>I can’t quite put my finger on it.

>PW has announced its (casually) bookseller-chosen Cuffie Awards, with Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes as the picture book pick. It is a big favorite here, too, getting a starred review and a spot on our Fanfare 2009 list. Every parent I know loves it, and the text and design beg for story hour sharing.

But I have a nagging problem with it. The whole point of the book is that everyone has ten fingers and ten toes, and that while we celebrate each baby’s uniqueness, isn’t it great that they (and, by extension, we) have this particular array of anatomy in common? “And both of these babies, / as everyone knows, / had ten little fingers / and ten little toes.”

Except, of course, when babies don’t. Not everybody does–some are born with fewer (or lose them due to disease or accident), some come with an extra one or two, some people don’t even have two hands, for God’s sake. I know that these people are relatively rare, but there is something that bothers me when a book so determinedly inclusive manages to be so clueless about what it’s actually saying. If this book had a mouth, it would be cramming all ten toes into it right now. You would never (knowingly) read this book to a child who didn‘t have ten fingers and toes, would you? And shouldn’t that give us pause about sharing it with the ones who do?

I don’t usually have much patience for debates about “sensitivity” and have no idea why this book bugs me as much as it does.

share save 171 16 >I cant quite put my finger on it.
Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Kathryne B Alfred says:

    >I haven’t read this particular book, but I get similarly bugged by arguments that try to make us all feel good about each other by pointing out the one thing everyone has in common. Because, as you point out, there’s always someone who doesn’t fit in, no matter how general you try to get. So what then? If a baby has twelve toes, or doesn’t have fingers, then it’s okay to think of them as Other?

  2. Nan Hoekstra says:

    >So many of the reviews emphasize the “obvious” reason to celebrate this book: that these are things “babies everywhere have in common”. We know it isn’t so. Sobering but true. You have a very good idea about why it bugs you — and thanks for saying so.

  3. missbarnes says:

    >I thought about that too, when reading it to my nephew. He has all ten fingers and toes, but sometimes because the fingers and toes are so tiny, you can do a quick look and it looks like there are more than ten… Anyway, it’s interesting that no one has mentioned this issue in a review.

  4. Sarah O'Holla says:

    >I love the Cuffie awards. Although it does make the booksellers seem much more fun than the librarians- we take our Newbery SO seriously!

  5. Jenny Schwartzberg says:

    >I think it might bother you because it stresses what is normal. I have to admit I haven’t read it. I think in picture book I look for what is different and distinctive. People are all different, unique in themelves so a book that stresses where we are supposedly all the same does not draw me.

  6. Andy Laties says:

    >I have been selling the Peter Spier book “People” for decades. It’s quite a standard. And about once a year someone calls me on the carpet for selling it. These “People”-Haters are quite energetic.

    Recall that “People” is a big book jammed with teensy pictures that do an anthropology-like survey of world habits and appearances and fashions and foods and customs, with each page captioned something like “We all love to eat, but we do it in different ways.” The book’s comedy often comes from juxtaposing “normal” foods with “strange” ‘indigenous’ foods from various cultures.

    “People”-Haters of course object to the stereotyping.

    “People”-Lovers (of which there are many more, since it’s a longtime bestseller), say that it gives kids a multicultural introduction to diversity.

    “People”-Haters respond that it ignores individual variation that occurs WITHIN the world of cultural difference.

    Anyway, I suspect that this lovely All Have Ten Toes book will similarly send a couple of customers every year into exclamations of irritation. Fortunately I can simply fall back on the First Amendment and profess no opinion.

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >One problem people have with People is the line that runs along something like “Most people are good . . . but some people are bad” and shows a man in jail–I remember Ginny Moore Kruse wondering what that image might say to a child whose parent was in prison.

    But, Andy, as far as Ten Fingers goes you are dodging the question, save for your implication that people who might have a problem with it are tedious irritants. No one is talking about not selling it (or not buying it). Just that its theme might be contradicted by its conceit, which mightn’t seem so bad had the book not been so damned virtuous.

  8. >Extra digits aren’t actually all that rare, and they occur much more often in the US in black children than white children. Some food for thought?

  9. Anonymous says:

    >This hadn’t occurred to me, Roger, but I’m grateful that it occurred to you. Thanks for the insight.

  10. Andy Laties says:

    >Well, I think I do understand your idea: you’re saying that the “theme” is Universalist and yet there’s something importantly Intolerant in the “conceit”… Intolerant of physical difference?

    And I’m agreeing with you. But maybe — speaking as a bookseller — in bringing up my experiences selling “People” I was making a sort of relativist argument.

    Universalism is intolerant of intolerant people. This is a very big issue. Universalists do not like bigots. They can talk about loving all neighbors, so maybe they say “we don’t HATE bigots, we simply want to ensure that people don’t get hurt by bigots”. So, for instance, Universalists would like to halt genocides. And that means that Universalism includes a form of Intolerance. Intolerance of social injustice. Intolerance towards dangerously harmful intolerant others.

    So, I think you are making this point. You are aligned with Universalism. The book is Universalist. And, speaking as a Universalist, you are questioning a line of subtle intolerance in the book’s Universalism. You are being intolerant of intolerance. And you know the authors of the book, who are also Universalists, would be dismayed to think of the intolerant aspect of their Universalist message.

    However, I, as a bookseller, do sell all manner of books, including imperfectly and incompletely Universalist books. And so I’m constantly feeling compromised, and I frequently point out the flaws and special issues and subtle inconsistencies in books. Today I had a woman who needed books for a bi-racial couple. Her (white) daughter is married to a West African man. I recommended “Black Is Brown Is Tan” (imperfect because the races/genders of the depicted parents are opposite those in the customer’s daughter’s family) and “More, More, More Said The Baby” (I specifically showed her the white grandma and the black grandchild)…I showed her the Susan Kuklin book “Families”.. I showed her “Everywhere Babies”…and I TALKED to her the whole time. I explained the way each book did or did not pertain to her situation.

    (She ultimately purchased “The Grouchy Ladybug” in the Arabic language edition.)

    This is why it’s good to have professionals engaging with adults who are choosing children’s books. The “Ten Toes” book needs to be sold with care because there’s an issue with (accidental) presentation of (implicit) intolerance towards babies without ten fingers and ten toes. This should be considered, when recommending and choosing this book.

    However the book shouldn’t be blamed for this fact. It simply is best when hand-sold.

    No Universalist message will ever be wholly consistent, since Universalism contains that pesky strain of Intolerance, willy-nilly. (I personally, when checking out customers at the cash register who have selected this book, will deal with this problem by sometimes quietly mentioning this “diversity” problem with this book, in a friendly way.)

  11. ladydisdain says:

    >I really like this book (as a bookseller and a mom), but it’s the end that really bugs me. Why does the final mother and baby have to be white? Aren’t there enough precious baby books featuring white people?

    And, in fact, why does it have to be a mom at all? Aren’t there enough precious baby books featuring moms?

  12. Ron Meshe says:

    >Thanks, Roger. I thought I was the only person who didn’t love this book. I think it’s not so much showing children from all over with ten fingers and ten toes that’s a problem, it’s the refrain “as everyone knows” that makes such a sweeping generalization, over and over. I also hated the way it leads up to the “divine” little white child at the end. It reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem from “A Child’s Garden of Verses” that ends “Don’t you wish you were me?”

  13. >Roger, I had the same thoughts in the MIDDLE of reading the book during a baby storybook hour at the library! I had already perused the book and was excited about reading it, but as I looked around the room during the reading, I realized that I didn’t know for sure if the babies (or adults, for that matter) present had ten fingers and ten toes. I finished the book, and it certainly remains on the shelf and available to kids, but I am not going to read it aloud again. There are so many wonderful read-alouds out there that I don’t feel bad keeping this one out.

  14. >At storytime my regular gag is to do the rhyme “if you’re wearing red today…” for a few rounds, then say, “Let me see if I can find something that EVERYONE is wearing. Hm. If you’re wearing HAIR today…” …and it always gets a laugh. But I always make myself check the audience first, and finish up by saying “I’m glad that one worked–not everyone has hair.” I did catch myself once before it was too late–thank goodness.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >My adorable niece has 12 toes, and so this book is quite irksome to me.

  16. Anonymous says:

    >Ron Meshe, I think you might be missing the point of the RLS poem (“Foreign Children”), which I’m almost sure is a sardonic take on the attitudes of the fine Brits and Americans who traveled abroad at the time.

  17. >I don’t think RS is saying that the book is intolerant. I think he’s just saying that its internal logic is inconsistent.

  18. Andy Laties says:

    >Well the internal logic may be inconsistent, and the perception of some readers may as a consequence be that the book exudes a form of intolerance, but I will sell it anyway! This book is really very good compared to many other books which I comfortably sell. I could take you on a tour of my store and pull out many books and tell you what it is that irritates me about them…. I am personally extremely picky, and I allow my customers to drive my buying to a large degree. I sell more of what’s selling. Evidently, what I like or accept about the books I stock is more important than what I dislike or cannot accept!

    I simply think that this particular book has lovely pictures and a fun rhyme and a good message, and its problematic aspects aren’t terribly problematic. If used at a storyhour, you can always start by having all present count their fingers and toes. If someone has an unusual number, you can celebrate, and change the text as read to “ten or twelve” as an act of empowerment for all present. Lots of books get edited by the storyteller during the reading, depending on who’s in the audience.

  19. >being deaf, my pet peeve is this world is designed for hearing people :D oh well, that's life.

    <<<<<"everyone has ten fingers and ten toes, and that while we celebrate each baby's uniqueness, isn't it great that they (and, by extension, we) have this particular array of anatomy in common? "And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes.">>>>>> it sounds to me that she is trying to explain how we are alike as human being. I remember watching Disney Jungle book where the mother gorilla told the human boy to listen to her heart… and told him that it beats the same as his.

    other than that, she probably could have worded it better though

  20. Anonymous says:

    >Everyone knows…
    The first thing you do after your baby is born is to count their fingers and toes!

    I love this book!

  21. Roger Sutton says:

    >I don’t think the book is so much intolerant as it is oblivious.

    Last Anon, we count the fingers and toes of a new baby to make sure they’re all there. As we know from countless heartwarming moments on TV, finger- and toe-counting is warm-and-fuzzy shorthand (heh) for “our baby is normal.” And I’m asking: how would this book make a not-normal, digit-wise, child, or parent of a such a child, feel? LEFT OUT. Which is ironic, seeing that the theme of the book is “we’re all in this together.”

    Universalists, Andy? Aren’t those the people who pray To Whom It May Concern? ;-)

  22. >My small daughter thinks the most interesting thing about President Obama is that his Chief of Staff is missing one of his fingers.

  23. >I would add to some of the comments above that even if you went to far as to check everyone’s fingers and toes at story hour, you don’t know about the friends and family of those people. I’m not advocating oversensitivity, just saying that this book may not be as great as it seems.

    There’s also something I’m having trouble articulating about it being sort of weird in the first place to bring our human similarities down to a physical characteristic like that. It just doesn’t seem that interesting.

    Overall, this seems more like a book for adults (who are the ones obsessed with counting baby fingers and toes and want to feel good about Encouraging Diversity) than for kids–if you’ve seen a bunch of babies and toddlers from vastly different backgrounds interact with each other, you know that they recognize each other as equals immediately.

  24. Andy Laties says:

    >Gosh I am really confused at why this is so hard.

    I just re-read the book and it certainly does not say that all children have ten fingers and ten toes! It says that everyone knows that the babies IN THE PICTURES IN THIS BOOK have ten fingers and ten toes. Everyone knows it because everyone reading the book knows how to count to ten. Count the fingers and toes of the babies in the pictures and those babies have ten of each. The book does not say that all children have ten fingers and ten toes, but that a counting reader knows how to count the fingers and toes presented in the pictures. All nine babies in the book have ten fingers and ten toes. Count for yourself! That is all the book says. It says nothing about “all children have ten fingers and ten toes”. To assume that the book is making a blanket statement about all children in the entire world is a big extrapolation.

  25. >We are now overthinking this. Next topic!

  26. Andy Laties says:

    >Sorry for being overbearing in the previous post.

    This whole kerfluffle reminds me of the way some people get upset about how in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” the butterfly emerges from a cocoon, not a chrysalis. These people say that the book therefore teaches children something which is not scientifically true. I know that lots of teachers have to spend some extra time disabusing children of Eric Carle’s version of events. The problem is big enough that there’s a response to the complaint on the Eric Carle Studio website.
    (www.eric-carle.com/q-cocoon.html — The response points out that there is indeed a species of caterpillar that comes out of a cocoon, and then goes on to explain the metaphorical nature of the book’s meaning.)

    So — should “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” be kept from children because it can be misinterpreted or is somewhat inaccurate? That’s not the correct solution. It’s simply a matter of mentioning at some appropriate point to the child — at a teaching moment — that “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” isn’t, in all cases, entirely correct. And that’s how the Ten Little Fingers book’s issue might be approached.

  27. Anonymous says:

    >I’m sort of at a loss. I think this is wonderful book, but I don’t see it as story-time pick. Oxenbury’s books have always seemed to me to be directed very strongly toward a one-on-one interaction between a loving adult and a single child. With their large simple pictures and their rhythmic rhyming language, they are like primers for how to cuddle a baby and share a book with a very small child.

    If a book is not suitable for every audience and venue, I don’t see that as a flaw. And I really don’t see that the outcome of reading this book to your little one would be deleterious.

    Cognitively, children are very busy sorting out what things have in common and when variations mean that an object fits into a different category– this is a dog, this is a dog with three legs, this is not a dog. Telling them that everyone has ten little fingers and ten little toes is not going to make them see those who are different as “not real babies.”

    The emphasis on fingers and toes comes from our fascination with them, not just as because they are markers of “normal.” Because they are darling. We play with them and we count them, long after we know how many of them there are, and kiss them, and send the little piggies to market over and over again.

    So, no, don’t read this one to a random sample in a story time. And for the same reason, when you are handselling the Oxenbury board books point out the one that says, “Wave to Daddy, Wave to Mum,” just in case. Not everyone has a daddy and mum to wave to. There’s nothing wrong with the book, it just might not fit the audience.

  28. Anonymous says:

    >I’m sort of at a loss. I think this is wonderful book, but I don’t see it as story-time pick. Oxenbury’s books have always seemed to me to be directed very strongly toward a one-on-one interaction between a loving adult and a single child. With their large simple pictures and their rhythmic rhyming language, they are like primers for how to cuddle a baby and share a book with a very small child.

    If a book is not suitable for every audience and venue, I don’t see that as a flaw. And I really don’t see that the outcome of reading this book to your little one would be deleterious.

    Cognitively, children are very busy sorting out what things have in common and when variations mean that an object fits into a different category– this is a dog, this is a dog with three legs, this is not a dog. Telling them that everyone has ten little fingers and ten little toes is not going to make them see those who are different as “not real babies.”

    The emphasis on fingers and toes comes from our fascination with them, not just as because they are markers of “normal.” Because they are darling. We play with them and we count them, long after we know how many of them there are, and kiss them, and send the little piggies to market over and over again.

    So, no, don’t read this one to a random sample in a story time. And for the same reason, when you are handselling the Oxenbury board books point out the one that says, “Wave to Daddy, Wave to Mum,” just in case. Not everyone has a daddy and mum to wave to. There’s nothing wrong with the book, it just might not fit the audience.

  29. Eric Axness says:

    >My daughter received this book at Christmas. I had the exact same response and I, too, have a problem with over-sensitivity. Go figure.

  30. Anonymous says:

    >I have to say that count their toes was not the first thing I did with my three children.

    For the first one, it was revealed that he had a heart condition so the number of toes he had was really the least of my worries.

    And for the other two, ensuring their hearts were ok also eclipsed the number of their toes and fingers.

    I like the book but I shall be careful in read-aloud situations from now on. Thanks Roger for making me aware. – Daphne

  31. >I’m overwhelmed with over-sensitivity! What can I read at story time that WON’T offend someone, somewhere? :)

  32. Anonymous says:

    >Sorry about the double post. I hit a glitch and wasn’t sure if it had been sent or not.

  33. Ebony McKenna. says:

    >All babies can breathe and swallow at the same time, which is something adults can’t do.

    If your child didn’t have the required digits, you wouldn’t read this book. You might also never be able to do ‘this little piggy’ if your child had one extra, or one less digit. But, you know what? If your child had extra/missing digits, you’d probably have a lot more on your mind that getting all heated up about a Mem Fox book.

    (insert tongue in cheek) You know what bugs me? People who have ten fingers and ten toes, getting all affronted on behalf of people who don’t.

  34. Roger Sutton says:

    >I guess I maybe should keep my seeing-person’s thoughts on The Black Book of Colors to myself! ;-)

  35. >my cousin lost one of his fingers when we were playing “roll down the hill in a barrel” as children. does anyone want me to email him?

    b

  36. Anonymous says:

    >Two absolutely amazing talents put out a book that can rival Goodnight Moon (or my lamented out-of-print favorite, Catch Me, Kiss Me, Say It Again) as a very first book. And it comes under fire because it’s only 99 and 44/100ths percent universal.
    Wow, talk about no good deed going unpunished!

  37. ladydisdain says:

    >”And it comes under fire because it’s only 99 and 44/100ths percent universal. “

    Actually, the percentage is much, much lower thanks to the white mom and baby at the end. Am I really the only one posting in this (admittedly out of control) thread who is bothered by that?

  38. >We have books about birthdays. There are children who are not allowed (religion) or who are never offered the chance to celebrate birthdays. There are books about hair (nappy and other types)…some kids have illnesses which cause baldness. Please. If you are concerned about your child reading a particular book, then don’t read it.

  39. Roger Sutton says:

    >I’m only going to make my point one more time. The theme of the book is that however different we are and wherever we may live, in one way we’re all the same, and isn’t that comforting? But, when it comes to fingers and toes, we aren’t all the same. The moral is defeated by the metaphor.

    Over and out.

  40. Carol Brendler says:

    >This is one child who will probably not be getting that book for his birthday: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7870769.stm

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