The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 30, 2006


Getting the picture from picture books

Once again, well-meaning parents in nearby communities have been making headlines for objecting to the reading materials their young children bring home from school. And once again, no matter how many times I read through the news stories, I just don't understand their viewpoint. Isn't it the purpose of books — whether for small children, teens, adults or anyone else — to reflect the world in its myriad differing aspects?

Not that there aren't picture books that raise my ire. Just last week, my son Tim brought home a book from the "Arthur" series by Marc Brown. I was surprised to see that barely three pages in, Arthur and his sister come home from school and plunk down in front of the TV. And when their mother appears, not only does she condone their activities, but she engages in a discussion with them about which shows they should watch. The implication is, in fact, that Arthur and his sister are planning to spend the whole afternoon watching TV, and Mom is okay with that. Daytime TV as an after-school activity? There you go: a fine example of behavior from a picture book that runs counter to the values my husband and I try to teach our children.

When I started looking at Tim's bookcase from this perspective, I found all kinds of examples of books promoting behavior that doesn't particularly match our household practices. In James and the Snowman, James and his new snow buddy sneak into the kitchen and fix themselves a high-calorie midnight snack. In Enemy Pie, Jeremy jumps on a trampoline that does not have side rails. In Bedtime for Frances, Frances' father lolls in a comfy chair reading the paper while her mother is washing dishes, which is certainly not a lifestyle choice I want my children to be aware of.

When I gave my husband a copy of Into Thin Air to read, I was in no way hoping he would be persuaded by it to scale Mt. Everest. But I did think he might learn something interesting about the mindset of someone who would. The author of that book — to take an entirely random example — has made a lifestyle choice to leave his wife for months at a time to pursue a very dangerous avocation. Do I hope my husband is persuaded to do the same? Well, no. Am I afraid to let him read about it? Of course not.

Adults who take their children's teachers or librarians to task for disseminating books about families headed by two same-sex parents seem to be missing the point that it's a depiction, not an in-depth ethical analysis. To show a family led by two mothers is simply a reflection of reality, not a lesson in sex ed. There are plenty of picture books about adoption, and I've never heard anyone claim that they inspire children to ask about the biological details of infertility. In one of Tim's favorite books, Froggy Gets Dressed, there is a picture that clearly shows both of Froggy's parents asleep in a double bed. This picture has never made me feel compelled to discuss amphibian marital relations with Tim, nor has he ever asked.

I sometimes imagine that one of Tim's new friends will return home from a first visit to our house and say, "Mom, I'm bothered by something I saw at Tim's house. His father was at home in the middle of the day, wearing a t-shirt and sweat pants. I don't understand why that is." I can picture the poor mother stammering and hedging and finally saying, "Tim's daddy is self-employed, dear. He dresses like a slob because he works in a home office. Moreover, he trades in the stock market. It's not what we consider an honest occupation, and it is certainly not an admirable way to live. But that's Tim's family's choice."

My children know about various kinds of families: not because we've gone out of our way to give them a liberal view of society and not because we've deliberately chosen books from alternative presses, but because so many kinds of families exist even in their relatively provincial world. They know a couple of kids with two same-sex parents, a few kids with just one parent, and one kid with three parents (technically a mother and stepfather in one house and a father in another, but the child in that situation doesn't delineate and so neither do we). They also know lots and lots of kids with households like ours: a mom and a dad. I'm glad they do. But I'm even more glad for the other ones. Because mirrors are okay, but windows are better. And as a reader as well as a writer, I stand firm in the belief that there's just no better window than a good book.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito