suitcases. Everything’s pretty because we only care about the surface, so everything is as clinically superficial as possible.

The most important room: the dressing room. Where the dresses are. So they can get dressed. They are so damn busy!

Look at Princess Katharina. She is so busy standing around watching butterflies. What else are girls supposed to do?

Let’s move over to the “Friends.” “They spend every minute together.” What are they so busy with? Shopping, riding ponies, going to a disco (really???) or having picnics. Their characteristics are again a list of girly stereotypes: loving pretty things AND pink things, shopping, cooking, crafting, sports, riding.

Finally, the worst page of them all: “Mia loves buying shoes – although her shoe cabinet is overflowing with shoes already!” Those girls, they just can’t stop buying shoes. Stupid, yeah, but what can you do, it’s genetic.

Speaking of genes, let’s counter this with a really great book "Grandmother Fish" by Jonathan Tweet and Karen Lewis, a cool introduction to evolution.

The concept is simple yet effective. We meet “our grandmother fish” and learn what she was able to do.

Then we see who her children were and continue to reptile, mammal, ape and finally…

Human. Look how they don’t show brute Stone Age people, but a normal, dark skinned, tribal family.

One of their characteristics is telling stories and this is illustrated with another great image of a family.

15 Humans.jpg

Finally, we arrive in the present day to get an amazingly diverse image of humans that includes almost anything you could imagine but portrays it as a unified whole.

In the back pages we get an evolutionary tree and the reminder: “All life on earth is related.” I love this so much and after seeing the girly standard crap we are offered, this makes me really happy. I also hope it counterbalances the sticker dresses (which my daughter loves nonetheless).

There is something else she loves, which are books about Native Americans. This one is surprisingly well done and avoids most of the clichés and stereotypes these books often include.

Right from the start, it makes clear that there is an endless variety of tribes with different customs, languages and so on. Most books completely ignore that and present the stereotypical Indian. This book specifically says that the Native Americans shown here (because they still go with the most popular ones, which seems somewhat understandable) are not representative of ALL Native Americans.

They dispel the redskin stereotype explicitly.

They depict the arrival of the Europeans without romancing Columbus and making clear that they were responsible for the conflicts of the time.

This page makes it really clear what was going on. They don’t say “genocide” but it comes incredibly close and avoids the usual traps of showing savage Indians attacking poor settlers. They make clear that the Natives’ way of life was destroyed, which is rarely mentioned at all.

What is mentioned, though, is that they still exist today, which problems they face and how they integrate their past into their present. That also is something normally left out, giving the impression of Native Americans being extinct and to be pitied. Here they still are, alive and kicking. The book is not perfect but if you look at a lot of these books, this is a pleasant surprise for a mainstream publication.

A short example of a simple children’s book incorporating gender stereotypes for no reason, as Karl says: “Oh, how stupid, all these pink girly things, dolls and so on…” and this is not countered by anything else but instead emphasized by a girl, in pink, wanting it all. Thanks, Karl, no one needed that.

Finally, another book I really like (there are a couple of them and they are all good) about the little curious witch Lisbeth (by Lieve Baeten). In this one (the last one because the author died unfortunately), Lisbeth gets a suitcase and has to find out why someone sent it to her. Turns out, it is the official invitation to the witch school for which Lisbeth is actually too young. So when she finds out, the witch teacher says: “You got it open all by yourself? You are really big and clever. Welcome to the witch school.”

Normally, I would have expected Lisbeth to say: “Wow, I can go to witch school already, I am so lucky.” But the brilliant last image shows her at home, putting the suitcase back and saying: “Of course I’m big and clever, I’ve always been.” basically disregarding the need for a school for her. What a great counterpoint to all the hype that kids books normally make around school, to get them excited long enough before they realize how dreary school often is.

That’s it for now, I hope there will be more in the future!