Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Theodor Seuss Geisel Award

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is ALA's new award to recognize beginning reader books. Here's a round-up of the titles and my opinions. I think I've mentioned before that I try to just say what I like about a book; if I don't like it, I won't review it. But as I read the Winner and Honor Books, twice I encountered a plot device that bothers me. I don't read a lot of beginning readers, so I don't have a context in my reading. Maybe this is common in these books. And maybe it reflects reality for many kids.

But I'd like to think that even if I read a lot of them, this particular thing would still bug me. And for what it's worth: I didn't pick up on it. My niece, 5 year old Queen Lucy, noticed it first. And it bothered her.

Theodor Seuss Geisel Award 2006 Winners

2006 Medal Winner

Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Su├žie Stevenson.
The Plot: Henry and Mudge visit Great Grandpa at his nursing home, along with all the other "great grandpas" who live there. It's a fun book, with a trip to a swimming hole, swimming in "skivvies" (underwear) and a spaghetti dinner. Henry and Mudge are a lot of fun.

In reading this with Queen Lucy, we had a stumbling block that really bothered me. I try not to go negative in my reviews and comments, but I couldn't find this addressed anywhere and it was something that caused quite a discussion as we read. Queen Lucy is happily reading along with me, giggling at the idea of going swimming in your underwear. Then:
Henry looked at his mother.
"No girls allowed, Mom," Henry said.
Henry's mother smiled.
"Anyway," she said, "I was going to make spaghetti for the grandpas."
And Queen Lucy turned to me and said, "why can't girls go swimming?" I said something about boys and girls seeing each other in their underwear, but to a girl who spends her entire summer at the beach, where bathing suits cover the same parts as underwear, and who is still young enough to share a bathtub with her three year old brother... well, I could tell she was having a problem with it. How do I explain why Mom stays home to cook while the boys go have fun? Pushing the point, Queen Lucy asked, "does this mean Mudge is a boy?" Because Mudge got to go swimming.

I'm bothered that Queen Lucy is bothered; it was enough to take her "out of the story", which is never good; but I'm glad that she's listening and paying enough attention to notice this stuff.

2006 Honor Books:

Hi! Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold.
The Plot: A boy catches a fly to be his pet. You think a fly cannot be a pet and is only a pest? Think again.

Cool cover, cute story, and I loved how the fly knew the boy's name. Queen Lucy loves animals of all kinds, and this was her favorite.

A Splendid Friend, Indeed by Suzanne Bloom.
The Plot: Bear is reading a book; so Goose wants to read. Bear is writing; so Goose wants to write. Can they work this out?

This is a picture book; but what I loved about it is that it pays attention to visual literacy. Goose has all the lines, and they are simple enough for a beginning reader. Bear has none; but his thoughts are crystal clear from his body language, so the reader has to interpret what is going on from how Bear turns or holds his head. It's also a familiar story to anyone with a younger brother or sister.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa written by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Betsy Lewin.
The Plot: The adventures of Cowboy Kate and her ever-hungry horse Cocoa.

Queen Lucy loves animals, so this was a hit with her. I liked how Kate and Cocoa took care of each other. I also liked how the horse (despite talking!) was "real": Kate and Cocoa were out working, she was feeding him real horse food, she had to take care of Cocoa before going to sleep.

Amanda Pig and the Really Hot Day written by Jean Van Leeuwen and illustrated by Ann Schweninger .
The Plot: Amanda "was never so hot in my whole life." So what will she, her friends and her family do, when even your hair ribbons are hot?

I liked how it perfectly captured a hot and sticky day, and the things that can be done to try to be less hot: eat a Popsicle, run under the hose, drink lemonade, wait outside for a breeze after the sun goes down.

But, thanks to my niece, I was also sensitive to the fact -- and surprised by the fact -- that I ran into my second "no girls allowed" book! And once again, the girls don't challenge it so much as adjust their own expectations. (I did not read this one with the Queen, so I cannot share her reactions. And I think I may hold off reading this one with her.)

Oliver (I think this is Amanda's older brother) is building a fort, and when Amanda wants to help, she is told "no girls allowed." And Mom's response to Oliver's being "mean" is that it's silly to work on a hot day, why not sit in the shade? So Amanda sits in the shade having a tea party; and negotiates entry into the fort by sharing lemonade. But she still isn't allowed to help build the fort.

So that's my roundup; and I'm not sure if I'm being over-sensitive and over-reading. But in all honesty, I'm not sure what I'm more surprised about: this matter of fact "no girls allowed" in 2 of these books; or the reaction (or non-reaction) to "no girls allowed."

Particularly for those who read a lot of these books, or other books in these series: is this a common plot device? I understand it when I come across it in books that date from the 50s, but I was quite surprised to see this exclusion; especially since it was then combined with the girl either staying home to cook for the men-folk, or combined with the girl sitting back and doing nothing instead of making her own fort.


Disco Mermaids said...

Thanks for bringing up the "No Girls Allowed!" subject. After the awards were announced, I read the winners and was struck by the same thing. Yes, those words are still used by children, but in a children's book (especially early readers where the children are just learning about identity), they really stuck out. In both cases, different words could have been used or the reaction could have been better. Pretty odd, I agree.

- Jay

christine M said...

I remember when Stephen read Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas. I noticed that the Mom was excluded and instead cooked dinner for everyone. (How do these great-grandpas eat on other days?) Stephen didn't seem to notice, or care, though.

Disco Mermaids said...

Christine, you mention that Stephen didn't seem to notice or care, and I think that's exactly why authors need to be more careful. Kids at that age read things and just accept them as "the way things are." I'm just shocked that this stereotype reinforcement slipped by the editor's desk.

- Jay

Anonymous said...

By reading and talking about these books, you bring up some good issues. I hope that the Geisel prize will pull the beginner-reader genre up a few notches.

I agree with you that the no-girls-allowed plot devices out to be shot off to plot-device heaven. You will hear the phrase among a real-life first-grade crowd. You will also hear them saying, "Shut up," and trying out cuss words, and answering "Who cares?" to a classmate's converation they might not be interested in. Do we need a book about these? Nope, nope, and nope.

I'd also like to see more beginner readers and more children's poetry books set somewhere other than school.

Liz B said...

I know that kids do the no girls/boys allowed. I think the responses shown bothered me more than the no girls allowed.

Tho, as I told Christine off-line, I think Henry's mom actually smoked a few cigarettes, had a margarita, played Nintendo and then did take out rather than toiling over a hot stove all day. Yes, I'm now writing Henry & Mudge fanfiction about Mom's secret life.