Books for Kids

During this election season I’ve been making some quiet time for myself with a book. To escape from our ghoulish reality, it would have been clever to read a mystery novel or something that provides relief from this extended political Halloween season. The politicians trick us, and treat themselves.

But I’m a sucker for horror stories, so I read what should be described as the No Logo of kids books, Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. The book is a readable and detailed account of how corporations vie more and more aggressively for young consumers.”

Linn, who did the puppets on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, shows how “popular culture ­ which traditionally evolves from creative self-expression that captures and informs shared experience ­is being smothered by commercial culture.” For her, this commercial culture is “relentlessly sold to children by people who value them for their consumption, not their creativity.” The general thesis is hardly a surprise. However, in the details one glimpses the depths to which the logic of capital goes in its war on children’s imagination. Linn founded the Campaign for Campaign Free Childhood, to forward a political agenda (www.commercialexploitation.com ). This is a very important campaign for the imagination of our children. One piece of the fight is to fight against commercialization, but in the interim, how do we enliven the mind’s eye of our children? Being a bookworm myself, I turn to reading. Linn describes the important pleasure that the child’s imagination derives from that quite time spent with a book, the rustling of pages, the anticipation of what comes, and the ability to conjure the entire story in one’s head. Equally, there is a visionary joy in holding a small child in one’s lap, and reading stories that imagine alternate worlds as they provide a means to map our uncomfortable daily realities. But, what books can one read to our children? So many of them enter the market as commodities that traffic in gender, class and ethnic stereotypes, both in what they portray and what they refuse to see. My friend Larry Parnass, who writes the arts column in our local newspaper, gave my daughter two sets of books that introduced me to two presses that make challenging books for young kids (age two onward). San Francisco’s Children’s Book Press and Cambridge’s Candlewick Press have produced a series of book that tackle questions of immigration, bilingualism, sexism, racism, and joy. Here is a sample from each of the presses. Juan Felipe Herrera and Honorio Robledo Tapia’s Super Cilantro Girl/Le Superniña del Cilantro is by far our household’s favorite book. Vibrant colors tell the story of Esme, a little girl whose U. S. citizen mother is unexpectedly detained at an INS facility on the U. S.-Mexico border. Distraught, Esme takes refuge in a bouquet of cilantro leaves from her mother’s garden. Soon, the cilantro works its magic, Esme is transformed into a Superniña: she flies to the detention center, rescues her mother, hides with her in a miraculously verdant border (she makes it sin fronteras), and then takes her back home. A close second is Mayra Dole and Tonel’s Drum Chavi Drum/Toca Chavi Toca, about a Cuban American girl who is not allowed to beat the big drum at a Miami festival. Her mother works in a factory, and so Chavi has to tend to an infirm aunt and keep house. With a close friend, she eventually gets to the festival, disguises herself, plays the drums, impresses the crowd, and then reveals herself as a girl. We have two books about the trials of immigration and the fears of deportation. Belle Yang’s Hannah is My Name is about a young girl who migrates to San Francisco with her Taiwanese parents. Her father works off the books at a hotel, and she is with him as he ducks from the INS officials. In a series of beautiful drawings, Yang introduces us to the anticipation of Hannah and her family, who wait for their Green Card and fear deportation. With this, there is Troung Tran and Ann Phong’s very fine Going Home, Coming Home/Ve Nha, Tham Que Huong, about a little Vietnamese girl who has grown up in the US. She reluctantly goes with her parents to visit her family in Vietnam, and, she gradually begins to love the land that her parent’s still call home. And which she, in the end, also calls home. “Home is two different places, on the left and right sides of my heart.” Jorge Argueta and Carl Angel’s Xochitl and the Flowers/Xochitl, la Niña de las Flores and Lyra Edmonds and Anne Wilson’s An African Princess take us into the lives of two girls, one who is El Salvadorian-American and the other African-American. Xochitl’s story is about the class divides within an immigrant community, and about the lack of proper common urban green space.

The story is about the how a transplanted person, Xochitl’s mother, is able to come to terms with her new setting when she grows some flowers from her homeland; and it also shows us how she turns that meager garden into a source of livelihood. Lyra’s mother tells her that she is a princess from Africa, but her school friends mock this story. As Xochitl’s identity is wound around the garden and the community fight to control land, Lyra’s identity is linked to a story of being more than subordinate. Both are powerful tales of race and history, of dispossession and the right to dignity. These books are about respect and justice, about freedom to move from place and place, and the loss that this entails as well as the gain. They are about the right to express oneself and to live integrally with one’s surroundings. The values in such books open windows to frame our descriptions of those politics that impel us on the left to keep on keeping on. These are our “moral values,” ones we cannot simply jettison when we begin to have “political discussions” on war and healthcare, jobs and rights. Expressive joy is a value we all must struggle to maintain, a coalition of sorts that links the old with the young. With children we seem either to surrender to commercialization or else to protect our children from what is loathsome in our world. I sympathize with the latter feeling, because I think I suffer from that patriarchal desire to protect children from what is offensive. But commercial offensives are not the same as the scandals of our society. These books, and our visits to protests, have allowed us to open our imagination to injustice from the standpoint of children. I have only given a few examples from two presses. Perhaps if there is interest we can draw up a list of such books, and if there is anyone willing to help me, we could create a website for interested people who are around children and who want to read good books to them. If you are inclined, please get in touch with me.

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