Inventing the Child - Fishtails, Supermen and Pilates

It’s finally time for another look at children’s books. I thought I had too many examples to use but because of having so many library books going through our home, I missed some opportunities of capturing some of the more interesting pages. But I still got enough as it is, so here we go.

A book about whales and dolphins informs us that in the past, hunting whales was “dangerous business”, but somehow it doesn’t sound like it was dangerous for the whales. (sorry for the bad quality!)

Do you remember the book that promoted modelling for three-year-olds? Well, they have more! Like the one about Marina who dreams of being a mermaid. Sorry, a “pretty, little mermaid.”

There is nothing like aristocratic ideals for kids! A castle! Rich parents!

Life as a mermaid is not so much different from modelling. Sitting around all day, looking at mirrors and combing your hair. And, of course, of course, of course, dreaming of meeting a handsome prince! What else would girls do?

And then the prince comes of course and all the girlfriends are jealous of her luck.

Finally, just like in all those good mermaid stories, she marries the prince, gives up her former identity and personality to be all his. How absurd is this, “being a mermaid would be fantastic” if you only do it to meet a prince and to not be a mermaid anymore? And is the necessity of losing her fishtail for him based on a practical reason or a sexual one? Just wondering.

And what’s better for girls than to imagine being a model or a mermaid? Of course, the most essential one: the princess! Again, mirror, jewelry, dresses, surface, surface, surface and appearance.

“She is so pretty that an evil dragon falls in love with her and kidnaps her. But one day a knight comes to her rescue.” That all makes perfect sense. It also ensures that every girl remembers that she is never more than a victim, an object, a prize.

The only possible outcome of course: marriage. Every book ends the same way: “Of course this is all just a dream. But…” The but in the modelling book was that they might become a model, in the mermaid book that it would still be nice to be a mermaid. And here? “But maybe Luise will really meet a prince one day!” Are all you young girls ready for an unhappy life? Setting yourself up for waiting for the “perfect man” that picks you up and makes your life? Here you go.

Here we have the inside of a “typical” family house. How typical? Well, everyone is where they are supposed to be.

The father is working on his computer.

Granny is working in the kitchen (just like the last 60 years).

Mommy takes care of the baby. So, no role confusion here.

Boys also are the ones who fight in school.

And who judge themselves based on their physical strength (“He thinks he is Superman” the book tells us).

The girls meanwhile dress up as… well, women in dresses. “Polly wants to be a princess.” Of course she does.

In a different book (from the same series), we see the father cooking and taking care of the kids. So that seems to be a possibility.

In a book about pirates we actually get a female pirate, which is rather unusual. She isn’t singled out or anything, she is just a pirate like everyone else.

Unfortunately the same book features a stereotypical Asian cook who actually does the terrible l-instead-of-r thing (but only when listening to it, not in writing).

Finally, two positive examples from an atlas for kids. The section for North America shows two group of indigenous people. There also is a rodeo scene, which is too bad, but at least a harmonious black and white school kids scene that probably doesn’t reflect reality, but it at least makes it seem normal.

And I’m even more happy with the section on Africa. Since I had to realize that many students don’t know that cities exist in Africa and that people live in houses, it’s nice to get at least one image of a normal cityscape. It’s also good to see happy children instead of starving ones. The clichés of pyramids and safaris are there, too, but compared to endless other stereotypical and misleading depictions of Africa, this is much better.

And that’s it already. I still think gender is the biggest problem in most children’s books together with stereotypes and the depiction of animals. But there are always some good examples, so I’m not completely without hope.