Picture books have long been seen by adults as a place to teach a lesson to their wide-eyed, impressionable child readers. This can backfire. No one of any age wants to be preached to in a book. But some books can make a point with subtlety, ease, and grace. I’m taking a look at two such books today, stories that have a lot to say, without ever wagging fingers, about the restrictions, even excessive labeling, we sometimes place on children and families in this country.
Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m a Girl! (on shelves now and first published last year in Great Britain) is a book about gender restrictions. It isn’t breaking any new ground, by any means, but I like it. It’s an exuberant, happy shout of a book. The protagonist is a blue female donkey with large, floppy ears, who leaps through life. “I’m supposed to be nice,” the book opens, “all sugar and spice.” Here, of course, Ismail is referencing “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” This is the old nursery rhyme that dates back to the 1800s. However, says this little girl, “I’m sweet and sour, not a little flower!” Attagirl.
As she barrels through life, she makes messes, zipping right past everyone in the process –quite literally on a scooter at one point. Unimpeded, she seems to have no fear, but she’s met with responses like, Ugh! Boys are messy; Look how fast that boy is going!; and Hey! Watch out, young man! She’s blue after all. Ismail knows—despite the fact that it’s the 21st century—that, sadly, we still have not moved past the blue-pink assignments for boys and girls, which any trip to Target’s or Wal-Mart’s toy section will demonstrate. And the grown-ups around her operate on the assumption that only boys can be that rambunctious. To everyone, she turns (while still zooming on by) to say, “I’m a girl!” All the while, she exudes sheer joy. It’s like this: If it were a book for adults, I’d almost imagine her giving everyone a big middle finger. I mean, we all know this would never happen in a children’s book, but that’s to say she gives off that kind of confident, no-time-for-THIS-nonsense energy as she merely carries on with her awesomeness. (A “rallying cry” is how the Kirkus review describes it.) Never once does she snap, though to be sure, she does give a few wearisome glares. It’s fabulous, and her energy is infectious.
When she rips off her clothes to jump into the water, she notes that she likes to be spontaneous and do things her own way. In other words, she’s saying, I don’t have time for your labels and gender expectations, because they’re just going to slow me down, thanks very much, and keep me from having fun. Damn skippy.
In the library, a well-meaning adult gives her a book about boats, adding that she’s got “just the book for a little boy like you.” The donkey carries on—but not until after having to remind yet one more person, “I’m a girl!” Later, when playing in a group of children (some play with dolls and stuffed animals and some, with vehicles), another child says dolls are for girls, to whom our donkey says—you guessed it—“I am a girl!” And—story twist—another child nearby (this one a small giraffe) playing with a doll says with a frown, “No they’re not!” Is it a boy saying it, a boy whose feelings are hurt, because he likes to play with dolls? Ismail, wisely, leaves it ambiguous. It’s not for us to determine the child’s gender here. Because—say it with me now—dolls really are for everyone.
In one of the final spreads, the donkey notes: “It’s okay to want to be good at things. I like to be the BEST.” This is remarkable in a day and age where there are still expectations weighing on girls and women to be meek, to be passive, and to avoid bragging a little too much about their accomplishments.
Just like the protagonist in Ismail’s book, the title of Sara O’Leary’s A Family Is a Family Is a Family (on shelves in September), illustrated with spunk and humor by Qin Leng, also brings readers a contented sort of take-it-or-leave-it attitude. A family is a family, okay? Despite the fact that some people still have limiting definitions of what one is.
The first spread shows readers a classroom of children. A teacher asks her students what makes their families special. “I went last because I wasn’t sure what to say,” we read. “My family is not like everybody else’s.” The reader isn’t quite sure who is speaking here, though observant readers will note that one girl hangs her head in shame.
But what happens next is a thing of beauty. Each spread is devoted to a different student, who talks about why his or her family is special. There is a mom and dad who have known each other since first grade and “really like each other.” “It’s kind of gross,” says the child. There’s a student whose parents like to adopt and have many children. There’s a boy with two moms. (They are special, mind you, because they “are terrible singers” yet sing really loud anyway.) There’s a child who visits Mom one week and Dad, the next. “Fair’s fair,” she says. There’s a student with two fathers. There’s a girl who lives with her grandmother: “Because I live with [her], people sometimes think she’s my mother. She’s not. She’s my everything.”
The student who had been hanging her head in shame earlier is the last to speak. She is an adopted child, though O’Leary never uses that word. Instead, the girl remembers the time someone saw her, her mother, and her siblings at a park. The person in the parks asks the girl’s mother which of her children are her “real children.” The mother’s response? “I don’t have any imaginary children. All my children are real.” Here, O’Leary nails the awkward questions adoptive parents sometimes hear, but she handles it with grace and wisdom in the mother’s smart, loving response.
And she does this throughout the book, never using labels. The child in the earlier spread with parents who like to adopt? O’Leary writes: “There are lots of kids in our family. Mom and Dad just keep coming home with more.” In another spread, a girl notes that there’s a new baby in her home, and she’s pretty sure her “mom ordered him online.” Her lack of labels (“adopted,” “gay parents,” etc.) and her decision to tell the story through children’s perspectives go far in making her point: Families come in all configurations, and families consist of people who love one another. Period.
Both books are full of cheer and a breath of fresh air. Don’t miss them.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
I'M A GIRL! Copyright © 2015 by Yasmeen Ismail. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury, New York.
A FAMILY IS A FAMILY IS A FAMILY. Copyright © 2016 by Sara O'Leary. Illustrations © 2016 by Qin Leng. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Groundwood Books, Canada.