Reading to Subvert Dominant Power Structures: How Children’s Books Save Your Life

You don’t really appreciate children’s picture books until you read ones from some cultures which shall not be named. And you want to pluck your eyes out as you read about this charming child who doesn’t help mama with the dishes and mama is killed by the stress of washing dishes alone and the child spends its life in grief-filled distress. I do not jest. There are cultures which believe that children’s lit should be edifying, instructive, full of dire warnings and as unpleasant as eating raw liver.

When confronted with such horrors (child does not greet mama’s friend properly and mama is heartsick, causing the child to feel such remorse that child becomes excessively polite and, of course, grows up in misery and despair but THAT part is never covered). It’s always “and thus did Albert learn to wash his hands” and never “later, of course, all this excessive hand-washing led to great difficulties and complexes that only the most skilled of therapists could unravel and Albert never spoke to his biological family again, creating a wonderful, supportive NEW family and he lived in great happiness.”

Once a child is beyond “Each Peach, Pear, Plum” and Sandra Boynton, they are ready for subversion. We all know that Dr. Seuss was FORCED to restore the house to order in “Cat in the Hat” by unfeeling book publishers. We KNOW, we all KNOW, that the house was forever wrecked and ruined and that makes us happy because we are human – not heartless automatons. The spirit of “Cat in the Hat” is exactly the spirit of “The Red Convertible” and “Housekeeping” – tear it down, tear it all down.

Reading children’s lit can show you new worlds (blessings upon the fore-runners “The Snowy Day” and “Corduroy” who brought children’s books into the city) and the right kind can give you the power to make your gorgeous self bloom. I am mean, yes, teach manners along the way, but use “What Do You Say, Dear?” and “Bread and Jam for Francis.” That’s as much as you need.  “Blueberries for Sal” is all the instruction that must be given about sticking close to your parents when in public.

But for the real power – go to the old standbys:

  • “Miss Rumphius” – live a happy life without marriage
  • “Dorrie and the Blue Witch” – shrink evil people and their effect on you
  • “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” – learn to adapt
  • “Frédéric the Mouse” – be yourself
  • “Amelia Bedelia” – really, be yourself
  • “Ferdinand the Bull” – what I said was: BE YOURSELF, LET YOUR FLOWER-SNIFFING FREAK FLAG FLY

and some more recent books:

  • A Big Mooncake for Little Star
  • Fry Bread
  • Mae Among the Stars
  • The Adventures of Mr. Macaw

For the people who need it spelled out a little more clearly:

  • All Are Welcome
  • I am Enough
  • The Yuckiest Lunch Box

Extra points for body-positive:

  • I Love My Hair
  • Hair Love
  • Under My Hijab
  • Eyes that Kiss in the Corners
  • Sulwe

Name appreciation:

  • The Name Jar
  • Alma and How She Got Her Name

Fairy tales, poems and a few, well-chosen picture books and a child is set for a joyous, well-rounded life.


(from “Dorrie and the Blue Witch”)