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Open Very Carefully: even quality books can contain stereotypes

Open Very CarefullyOne of the most popular books in my Pre-K class this past year was Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite written by Nick Bromley and illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne. The book starts off like it will be a retelling of The Ugly Duckling, but soon a crocodile interloper enters the book. For the rest of the story, the book breaks the fourth wall and becomes an interactive tale enlisting the reader of the story to help get the crocodile out of the book. The illustrations and design of the book are engaging to young children throughout and the story keeps the children constantly laughing.

However, there is a scene in the middle of the book that made me question if I should keep it in class. After the crocodile falls asleep, a pink crayon (presumably held by the reader) draws a ballerina outfit on the croc complete with pink tutu. The crocodile is none too pleased when he wakes up in his new outfit. This page got a big laugh from the children in my class. But what are the children laughing at? Essentially the joke is that the big tough crocodile would never willingly be wearing a tutu or doing ballet. In my ten years of teaching, I have seen many  boys who enjoyed putting on tutus or performing ballet which sometimes has led to them being teased by classmates. Thus, the joke in the book is reinforcing the archetype that boys — especially if they want to be perceived as tough — should never be seen wearing pink or doing ballet, and that if they do these things, it is funny and they should be laughed at. For this reason, I considered taking the book out of my classroom library even though the children loved the book.

Instead of taking the book out of circulation, I decided to have a discussion with the children about the offending page starting off by asking why they thought it was funny; not surprisingly, the children thought it was funny because the crocodile who they perceived to be male was wearing a ballet outfit and ballet is for girls. Having anticipated that sentiment, I had printed out some pictures of professional male ballet dancers, football players who do ballet (Hall of Famer Lynn Swann famously started this trend), and pictures of women playing tackle football (this happened during football season) to further the discussion about the perception of boy and girl activities. Like any discussion, some children were more engaged than others, and there probably was not a sea change in children’s perception of gender roles; nevertheless, I hope the discussion made a small dent in children’s perceptions of the roles females and males can partake in.

Now, I turn to Lolly’s Classroom. How do people handle otherwise quality books that contain stereotypes?

Teddy Kokoros About Teddy Kokoros

Teddy Kokoros works as a Pre-K teacher and adjunct early childhood education professor in Boston, MA.

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Comments

  1. This is REALLY interesting, and I am glad you’ve raised it, and I think it would influence me in future. This was the illustrator’s first book. She had a very clear sense of the concept, but finding exactly the right words to go with each image was challenging, and the book went through multiple reworks and rewrites. Through them all, I didn’t think to question this. I guess that I found the images very funny and convincing and arresting (the contrast in art styles between the crayon work and the crocodile; the contrast between the vivid green and pink), and the text came later. Gender is something we think and write about (if you search gender on the Nosy Crow website you’d find several blog posts). The book does say “crocodiles don’t do ballet”, which is not, of course, the same as saying “boys don’t do ballet”, but I can entirely understand your objection.

  2. Teddy Kokoros says:

    Kate,

    Thanks for your insights into the process of creating the book and for the suggestion to check out the Nosy Crow website. I especially enjoyed this post about how books are packaged: http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-and-books-for-boys-gender-skewed-packaging-and-content-in-children-s-publishing

    Like I said in the post, the design of the book was very well done and in fact that overall high quality of the book was one of the reason I wanted to write about it. I have encountered many horrible books over the years that are just of collection of gender stereotypes masking as a story and “Open Very Carefully” is definitely not an example of that. Furthermore, you are correct that the book says “crocodiles don’t do ballet” and not “boys don’t do ballet”. However, I do feel like young readers perceive the crocodile as male and that part of the joke is that a male is doing ballet. This type of humor and children perceiving it as funny is of course nothing new. I remember laughing when I was growing up as Bugs Bunny would dress in women’s clothes to confuse Elmer Fudd. Even popular comedy movies for older children and adults like Mrs. Doubtfire (RIP Robin Williams) or Daddy Day Care base entire plots around this type of humor. Overall as educators I feel we need to talk about stuff like this because if we don’t the constant message children get is that if someone does not fit into rigid roles then they should be laughed at.

    All that being said, I look forward to seeing what new books Nick Bromley (Author) and Nicola O’Byrne (Illustrator) come up with in the future.

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