Oh, the wonderful world of toddler picture books and more . . .

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tereza Topferova

Part I: My Many Colored Days
I took my son to a thrift store last month and bought a few toys, including a pink stroller and a black doll, and books. When we got home, I read one of them, My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, with my son. The illustrations are beautiful paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. And my son and I usually enjoy Dr. Seuss books, but this one… oy vey!?

The “narrator” of the book is a yellowish-orangish gingerbreadman-like figure who talks about the different ways s/he feels on different days. The feelings are all based on colors. The pages dealing with colors that don’t usually describe skin colors are fine: “Gray Day… Everything is gray. I watch. But nothing moves today.” or “Then all of a sudden I’m a circus seal! On my Orange Days that’s how I feel.” Okay, fine. Those are generally happy or neutral, innocuous feelings and pictures.

But when we get to colors that are typically used to describe skin color or race, take a look at this: “Some days, of course, feel sort of Brown. Then I feel slow and low, low down.”

“Then come my Black Days. Mad. And loud. I howl. I growl at every cloud.” This page, of course, has some sort of a wild boar or dog with big teeth and a mean expression, growling at the sky. Scary!

How about our “multiracial page” with gingerbread people of all different colors? “Then comes a Mixed-Up Day. And Wham! I don’t know who or what I am!”

Of course, there is also the yellow page. I really hope that no one describes Asians as yellow anymore, but I have to quote here: “Then comes a Yellow Day. I am a busy, buzzy bee.” Where the other pages had just one animal each, this one has a swarm of bees with indistinguishable features, all flying in the same direction.

Finally, after going through all the colors, including the confusing multi-color page, the narrator concludes: “But it all turns out all right, you see. And I go back to being . . . me.” Phew! So relieved is our gingerbreadman with green eyes that he doesn’t have to feel black, brown, or all mixed up from too many colors confusing his days. So much for a book linking skin colors with negative emotions and stereotypes. Very disappointing, to say the least. I have removed the book from “circulation” :)

Part II: Survey of the Diversity in my Son’s Books
My experience with the “color theory” of My Many Colored Days as well as anti-racist parent Sue Lyons-Joell’s survey of diversity in parenting magazines, led me to do my own little survey of my son’s books.

I sorted his picture books, most of them geared towards toddlers, into piles:

  • a pile of books featuring animals or objects (no people)
  • a pile of books which include “visible minorities” (subjective definition, of course)
  • a pile of books which incorporate white people or ambiguous/unknown people race-wise
  • a pile of Dr. Seuss books only
  • a pile of books in the Czech language (I am raising my son to be bilingual and bicultural)

Here are the results:

“Jay”, who is nearly twenty-months old, has a total of 52 books. Of those, 16 books focus on objects and animals, excluding humans all together. Nine are Dr. Seuss books, which incorporate humans that are either white or ambiguous-looking. One of Jay’s Dr. Seuss book, My Many Colored Days, is, as I said above, quite problematic in its association of negative characteristics with colors often used to describe skin tones.

Four books are Czech picture books. Three of them include white people only (the Czech Republic does happen to be 97% white) and one has one page portraying a father and child of color (They are Roma). This page unfortunately reinforces stereotypes about the Roma people, because the two are shown dancing around the fire; a sort of primitive, tribal image very much removed from reality. This is something I hope to discuss and balance out with other portrayals when my son gets older.

Ten books include “visible minorities”, whether in drawings or photographs. However, none of my son’s books has a person of color as a central character or depicts solely people of color. Next, twelve books focus on whites or racially ambiguous people, whom I did not count as “visible minorities”.

To sum up, only 19% of the total of my son’s books and 28% of all his books featuring people, include “visible minorities”, and 0% focus solely on people of color. Time to change that ASAP!

So far, I’ve had no luck in bookstores or thrift stores. The only used books I’ve found whose central characters are people of colors have been old discarded racist library books about Native Americans and tiny caricature-style “tribal” people in the jungle. You know, the pejorative type that perpetuates stereotypes. When browsing in bookstores, I have only seen toddler books about white children or animals. I will have to do some research before my next trip to a bookstore.

Suggestions welcome!

Part III: Stereotyping Toddlers’ Gender
My son is currently obsessed with things that go – trucks, diggers, bulldozers, and the like. He pretty much wants to watch these types of vehicles in action, talk about them, read about them and play with them all day long every day. At this point, it would be easy to say that my little boy is a typical male already. My feminist self would be highly disappointed at this concession I’d be making in contradiction with what I really want to believe: that most gender stereotypes are a result of socialization, not biology. Here is my disappointed feminist self buying into the “manly boy” stereotype : “I guess there is something to that stereotype that boys like truck and tools and that sucks, because I hate stereotypes.”

Thank goodness that at just the right time, a survey, which to a large extent dispelled my fears, came my way via email. The babycenter.com poll on the topic of favorite toddler picture books asked parents of boys and girls separately to choose a picture book theme in which their child is most interested.

According to the survey, taken by over 74,000 people, the majority, or 34% of boys who are toddlers, prefer picture books about animals. 26% of toddler boys are reported to show no preference. Picture books about things that go, such as trains, cars, and diggers, are preferred by only 21% of boys – the third, not the first largest group.

Most girls also prefer books about animals, though only 2% of girls as opposed to 21% of boys are interested in things that go. I guess that still means that boys my son’s age are ten times more likely than girls to prefer books about vehicles.

When my son started getting excited about diggers and trucks in the real world, I got him a couple of picture books focusing on those. I went with his interest. (The stroller and a doll I got him recently he plays with once in a while, but only a small fraction of time compared to diggers, bulldozers, and dump trucks.) Weeks later he still loves books about things that go the most.

I wonder if in general girls are less exposed than boys to car-type toys and books about vehicles, because the toys chosen for them are already based on gender stereotypes. Are toddlers’ gender identities, even those of children under two, already getting shaped by the toys, games, and books these children are exposed to? My hunch is yes. If so, does the babycenter.com survey reflect that?

Tereza Topferova is a teacher, who has worked with both youth and adults, teaching English, Czech, speech, journalism, creative writing, workplace communication, and vocational education. She grew up in the Czech Republic and immigrated to the U.S. at age fourteen. She is a mother of a toddler and blogs at White Anti-Racist Parent.

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