Board Books

March 9, 2012

I grew up with Mother Goose and other songs, stories, and rhymes traditionally learned by American children. I think most of us basically forget about these things until we have children of our own. At that point we realize that it’s important our children know them too.

I had never heard the term board book until we had our first child last year. Board books are books for very small babies, with bright pictures, simple texts, and glossily-coated cardboard pages, suitable for chewing. They have been around a long time – I believe when I was a baby my mother read Pat the Bunny to me, which featured a rabbit with an actual fuzzy patch that the baby could touch.

Well, one day I was in the local public library, pushing our baby in a stroller, and obsessively scouring the shelves for material to use in this blog (just kidding). A nice librarian praised the baby – always a way to get on my good side – and then asked if we had signed up for the Little Readers program. I was a bit surprised at this, since the baby was only a few months old, but it turned out that the program starts at birth. The way it works is that the baby gets his own library card, and every month is eligible to receive a free book, selected based on his age, along with materials instructing the parents on developmental milestones for that age and ways to cultivate cognitive skills that will ultimately lead to literacy.

We are not ones to turn down free books, and we thought it was cute for the baby to have a library card, so we signed up. However, I couldn’t help noticing that even this most innocuous of activities is noticeably affected by the usual racial and ethnic issues that so dominate our social discourse.

The goal of the program is to make children into “readers” – and it’s perfectly appropriate for a public library to be interested in helping to create its future clients, and maybe help them to be better citizens.But do people really need an outside authority to tell them that reading and singing to and playing with their children is important for their cognitive development? Sadly, some probably do, although I doubt the sort of parent who is going to use a TV as a babysitter is likely to sign up for library literacy events. And why the need to justify these basic activities with rationales derived from academic or scientific studies? For instance, “Nursery rhymes are essential for developing multiple early literacy skills, since they include rhyme for developing phonologic awareness and are essentially very short stories, which develop narrative skills.” Or: “Activities…with cross-body movements (touching the baby’s right hand to left foot) help make left and right brain connections, which will enhance eye tracking and physical coordination….”

One suspects that a strong motivation behind programs like this – and certainly the rationale that is most likely to win them grants – is the hope that very early “reading” activities (you have to use the term loosely for small babies), by creating all these brain connections, will help to reduce the cognitive skills gap between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics, on the other. Ironically, though, when we attended a storytelling session, the great majority of families present were middle-class whites, with a sprinkling of East Asians and Indians. So, the people who are already doing what is needed, and already are more than willing to buy their own books, take advantage of the program. It serves a valid function, but it’s not really doing anything for the “at-risk” groups.

Then, there is the aggressive ethnic diversity presented in the board books. Some avoid the problem of ethnicity by featuring animals – but look at this not very subtle example of animals who belong to races just like humans do:

Which one is Muslim?

At any rate, children’s books featuring human children are perhaps the most aggressive of all media in affirming racial diversity. Here are a few examples of covers of books we have seen:

Good Morning, Baby!

Tickle, Tickle

On cover her race is ambiguous, but inside the book we see she is intended to be black

Now, I have the feeling that the average white consumer of books like this (and I’m sure the average consumer is white) doesn’t find anything wrong with them. To the contrary, they represent an ideal of diversity and inclusiveness that is accepted by the great majority of people in this country. Nor do I here want to criticize the producers of the books. In this day and age they could hardly get away with featuring a homogeneous cast of whites in their books, even if they wanted to – and it is a fact that more than half the children born in the United States today are nonwhite.

Still, am I the only one who feels like I am being targeted or manipulated when I am presented with book after book with a black child on the cover, to take home and read to my white baby?

But like so many features of our culture today, the new norms for children’s books were established with no honest public debate and no understanding of what was being given up. There is an opportunity cost to every choice made; energy expended on making children’s books “diverse” is then not used for some other creative purpose. And these products, in my mind, are very unsatisfactory.

(1) The narrative and flow of the story are disjointed. There is an unnaturalness to the whole thing. For instance, “Good Morning, Baby!” narrates a baby’s typical morning. He wakes up, eats, takes a bath, and goes out to play. But each page of the “story” shows a different baby of a different color and gender. There is no unity, no flow. It’s the “collage” technique that we often see in TV advertisements: the scene shows a white couple using the product, then quickly cuts to a black couple using the product, then to a Hispanic couple using the product. It’s supposed to convey the idea that everyone of every ethnic group has the same, positive experience, but it’s disorienting and disturbing.

(2) The family, and especially fathers, disappear from the scene. Put together the black boy and the Asian boy in a schoolyard and they might play together happily. (That’s the ideal; in reality, there are lots of problems in schools that mix large black and Asian populations.) Put in their fathers and mothers and you begin to see that their differences go far beyond skin color. The Asian comes from somewhere: is it China? Japan? Laos? Almost certainly (if it is America) his father is working in some technical field: science, engineering, or medicine. Where is the black boy’s father? He may well not be around the home at all. He’s very likely not a scientist.

(3) The stories and rhymes must be stripped of any content that suggests violence, sounds too Christian, or otherwise potentially offends anyone.  One nurse we met seemed to have a problem with “This little piggy had roast beef” – she added the phrase, “…or tofu.” One book has changed it to “roast meat” – does beef offend Hindus? In any case, isn’t it odd to that the representative child for “This Little Piggy” looks like a Mexican mestizo? Even if you are Hispanic, doesn’t this seem a little forced?

This one can't be Muslim!

For my part, I say that if children of all ethnic groups have the right to read books with images of children who look like them, my child does too; and no sensible people would deliberately subject their children and grandchildren to a future existence as a racial minority in their own country. On the other hand, if our diverse citizenry really wants to make our traditional songs, stories, and rhymes their own, they have my best wishes; but I’m not convinced they’re that interested.

Though I consider myself a literary sort of guy, I have to admit that some of the items in these books were not familiar to me. For instance, the following rhyme:

Two little eyes to look around,
Two little ears to hear each sound,
One little nose to smell what’s sweet,
One little mouth that likes to eat,
And eat and eat and eat!

Never having heard that one before, I looked it up, and discovered that it was actually taken from the following little hymn (I think better known in Britain than in the U.S.):

Two little eyes to look to God,
Two little ears to hear his word,
Two little feet to walk his ways,
Two little lips to sing his praise,
Two little hands to do his will,
And one little heart to love him still.

Religious or not, I hope my readers would see how much lovelier the second one is. It is the difference between night and day. In its own way it’s a perfect illustration of how much of the beautiful and good is stripped from our liberal, “diverse” culture. I will take it to mean that there is at least something still living in our culture, if we can only rake away all the mud and debris that has covered it.

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