Although I found much to celebrate in the aftermath of the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards announcements, I admit that I sat licking my wounds over one favorite picture book that didn’t make the Caldecott cut: Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown. I’d given a copy to my eight-year-old daughter Caroline, and my liking of the book deepened into outright adoration through our shared reading.
“Look how the farmer teaches the clown-kid farm things, and the clown teaches the farmer clown things. But the farmer messes up the juggling, and that’s funny,” she noted. Later, she expanded her analysis of Frazee’s complex and complementary characterizations: “How this book works is, it’s like he’s happy but then really sad,” she said pointing to the clown, “and like he’s sad but then is really happy,” she concluded with respect to the farmer.
Appearances are deceptive, in other words, and a happy face can mask inner pain, as surely as a gruff exterior can obscure a heart of gold.
I’ve long admired Frazee’s work, and I had high hopes that this picture book might be the one that would propel her from two-time Caldecott Honor bridesmaid status to Caldecott Medal bride. To me, it’s the whole package — a remarkable feat of wordless storytelling, a rich visual experience, an emotionally powerful and satisfyingly rich narrative.
Clearly, behind their closed doors in Chicago, the committee wasn’t in agreement with me.
Having served on the 2011 Caldecott committee, I can attest to the integrity of the process. It’s a collaborative effort in which many voices and perspectives weigh in to come to agreement, and I know from experience that one’s favorite books don’t always rise to the top. Due to the confidentiality of deliberations, we’ll never know why Frazee’s (brilliant!) wordless book didn’t make the cut for the Medal or for one of the six (six!) Honor citations; but rumblings outside of the committee room, on the internet, and in a mock Caldecott session that I oversaw suggest a very sorry reason that some people (please note — I am not pointing any fingers at those on the 2015 committee) weren’t feeling the love for this particular title.
And I’m not even talking about coulrophobia here. Reactions based on how “creepy” clowns are don’t stick in my craw the same way other comments do: those about the perceived “creepy” dynamic between the elder farmer (described by Caroline as “kind and nice”) and the small clown. The mock Caldecott I oversaw last December was the first place I encountered this perception. A participant suggested that others (not necessarily she) might take issue with the scenes of an older, solitary man sitting by the bedside of a young, vulnerable child.
Whaaaat? I wanted to say.
I just couldn’t see how the farmer could be read as predatory. Gruff (at first), sure…but a threat to this little clown-kid?
What I saw instead in this reception of the book was cause for an indictment of a contemporary culture that persists in viewing older, solitary, and I would add, gentle men as threats. It’s a pernicious viewpoint that smacks of rigid gender roles (real men aren’t nurturers, so there must be some sinister motivation behind his caring demeanor) and homophobia (Why is this guy alone? Where’s the lady, the angel of the house, to keep him in check?), and it makes me want to look for the nearest soapbox. Don’t get me wrong — I know that some children do suffer terrible abuse at the hands of men. I don’t deny or minimize this awful truth. It’s the automatic equation of the older, solitary, gentle man with predator that troubles me.
I heard similar rumblings after my Caldecott committee named A Sick Day for Amos McGee as the 2011 Medalist. In several subsequent conversations with students, Amos was deemed “creepy.” To my bafflement, he was likened to Mister Rogers — in a bad way. Now, I admit that I have a real soft spot for Fred Rogers. I grew up loving his show (go ahead and watch this clip of his Lifetime Achievement speech from the Daytime Emmys; it’s worth it). I naively hadn’t realized the vitriol, or at least mistrust, with which some regard him — saying he comes across as a pedophile.
Whaaat? I wanted to say (again).
But a teacher doesn’t say such things if she wants her students to think through assumptions and such. So instead I asked, “Tell me more. Why do you think Mister Rogers is creepy?” Or Amos? Or Frazee’s farmer?
The gentle, nurturing, and perhaps sometimes effeminate attributes of these solitary older male characters quickly came to the forefront of our discussion. While steering the class into a consideration of gender norms and their limiting power, I was nevertheless heartbroken. Not just on behalf of Amos, or Mister Rogers, or now for Frazee’s farmer, but also the many wonderfully gentle, older, solitary men in the real world — and the children they nurture.
I find myself determined to rise up in defense of them. I want to highlight others like them in children’s literature to assert their rightful, and I would argue crucial, place in children’s (reading) lives. I’m particularly invested in this as the mother of sons who need and deserve diverse models of masculinity, and as the mother of children with not one but two stepfathers, along with their two devoted moms.
My ex-wife’s current partner is a loving, playful, energetic sort who evokes the type of fatherly spirit found in Bob Shea’s Oh, Daddy! He tussles with the kids and delights in roughhouse play and open physical affection. Meanwhile, my husband, Sean, makes me think of all those thoughtful, patient, gentle mouse dads in Kevin Henkes’s picture books, letting the kids come to him and greeting them with open arms. “I always wanted a dad,” my son Stevie whispered when Sean tucked him into bed on the night we announced our engagement.
Peers for Frazee’s gruff farmer, too, abound in other examples of children’s literature. Perhaps my favorite is found not on a farm, but in the middle of a city during the Great Depression in Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Gardener. Little Lydia Grace melts the heart of her crotchety bachelor uncle Jim in this picture book, and I have a hard time getting through it without tearing up at the sight of his goodbye to her at book’s end. Might others regard his hug as…too much? Or his earlier gestures of kindness as somehow problematic?
Other men in children’s books needn’t be transformed to display remarkable generosity and kindness to children, because these are their defining attributes. Two nameless characters come immediately to mind: the man who tosses Max drumsticks at the end of Brian Pinkney’s Max Found Two Sticks and the one who gives Ben a trumpet at the conclusion of Rachel Isadora’s Ben’s Trumpet. These are quick, resolved interactions between characters, the men appearing to instigate wish-fulfillment and to conclude, satisfyingly, the boys’ stories. But in light of the responses to Amos, the farmer, and Mister Rogers that I’ve detailed, might some regard these acts as incidents of stranger danger?
Far more dangerous, it seems to me, is a lack of interrogation of the cultural forces that could lead readers to perceive such men as threats. Men’s nurturing roles in children’s lives are not only potentially beneficial to children, they are liberating for women, long expected to be the primary (if not sole) nurturers in families. So, from my perch up here on the soapbox, I’ll cheer on diverse examples of masculinity in books for young readers and continue to rail against the limited and limiting lenses that would deem the farmer or Amos or Mister Rogers “creepy.” I’m not saying that all of these books deserve medals for the ways they push against gender norms, but surely such themes should not be cited as the reason not to recommend or reward a book.