The quotes at the end of this posting come from books that address very specific and special circumstances. These are the kinds of children’s books that generate controversy in ways that I have never understood.
Many years ago the book Heather Has Two Mommies (written by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Diana Souza) came out and caused a huge uproar in the Midwestern town I was living in. The local library secured a copy and a patron, who has (apparently) never been identified, pooped inside the book – yes, that’s right, an adult found the book, took it into the bathroom and pooped in it. (The book was found, damaged beyond all possible repair, in the bathroom.) Ever since then I find myself wondering which self righteous ‘adult’ is going to poop in the next ‘unapproved’ children’s book that happens to come along.
These two books fall under the ‘unapproved’ category because they cover things that children deal with, struggle with, and face enormous stress and pressure over – but are expected to never, ever talk about. Specifically: A parent’s addiction and the desire to wear unconventional clothes.
Jacob’s New Dress on Wordery.com
In both cases these things must be talked about and accepted on the part of the child’s family, whoever that may be. Ideally, the situation would be lovingly and respectfully dealt with by the community at large – but that is an idealism. Regardless, these books are extremely helpful tools. They can provide support and get the conversation started, or they can help build a bridge when a parent realizes he or she has been addressing the situation in all the wrong ways.
They also have multiple uses. The Dragon is named Al and the illustrations and storyline clearly lean toward alcoholism, but it can be used to begin a conversation about any kind of addiction. Jacob likes to dress like a princess and wants nothing more than to wear a dress, which is clearly a problem simply soaked in gender-identity and gender-based expectations. But Jacob also wants to wear things that are different from what the rest of the kids are wearing – different from what he is expected to wear. He wants to do things that are different from what is expected of him because of what he looks like. There are many kids who struggle with being different, or wanting to be different, and needing to be accepted for those differences – and not all of them are gender-based variations from the norm.
So, I was looking at these two books, thinking about how they are very good and necessary things. Yet, I was not (am not) dealing with these specific scenarios. Should I just put them back on the shelves and move on to something more standard and expected in the children’s literature stacks. Are these books truly problem (catastrophe) specific events? Are they best left to gather dust until a special situation arises, when they are pulled down and used to address whatever issue is at hand? Or, are they stories that should be read to all children, regardless of situation, in the same way that conflict resolution focused books are read – to prepare a child for whatever he or she may face?
As it happens, while I was busy mulling over the oh-so-important decisions adults must make, a child asked me to read both books. So (with his mother’s permission), I did – twice (at his request). I don’t think he saw them as special or even unusual. From a child’s perspective, they were just stories. Stories about a boy whose classmates were sometimes mean and about a family with a dragon. Stories about kids. Stories with pictures and adventures. Stories. Period.
None of it was as important or universe changing as I had made it out to be – which may be the lesson that I, as the over-thinking adult, may need to learn.
“Dad explained to us that Al the Dragon will always be with us. He says he has to work a few simple steps to make sure Al doesn’t take over our lives again. Dad’s new best friend is his sponsor. The sponsor has a dragon, too. They go to meetings.”
–The Dragon Who Lives at Our House, A Story of What It Feels Like to Lose Control of your Life, written by Elaine Mitchell and illustrated by Norris Hall
“A bunch of kids laughed. Jacob felt his dress surrounding him. Like armor. Soft, cottony, magic armor.”
–Jacob’s New Dress, written by Sarah and Ian Hoffman and illustrated by Chris Case
(C) Adora Myers