children’s books from feminist readers: A’Llyn

A guest post by A’Llyn Ettien, a librarian in Boston, whose almost-one-year-old son is just starting to be more interested in turning the pages of books than he is in chewing on them.

a beloved book from childhood

We moved a lot when I was a kid, so we didn’t have a large permanent collection, but one book that we carried around for several years was a battered copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (now online at Project Gutenberg!). We would pick out one of the stories for my mom to read to me and my sisters in the evening, and although they were all familiar, there always seemed to be one we hadn’t heard in a while and were happy to hear again. As a grown-up, I can see traces of the more troublesome racist/sexist/colonialist aspects of Kipling in these stories (perhaps most notably that stunningly casual use of the n-word in “How the Leopard Got His Spots”; my mom always quietly changed that to something else when she read), but at the time we just thought the stories were great fun.

what that says about that child

I think my fondness for those stories at the time said something about my fondness, then and now, for words and language. Kipling may not have been particularly enlightened, but he could turn a lovely phrase, with bits of rhyme and poetry interspersed with lively lines. (I still remember the Whale eating “the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel”). I also liked that the stories didn’t talk down to us as children: they used plenty of big words (as when saying of Old Man Kangaroo, “he was gray and he was woolly and his pride was inordinate”), and we just had to ask what those words meant and add them to our vocabularies. In addition to adding interesting words, these stories are a nice way to introduce young readers/listeners to a somewhat more formal sentence structure than you’ll find in a lot of kid’s books.

I still like kid’s stories that don’t talk down to kids (secondary shout-outs to Beatrix Potter and E. Nesbit!), and I still love words and language.

a children’s book worth sharing enthusiastically now

Assuming that kids will run across Just So Stories on their own, however, I would like to add Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess to a child’s library (here‘s a video of the author telling the story). This modern classic (first published in 1980 and still available from major book retailers everywhere) is a bouncy little tale that puts a twist on the traditional princess narrative. Here, an elegant princess in nice clothes is reduced to wearing a paper bag and must rescue a prince by outwitting a dragon. It’s very kid-friendly, with cheerful, childlike language and great read-aloud sentences, and it’s not at all heavy-handed in its upending of the accustomed princess ideals. It’s a good way to let kids know there are all kinds of stories to be told about princesses/female characters, without making them (or their parents, if you’re looking to quietly introduce someone else’s kids to a broader array of tales) feel like you’re sitting them down to say “look, we need to talk about the stiflingly limited depictions of femininity in popular media.”

This story doesn’t have the same kind of effervescent linguistic charm as the Just So Stories, but it also doesn’t have the complications of big, unfamiliar words, so it should be suitable for younger readers/listeners who might not yet follow Kipling’s old-fashioned language. I also want to note that I saw Robert Munsch at a story-telling event in Nova Scotia when I was 8, and I thought he was totally awesome, so this book has my childhood stamp of approval as well as my grown-up one. I still have a very worn signed copy of The Paper Bag Princess from that evening. Without ever really articulating a reason to myself, I liked that it was a princess story that was ‘different.’ And despite a certain reflexive unease about the fact that she didn’t wind up marrying the prince (no matter what, the princess ALWAYS marries the prince!!!), I kind of liked that, too.

what that says about this reader’s evolution

Choosing this book to give to a child today says that I’ve changed as I’ve grown older, in that I read more into the story than I used to, but also that I’ve stayed the same because I like a new take on a traditional story and also … hee hee, she had to wear a paper bag, that’s silly and funny! (Never mind the implausibility of a paper bag surviving the attack of a fire-breathing dragon, which even as a child I recognized as an amusingly unlikely narrative choice.)

I’m excited about having a child that I can read stories to, and while I’m sure he’ll have his own favorites that I can’t predict, I’m certainly going to try to share the ones I like with him.

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