A Few Good Children's Books
...and, as our reviewer discovered, there are just a few.
Any individualistic parent whose children are able to read will at some point come up against an unpleasant fact. Most of the young children's books on the market, or in the libraries, exhibit deplorable characteristics—intellectual vacuity, glorification of the State and other authority figures, inordinate emphasis on peer-group approval, and the like.
So REASON decided to try to seek out a list of more suitable children's books for the family oriented toward individual liberty. We sent letters to the children's book editors of 36 publishing houses. First we explained a little about the libertarian point of view and about REASON. Then we invited them to submit for review any of their in-print books, suitable for children ages 2-10, which:
• avoid racism, sex-role stereotypes, and violence and brutality and promoted racial brotherhood, decency, nonsexist role choice, etc.;
• encourage self-directed personal growth and instincts for free cooperation and avoid glorification of authority, including and particularly governmental authority:
• avoid emphasis on peer-group norm setting or approval;
• contribute to character formation and development of moral awareness (without invoking religious authority);
• encourage acquisition of knowledge, clear thinking, imagination, and reading skills and have a coherent story line or plot.
We also promised that if the books submitted were stinkers, we would mercifully omit them from the review.
The results can be summarized briefly. Of the 36 publishers contacted, only 10 responded. We received a total of 29 books. Despite the fact that our letter to publishers specified ages 2-10 in three places—once underscored—7 of the 29 books were clearly for ages 10 or up. Another 5 books were not unsatisfactory but bore little in common with the REASON criteria, and 10 more ranged from vapid to utterly deplorable. Of the 29 books received, only 7 were judged worthy of favorable mention.
Perhaps the best of the "winners" is Johanna Johnston's Harriet and the Runaway Book (Harper & Row, ages 7-11, $5.95). This is a child's biography of the celebrated 19th-century author whose writings did so much to inflame public opinion against the evils of human slavery.
Harriet Beecher was one of eight children of the famous minister Lyman Beecher. As a child, she eagerly competed with her three older brothers, both in performing homestead chores and in the family debates Lyman Beecher encouraged around the dinner table. She became so accomplished for her age that Lyman Beecher would say, "Hattie should have been a boy!" At 13 young Hattie began as a teacher's aid—in Latin—with students often bigger than she.
When her father moved to teach at a seminary in Cincinnati, young Harriet had her first opportunity to observe the system of slavery, across the river in Kentucky. She was horrified. Soon she learned of the Underground Railroad and its tales of desperate escapes from the slavers' bloodhounds to freedom in Canada.
Harriet married Calvin Stowe, moved to Bowdoin College in Maine, and began to raise a large family. At this point in life many young women of her day would devote themselves to purely domestic pursuits. But Harriet was aflame with indignation at the Fugitive Slave Act. Her brothers Henry and Edward denounced slavery from the pulpits of New York and Boston. Harriet, now mother of six young children, determined to use her talent to strike down slavery. Her talent was the pen, coupled with her passionate opposition to an inhumane system that denied black Americans their natural right to freedom. The result was Uncle Tom's Cabin, the sensational novel that persuaded hundreds of thousands of Northerners that slavery was a moral evil that must be destroyed.
Ms. Johnston tells the story well, and Ronald Himler's evocative charcoal sketches do much to hold reader interest as the book builds to the climax of Emancipation. Harriet Beecher Stowe provides a fit subject, for she dared defy both the power of slavery and the power of sexism that disapproved of feminine participation in controversy. The book is highly recommended for young people, particularly girls.
Our second favorite is The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth, by Geoffrey Hayes (Harper & Row, ages 8-10 $5.95). This is the clever and whimsical story of a young alligator, who yearns to break out of his humdrum life as a clerk in his Auntie's stationery store, and his blacksheep Uncle Tooth, an unhappily retired sea captain.
As a youth, Tooth ran away from home to pursue a glorious quest at sea. He was determined, he tells his young nephew, to be the first to sail to the place where the sun sinks below the horizon. Through great—and amusing—deeds of cleverness and daring, Captain Tooth gains renown throughout the Seven Seas. In a dangerous voyage in search of a pirate treasure in the forbidden Sea of Spume, Tooth first wins, then loses, his heart's desire. Crushed, he retires to a shack on the beach, living in the past. But his nephew's enthusiasm rekindles the old alligator's spirit, and as the book closes the youngster and his grizzled uncle sail off together to perform great new deeds on the bounding main.
The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth is not only a clever and charming tale that will capture the imagination of young (and older) readers. It is also a song in praise of motivation, courage, stamina, ingenuity, decency, and high ideals that cannot fail to have a salutary effect on youngsters of both sexes. Highly recommended.
Three of our recommended books are the product of Lollipop Power (Chapel Hill, NC), a feminist collective dedicated to "writing, illustrating, and publishing books to counteract sex-stereotyped behavior and role models presented by society to young children." Not surprisingly, all of the Lollipop Power protagonists are females.
Ann Tompert's The Clever Princess (ages 5-9, $5/$2) is the best of the three. Princess Lorna's widowed father, the King, rules rather lackadaisically with very little imagination, along the lines of "anything not required is prohibited." Lorna thinks this regimentation is outrageously stupid. She spends a lot of time absorbing wisdom and magic lore from The Old Krone who lives in the nearby forest.
Finally the King decides it would be far more satisfying to go fishing than to police his kingdom, and he tells his counsellors that it is time to turn the kingdom over to Princess Lorna. The male-chauvinist-pig counsellors are aghast at the idea of a female ruler. They first insist that she be married off to some young man fit to rule as King, but Lorna is simply not interested in marriage. The counsellors, desperate, then persuade the King to require his daughter to pass a series of riddles and tasks. This she does with great cleverness, although she finally has to invoke The Old Krone's magic.
Lorna becomes Queen, repeals all the rigid and foolish laws of her father, and allows everyone to do his or her own thing. The kingdom blossoms with happiness and creativity, and everyone lives happily (and freely) ever after.
Amy and the Cloud Basket by Ellen Pratt (ages 3-8, $2) is the fantasy story of a girl who wants to help the males spoon clouds over the moon each day instead of hauling baskets of cloud-stuff up the mountain with the other females. The males are, as usual, aghast at the idea. Finally, when no one can think of any good reason not to let Amy do her own thing, all the sex-role stereotypes are abandoned. The story concludes, rather inexplicitly, with Amy bunked out with her friend Fred the Moon-Cow, revealing that the author has never spent much time in a cow barn.
Carlotta and the Scientist, the third Lollipop Power book, by Patricia Riley Lenthall (ages 5-9, $2), gets a somewhat more mixed review. (My four-year-old daughter loves it, which is why it stayed on the list.) Carlotta is a penguin, a species of creature distinguished by the fact that daddy penguins hatch the eggs while the mommy penguins march off to sea to collect fish for the family. (Discovery of this fact may have been a high-water mark of feminist research.) Carlotta is inquisitive, and for her curiosity is much abused by her peer group. On her way to the sea, she discovers a (female) scientist lying on the ice, a mile from her base camp. She has, it seems, twisted her ankle, and from all appearances she plans to lie there whining until she freezes solid.
The helpful Carlotta assists the scientist to return to camp, where she is repaired while Carlotta explores the curious ways of humans. Finally the expedition members take Carlotta back to her faithful husband and now-hatched chick, along with a large bag of fish.
My problem with Carlotta is the sorry picture it paints of the injured female scientist. Here she is, only one mile from her camp, with a sprained ankle. She is lying on the ice "whining." Now when one thinks of Sir Douglas Mawson's desperate and solitary march across 90 miles of Antarctic wastes, pausing now and then to pour the blood out of his boots and tape the soles of his feet back on to the uppers (not his boots, his feet), and painfully pulling himself out of a crevasse in which he is dangling, exhausted, on a thin rope at 40 degrees below zero, the whining female scientist presents a rather pitiful contrast. One cannot help but believe that Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tooth, and the clever Princess Lorna would have improved considerably on this sorry performance.
Elizabeth Catches a Fish by Jane Resh Thomas (Seabury Press, ages 6-9, $6.95) is the story of a very small adventure by a seven-year-old girl. Her father gets her a fishing rod for her birthday, and they go out at the crack of dawn to try it out. It is raining, cold, and uncomfortable, and Elizabeth more than once longs for the warm hearth of home. But she is determined, and sure enough, she finally lands a big one that is much admired by the boatman, the restaurant crowd, and her family. The story is very simple but illustrates the virtues of determination, perseverance, and mastery of new skills.
The last of the seven is Eleanor B. Heady's Safiri the Singer (Follett, ages 8-10, $5.95). This is a traditional East African Aesop's Fables, as told by a wandering "safiri," or storyteller. Like Aesop, Safiri relates wondrous tales of the animals of the forest that illustrate virtue and folly. Although the setting and character names will be unfamiliar to young Americans, the tales are readily understandable and well written for young readers.
This project has been something of a disappointment, for several reasons. The first is the low rate of response from publishers. We have no way of knowing whether the nonresponding publishers simply were not interested or whether they conscientiously searched their lists of titles without being able to produce even one suitable book for review.
The second disappointment lies in what we learned about the mentality of editors who did submit review copies. Despite our repeated insistence that the books be suitable for ages 2-10, we received seven books that clearly aimed at older children. This made us wonder whether many of the editors could read. Then there were the 10 books we received that could not, even by the most liberal construction, come close to complying with our criteria. Did the editors really believe that those books met those criteria? This troublesome question raises real doubts about the mentality of children's book editors.
The third disappointment lies in the all-too-abbreviated repertoire unearthed by our efforts. We are sure that there must be many more children's books in print that meet REASON's criteria. Unfortunately, we can not think of any better way to identify them for the benefit of the parents. Several REASON readers submitted titles (see box) of books they found commendable, but these books were not submitted for review by their publishers.
Well, maybe some other time we can make a bigger catch.
John McClaughry is president of the Institute for Liberty and Community in Concord, Vermont.
CHILDREN'S BOOKS RECOMMENDED BY REASON READERS
The Carrot Seed. Ruth Krauss. Scholastic Book Services, 1971. Ages 5-8.
Ben Goes into Business. Marilyn Hirsh. Holiday House, 1973. Ages 6-10. $4.95.
The Toothpaste Millionaire. Jean Merrill. Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Ages 7-10. $6.95.
The Man Who Made Fine Tops. Marie Winn. Simon & Schuster, 1970. Ages 5-8. $2.95.
A Mouse To Be Free. Joyce W. Warren. Sea Cliff Press, 1973. Ages 6-9. Avon Paperback, 1975. $1.25.
Nobody's Family Is Going to Change. Louise Fitzhugh. Dell, 1975. Ages 7-10. $1.50 (paper).
Lift Her Up Tenderly. Robert LeFevre. Pine Tree Press, 1976. Ages 8-10. $6.95.
Anatole. Eve Titus. McGraw Hill, 1956. Ages 3-6. $5.95.