Why I Cry at Picture Books


Last night I was reading Ladybug Girl and Bingo to my daughter, and something happened.  I cried.  Was there a dramatic death scene, or heart wrenching tragedy?  No.  I cried when Ladybug Girl pretended to be a firefly. 

What is it about children’s literature that makes me weep at simple story lines and common experiences?  I don’t know about you, but this is a frequent occurrence in my world.  I’m fairly sure that my children think I’m crazy.  “There goes mom again!  I guess she really can’t stand fireflies.”

Everyone knows the really gut wrenching children’s books.  The ones you dread reading because you know that half way through, while your kids are trying to focus on the basic plot, the deeper symbolism will bring you to your knees.  Your voice will shake, and you’ll try to hide it for the sake of your unaffected and oblivious children.  The last thing you want to do to your burgeoning little readers is scar their read aloud experiences with memories of your overly-loud nose blowing and ugly-cry. 

Yes, we all know the common offenders.  I don’t trust any sadist who doesn’t tear up a little reading classics like The Giving Tree, Guess How Much I Love You, or Love You Forever.  But Ladybug girl and Bingo?  This belongs on a different list, and perhaps represents a completely separate phenomenon. But it’s not alone.  I cry routinely trying to get through Mahalia Mouse’s college graduation, have to brace myself for the moment Knuffle Bunny becomes a pen pal, and for some unknown reason I can barely even open Blueberries for Sal
What is it about the sweet and simple world of children’s literature that challenges my emotional reserve?  I rarely even cry at funerals, especially if my children are anywhere in the vicinity, but Otis the tractor has me sobbing like I just lost my best friend. 
This is what I love about picture books, and also why it is so difficult to write quality ones.  Picture books aren’t just a book, they are a sensory experience.  Good picture books are layered and filled with underlying meanings.  You never outgrow them.  Reading these books aloud to your children creates moments that you will all remember.  There’s something unexplainable about sharing these simple stories, which often foreshadow life’s landmarks, with warm little bodies cozied against you, unaware how much those simple experiences on the page will eventually form the trails of their childhood.  They squirm to touch the illustrations, making it difficult to hold the book and turn the pages.  Their hair smells of baby shampoo while they point out a concept that you didn’t realize they were even old enough to grasp…something they couldn’t grasp last week…oh geez.  There I go again.
Having children is full of moments that are less than magical.  There are days when they scream endlessly because their shoes “aren’t right,” dinner “looks funny,” or, God forbid, their sister “looked at me!”.  There’s a lot of vomit, sleepless nights, and sticky hands.  Some days feel very long.  But, without fail, every time we open a picture book the world slows.  The noise quiets.  The story comes to life through the eyes of a child.  My child.  In those moments, I see their little years flying past.  I see them as suddenly six years old, pretending to be fireflies.  I see them, not so different from Mahalia Mouse, finding their way through college.  I become Otis, not so useful anymore and happy to just sit under an apple tree.  Those moments are full of magic.  That’s why I write picture books.  It’s also why I cry when I read them.


I am a mother of two young children, a Sociologist, a proud feminist, and an avid reader. These things usually compliment each other. Lately, as my oldest child nears five years old, I have been struggling more and more with the children’s literature market. My son has developed a love for anything superhero. Most superhero comics, movies, and even toys, are not yet age appropriate for him. So he reads these DC Super Friends books.
Essentially, they are a toned-down, less violent depiction of the super world. The Superheroes all make appearances and work together to keep the world safe. Are they quality, well-written literature? I’m not sure that’s even the point of these books. Do I read them every day anyways? Absolutely. I allow and encourage him to explore his interests, and strongly believe that giving him (appropriate amounts of) freedom in his book choices fosters a love of reading and helps him develop into an independent reader. In many regards this is working. Books are, without a doubt, his favorite “toys”. He loves to read with me or his dad for hours at a time, but Super Friends books are some of the only books he will “read” on his own. When we hit the library each week, they are the first section he runs for. So I bite my lip and read him page after page of bottled images of hyper-masculinity, all the while worrying that his 5’6″ father and I have not passed him the necessary genes to ever live up to the muscle machines depicted. This was going relatively fine, I thought, but now we have another problem…and she’s two and a half. His precocious little sister also loves to read. But more than that, she loves her brother and has an overwhelming desire to be just like him. So, naturally, she gravitates towards the superhero books as well, asking for them over and over. When they play pretend, she wants to be “Gween Wantern”, and I recently enrolled them both in a locally taught Superhero Class. I know she’s the youngest, but we have yet to find out if there are any other girls in the class.
I am confronting a real problem now with the Super Friends books. I already know that our toy market offers girls a narrow definition of what it means to be a girl (if its not pink, it must be boy), and a corresponding narrow definition of what it means to be a boy (big, burly, tough). But somehow, in my romanticized ideals of children’s literature, I thought we’d be safe with books. From Matilda to Hermione, I have seen books empower girls in literature. I want them to empower mine! However, as the options of preschool literature become more and more franchised (try to find a good mermaid book that doesn’t include a Disney Princess), I see our choices slimming. What’s wrong with franchised literature? It’s not literature. It is a marketing tool. What’s wrong with Super Friends, in particular? For starters, there are no girls.
I am the first to admit that I am no comic enthusiast, but I am aware of Super Girl and Wonder Woman. Yes, I am also very aware of their exposed cleavage and bedroom eyes, but we can deal with the sexualization of comic characters another day. Today, I’d take a well endowed Super Woman over no Super Woman at all. What message does it send my daughter when there are no female superheroes in her much idolized brother’s favorite books? No wonder she always pretend-plays the boy characters. If girls can’t have superpowers, I’d rather just be a boy, too. Aren’t females strong enough and smart enough to fight crime? She is not even three years old yet, but already notices and is effected by this. More subtle socialization occurs in early childhood than any other time in the lifecourse. Children are sponges; shaped by everything around them. They tend to make generalizations based on what’s offered to them. When they do not see female Superheroes, they assume that girls are not and cannot be Superheroes. Perhaps more importantly, what message does it send to my boy? The people he looks up to the most, who he TRULY believes protect the world from “bad guys”, are all male. How does he learn to work with, respect, or empower women, when his heroes do not exhibit any of these behaviors? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have yet to find a super friends book with a female superhero. We own a lot of these books, and have read more at the library. Even if there is one out there that we have not seen, one is not enough.
This week the UK based Toys R Us released a statement that it will follow Sweden’s lead and quit marketing differently to boys and girls. My hope is the the US Toys R Us will soon follow suit (though I have my doubts). Last year Hasbro promised us a blue Easy Bake Oven (after the petition started by a brave young feminist). These are great steps, but what about books? This isn’t up to a retail store. They can’t sell something to boys OR girls if it doesn’t exist! As more and more people discuss the “end” of the picture book market, and less and less picture books are being published than in the past, we are being forced into a world of franchised literature. I have yet to see a company put out a quality piece of literature. Companies are not authors. I have, however, seen the way many of these same franchises depict and sexualize boys and girls in their toys and videos. I shudder to think this is the future of children’s literature. A narrow definition of childhood, made narrower by the very things that used to open minds. As a mother, I’ve done what any good writer would. I’ve written multi-dimensional picture books, and I’m seeking literary representation to hopefully get them into the hands of multi-dimensional children. Even if I can crack my way into the shrinking world of Children’s publishing, I can guarantee that my son will continue to go straight for the Super Friends books, with his loyal sister by his side. New “girl power” hero books are a start, but they are not enough. DC Comics has a huge marketing base, from toys to books to movies. My children need to see females equally represented in this market as well.
On behalf of my own little Superheroes, this blog post is my plea to DC Comics: please include females in your Super Friends series. Not just in the background, either. The entire premise of Super Friends is that they all work together; so let them be strong, brave, and kick some bad guy butt. (And I wouldn’t complain if they did so in a conducive pair of kicking pants with their bust secured.) Let them be present in each book, showing that boys and girls can and do work together, respect each other, and have their own unique superpowers.

Our Super Book Problem


Library Lions

Step one for a lover of children’s literature is, luckily, the same first step recommended when trying to get published in the childrens market: Read, read, read.  This is one time that being a Mama and a writer compliment each other.  My children LOVE to read, and happily indulge me with our weekly trips to the library.  The library is our happy place, and we are creatures of habit. Parking lot rules.  Hold hands to cross the street.  Who wants to put the books in the return box?  Oh, good, lets read some more of those really poorly written Superhero books.  This looks good.  Mo Willems section.  More Julia Donaldson books?  Climb on the fabric mushrooms.  Pick your video.  And finally—Mama gets to look at all the new titles.  I love to see what is being published.  It is a good glimpse into the current market, and our library is kind enough to make a big row of “recent” titles (books maintain this designation for quite some time.)  This row is conveniently located near the children’s videos.  My four year old scans over old Zoboomafoo episodes while my two year old takes every single Dora movie off the shelf.  I pour over the new titles and breathe in the scent of fresh ink.  I read several pages, look for authors names I might recognize from the Blueboards or a conference, and usually pick out another armful of books.  We stumble to the checkout with our arms full, our “library voices” getting a bit louder by now.  I know it’s a library, but I am ALWAYS surprised that they let us leave with so much stuff.  I sort of feel like I’m getting away with something, and in the back of my mind I am waiting for them to say “no, Ma’am, you’ll need to put some back.”  The girls that work the library cafe can see (and hear) us coming, and have our 8 tiny cinnamon rolls packaged before we even order.  We love the library.  The only thing that would make it better is checking out one of my own books.