Sunday, February 03, 2008

Don't make my job harder - children's books with dubious messages

It's a generally accepted truism that 'reading to your child is a good thing'. It's up there with brushing your teeth, not taking candy from strangers (although even this can be dangerous), and not leaving your kid in the car on a hot day while you do the grocery shopping (or the animation work for Toy Story II (true story!)). The non-parent is likely tempted to draw the conclusion that this parenting thing, millions - actually billions - of people of sub-normal intelligence manage to do it somehow, it isn't rocket science.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and a parent who grabs books at random from the children's section in the library or book store may not be doing their kid any favors. Two books that recently featured as part of the nightly story hour illustrate this quite well.

Miss Honey's Busy Day is part of the 'Busy Day' series by Richard Scarry, who also brought us 'What Do People Do All Day?', something I still often wonder as an adult in the corporate world. While What Do People Do All Day promotes a healthy attitude toward the idea of work and the idea that different people do different jobs and they're all important and necessary, which kind of redeems the sexist attitudes and stereotypes to be found in the book (Mama earned the dress because she keeps the house clean!) it's much harder to recommend Miss Honey's Busy Day.

On the surface the book seems like a day-in-the-life story of one of those everyday heroes (and if, as an adult, you think that word has been drained dry of any meaning, wait till you catch an episode of the children's show 'Higglytown Heroes', where even the local Subway Sandwich Artist is celebrated as a hero), an elementary school teacher.

What's troubling about the book is Miss Honey's co-dependent relationship with Bruno, a slow-witted man-child live-in boyfriend who eats ice cream for EVERY MEAL. Miss Honey chides Bruno at breakfast about this, but he eats ice cream anyway. She calls him at lunchtime and again lectures him after finding out he's had ice cream for lunch. He promises he'll do better tomorrow, but we've seen the After-School specials and heard the Jane's Addiction songs, and we know when addicts talk about doing something tomorrow, it's total bullshit. Miss Honey surely knows this, too, yet she stays with Bruno. Later, she joins the children in the lunchroom and gives them a hypocritical lecture about the importance of choosing foods from different food groups. At the end of the story, Bruno surprises Miss Honey with a rose and dinner at...get this...the Ice Cream Parlor! Har har. Funny like a crack-head couple on The Wire, by which I mean, not funny at all. This book is guaranteed to be followed up with the parent spending easily twice to three times the time it took to read the book having a discussion to un-do the damage the book did. Of course, having honest discussions with your child about important matters is part of being a good parent.

The other book is the well-meaning (which, presumably, can be said of all children's books, except maybe the ones written by celebrities) Honey Bunny Funny Bunny. In this book, the Honey Bunny of the title endures all manner of teasing at the hands of her older brother, P.J., until P.J. goes too far and Mom and Dad finally come down on him. When P.J. stops teasing Honey Bunny, she becomes more and more despondent because, and this is the conclusion she draws, P.J. doesn't love her any more. There is a happy ending, though, as P.J. proves he does love Honey Bunny after all when he plays a big prank on her at the end. It's a happy ending as long as you don't think about the kind of abusive relationships Honey Bunny might end up being drawn into in the future. As a big brother, I was guilty of all manner of teasing in my youth, but can also clearly remember expressing affection in other ways, like hugging my sister or taking an interest in what she was doing, so perhaps I'm as bothered by the unfair and heavy-handed depiction of big brothers as by the questionable message for young girls.

So, in the end, the take away message here is that not all children's books are created equal, and just maybe your snobby friend who never lets their kid watch TV is unknowingly subjecting their youngster(s) to the kind of psychic damage an episode of Dragon Tales could never do.

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