It doesn’t take long when working in a bookstore or a public library to realize that many parents are after one thing in a picture book — they want it to make their child better. Parents want children who are polite, cooperative, and kind. They want them to be good listeners who easily relinquish the eventually embarrassing relics of babyhood like blankies and pacifiers. Children, being by definition immature, instead pitch fits in restaurants, snatch toys away from guests, and push to the front of the line to go down the slide. They talk around a pacifier, and once they have put that aside, they interrupt and don’t seem to notice when adults tell them what to do.
Parents and preschool teachers — misguidedly — turn to picture books to solve these problems. They also look to books to teach their children important values. One parent at my library last week requested a book “to teach him that money doesn’t grow on trees and he can’t have everything he sees in the store.” As with the parent who asked for a book to teach about pouring water, it is sometimes hard not to say, “You don’t need a book for that.” (The huge number of books aimed at persuading children that reading is fun and books are good seems also a bit perverse — wouldn’t it be more persuasive to read excellent, engaging books in a loving environment?)
In one recent storytime I introduced the newly published Martha Doesn’t Share! by Samantha Berger. Several of the children announced with excitement, “I have that book!” or “I have that book at school!” Of course they did: parents and teachers love books about sharing. However, what librarians want to see is a picture book that meets the literary and artistic criteria for excellence — strong characters, an interesting story, some emotional depth. If it has a good point to make, that’s gravy. Joanna Cole’s Sharing Is Fun didactically shows a mother and son deciding which toys to share with company, and then holding to his agreement to share. It says “it’s fun to share with friends,” but it’s doubtful many children reading the stiff text will agree.
Fortunately, it’s possible to write a picture book that communicates the messages that parents and teachers want to convey while still creating picture books that librarians, children, and other lovers of good books want to see. In Martha Doesn’t Share! Berger creates in Martha a stubborn little personality, someone who struggles with the very real issue she faces when her family simply leaves her alone to play with the precious toys she doesn’t want to share. In the end, she shares a little, but it’s clearly still difficult for her, which we see through Bruce Whatley’s tender but hilarious pictures as Martha grudgingly gives her baby brother one of her mountain of blocks. It’s funny and truthful, and acknowledges that it’s hard to share — and it doesn’t pretend that once children share they will always be happy about it.
Another good book places a more positive spin on sharing. Mary Ann Hoberman’s One of Each celebrates both the joys of being alone with one of everything and the joys of sharing “One plum and one apple, one pear and one peach. / Just one, only one, simply one, one of each” with friends. The tension — which children feel strongly — between the pleasures of a more solitary life with everything just so and the satisfaction of being with friends is perfectly balanced. Poet Hoberman can pull off a story in rhyme where many writers fail, and artist Marjorie Priceman gives Oliver Tolliver, the main character, a jaunty flair in his clothes and his exquisite house.
Of course, since sharing is a fundamental issue among all humans, not just small children, folk tales touch on that topic, too. Jan Brett’s modern-day classic The Mitten shows animals squeezing into a mitten until at last a bear causes the mitten to explode. It’s a satisfying recognition that sharing only goes so far, and children appreciate both its humor and its suspense. Similarly, in the great story-hour book Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg, critters take shelter under a mushroom, but in this case the mushroom expands in an almost magical way.
Sharing a toy is hard; sharing your parents with a new sibling is even harder. New babies send parents looking for the right book to give big brother or sister the message that the new baby is a good thing. People who don’t know many children’s books often turn to the comfortable, familiar Berenstain Bears books. In The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, Small Bear has outgrown his bed. Fortuitously, while he and Papa Bear are building a new bed, Sister Bear makes her appearance in his old bed. The tone is utterly upbeat: “Being a big brother is going to be fun,” he says, as he lies in his new bed. The pictures have an endearing quality with some funny moments, but the writing is both flat and disrespectful toward a child’s genuinely mixed feelings at the birth of a new baby.
Kevin Henkes’s heroine Lilly handles her new little brother in a very different way in Julius, the Baby of the World. Her parents model the most loving behavior toward both baby Julius and Lilly, but Lilly is angry: “‘If he was a number, he would be zero. If he was a food, he would be a raisin. Zero is nothing. A raisin tastes like dirt. The End,’ said Lilly.” But when Cousin Garland criticizes Julius for exactly the same things Lilly has disparaged, the protective big sister emerges to defend her baby brother. The perfect pacing, characterization, and humor don’t obscure the deep feelings Henkes depicts with truth and insight, which is what a new big brother or sister needs more than bland reassurances.
Similarly, in That New Animal, Emily Jenkins uses a pair of dogs to express similar feelings of disgust toward a baby in the family, but FudgeFudge and Marshmallow spring into action when “the Grandpa” attempts to approach the baby. “It’s our animal,” they say. Pierre Pratt’s comical pictures of the two dogs with the round-headed baby are funny, but the feelings of neglect the older siblings/dogs feel are very real as the parents forget to pay attention to their animals for a while. Using dogs makes the message a little more accessible without being heavy-handed.
In Jeanne Birdsall’s Flora’s Very Windy Day, the whimsical tale of a younger brother floating away carries a lot of emotional truth about an older sibling’s mixed feelings toward a younger sibling. The final picture depicts them moving closer together over a plate of cookies, without text, showing that a message can be delivered with a very light touch.
A related message parents like to send their children through picture books is that giving up baby things is something to be happy about. They want children to delight in growing older and bigger. In I Used to Be the Baby by Robin Ballard, a big brother does all of the right things to help out with his baby brother. When the baby grabs his toys, he hands the baby a baby toy, and he sings songs in the car to distract him. It’s a little too instructional, requiring a very mature older sibling to carry them out, but the ending has a poignant, authentic note when he says, “I am the big brother. But sometimes I like to be the baby too.”
One way authors can send a parent-friendly message through a book is through poking a little fun at their own character, so that children laugh and then want to behave in the opposite way. It can be effective if carried out with cleverness, as with Mo Willems’s Pigeon books. A surefire storytime hit is David McPhail’s Pig Pig Grows Up, in which baby of the family Pig Pig refuses to surrender his baby things: “‘I want my baby clothes,’ he screamed. ‘I’m only a baby!’” McPhail’s ink-and-watercolor pictures depict Pig Pig in a tenderly comic way, and when Pig Pig saves a real baby from danger, children laugh out loud and cheer for the now more mature Pig Pig. It’s a funny book about a character, not a book written to deliver a message.
As frustrating as it may be to the children’s book community, many adults look at children’s books purely for their instructional value. As one children’s book cataloger commented, “I know I’ve seen lots of books over the years that probably fall in this category that were typeset in Comic Sans, with way too much text on each page, and illustrations that look like they were done by someone who has never actually done art for a living but is absolutely certain he knows what sort of pictures appeal to children.” These blatantly therapeutic books are easily spotted and avoided, but it’s important not to be satisfied with books with better production values and better writing that are still not good enough to be used in a story time. For it to be worth sharing, a picture book needs to be excellent in its own right, regardless of what it teaches.
Good Books about Sharing
I Used to Be the Baby (Greenwillow, 2002) by Robin Ballard
Martha Doesn’t Share! (Little, Brown, 2010) by Samantha Berger; illus. by Bruce Whatley
Flora’s Very Windy Day (Clarion, 2010) by Jeanne Birdsall; illus. by Matt Phelan
The Mitten (Putnam, 1989) by Jan Brett
Mushroom in the Rain (Macmillan, 1974) by Mirra Ginsburg; illus. by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey
Julius, the Baby of the World (Greenwillow, 1990) by Kevin Henkes
One of Each (Little, Brown, 1997) by Mary Ann Hoberman; illus. by Marjorie Priceman
That New Animal (Foster/Farrar, 2005) by Emily Jenkins; illus. by Pierre Pratt
Pig Pig Grows Up (Dutton, 1980) by David McPhail
From the September/October 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.