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[Review] Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?; Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

roland

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?

Published 2013, Huntley Rahara Press. Suitable for ages 3+

From the cover:

“Roland Humphrey is a little boy for whom sparkly pink things bring a measure of joy. Roland sees girls at his school dress in a rainbow of hues and is confused by the “rules” limiting what boys can choose. He likes sports but also ballet; Roland doesn’t understand why girls can like both but for boys there’s just one way.

Will he bow to peer pressure? Conform to others’ ideas of who he should be? Or will he follow his own heart and be the authentic Roland Humphrey?

I love books that do their part to destroy gender binaries, harmful stereotypes and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? is just such a book.

Unlike a number of other books I’ve featured Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? does not address gender directly. It’s speaks of the unwritten rules that seek to shape our behavior and keep us complicit in our biologically determined gender roles.

Roland’s dilemma is one familiar to many children of liberal parents. He’s always been taught that he can dress how he likes without judgement but this theory is tested when he is outside the safety of the familial home; when Roland wears his ‘girly’ colours and motifs to school, his friends make a helpful list of what is appropriate for him to wear.

Lucy and Ella's colour rules 4 boys

Lucy and Ella’s colour rules 4 boys

Roland is upset by these prescriptive demands, but the next day he’s made a decision:

“Hi friends!” in a bright voice Roland declared.
“You need to know that I’m no longer scared.

Not scared about how you’ll view what I’m wearing,
because I’ve decided I need to be daring.

What matters to me is whether you’re kind.
The friends I deserve truly won’t mind

if I choose sparkly nailpolish, skirts or clogs,
they’ll like me for me, not for my togs.

Roland’s decision to be true to himself appears to have given him more than just the confidence to wear pink. For the first time we see him wearing a dress and tiara, a fairy wand and catcher’s mitt peeping out of his backpack.

Digital illustrations from Katrina Revenaugh are bright and colourful, making full use of the so-called feminine palette, stylistically recalling the work of Rex  Ray in 10,000 Dresses. Each page is  full of interest.

The narrative, unfortunately, leaves a little to be desired. Kiernan-Johnson tells Roland’s story in rhyming couplets, but the language is occasionally forced and the rhythm sometimes stumbles. These slips are jarring and make for an uncomfortable reading experience.

There’s something about Roland Humphrey… that I can only describe as a self-published quality. It is well meaning, absolutlely, and it hits the mark about 70% of the time, which is absolutely not bad. But it needs to be hitting the mark 100% of the time. The language is slightly off; the cover text feels like an afterthought. Revenaugh’s art is lovely, but it’s just not matched by the text, which means Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? scrapes 5/10.

My thanks to Huntley Rahara for providing a copy for review.

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A Kickstarter project worth getting behind

photo-little

Help make art, get rewarded

First, a disclaimer: I am in no way involved with this project. The gushing and fawning that follows is entirely genuine.

The Waste Land is an epic poem in five parts, a key modernist text by T.S. Eliot  published in 1922. It’s famous for its disjointed style, multiple voices and heavy intertextuality. It’s not what you’d call light-hearted. Consider the opening lines:

1. Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

A trip to the ice cream parlour on a hot Summers’ day it ain’t. With its apocalyptic visions, raw nihilism and visceral condemnation of our culture as degraded to its very nadir, The Waste Land does not seem like it should easily lend itself to adaptation into a picture book format.

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pages from the The Waste Land for Babies prototype

BUT! All the reasons why it shouldn’t work are all the reasons why it does. Fragmentation. Strong imagery. The layering of meaning. These are the things that make a picture book excellent. These are the things that make a picture book art.

Of course it’s irreverent, tongue-in-cheek stuff that’s as much for babies as Go the Fuck to Sleep, or Where’s My Cow?. With a knowing nod to Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells immensely popular That’s not my... series it’s an experiment and a loving satire, and probably a whole heap of other stuff too. The only way to find out is to fund it.

If that’s not enough for you, here are my top 5 reasons why you should fund this kickstarter:

  1. While the title of this book may draw comparisons to the twee, hipsterish and affront-to-the-good-name-of-literature Babylit series it is absolutely nothing of the sort*.
  2. The artwork is delicious.
  3. If this is successful, there will be more (I’m putting in an early vote for Ariel). If there’s more, a mainstream publishing house could very well get involved.
  4. Christmas presents for every goth and every English teacher you know: sorted.
  5. I need this book in  my life.

So please, go to artist M.E. Gilligan’s Kickstarter page, check out her art, watch the vid and pledge as little as £1. Let’s make this thing happen.

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*I have nothing against educational primers, really I don’t, but this series is just a cash in. Each book has about as much to do with its literary namesake as the Bermudan economy relies on snow-blowers.

Three Picture Books for Gender-Variant Children

Content warning. Some brief transphobic language appears below (for illustrative purposes only).

There are comparatively few picture  books on the market that feature characters questioning or struggling with their gender identity or experimenting with their gender expression. Frequently recommended are books about feeling ‘different’, such as 70’s favourite Oliver Button is a Sissy, but feeling different can present in myriad ways, so it’s nice to have something more specific.

While I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these books, they are not without fault. They tend towards a binary view of  gender, so if you don’t feel like a boy you must feel like a girl (though that may be by the nature of the thing: the sample is too small to allow much diversity), and feature significantly more protagonists assigned male at birth than assigned female (I am yet to find one that features a protagonist assigned female at birth, and I’ve looked really hard!). This is a trend about which I have Thoughts which I shall have to arrange before I share*.

To the bookshelf!

My Princess Boy; Cheryl Kildodavis, Suzanne Desimone (illus.)

downloadI’ve picked My Princess Boy, published in 2011, because it does not treat transvestism as necessarily being a symptom of or gateway to gender identity disorder. The eponymous Princess Boy is Kildodavis’ son Dyson, and, as the cover note explains, “sometimes he wears dresses, and sometimes he wears jeans.” The book has, predictably, been torn apart by bigots** and people who think children are stupid, but it is of course absolutely and completely harmless.

The books dominant message is an anti-bullying one. It’s aimed lass at cross-dressing or gender variant children than it is at the traditionally gendered kids that might poke fun at them. My Princess Boy asks readers if they will would tease or laugh at a Princess Boy, and  teaches that though sometimes people can be cruel, those who love you will accept who you are.

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Our Princess Boy is happy because we love him for who he is.

Dyson is referred to as ‘my/our Princess Boy’ throughout. It’s made clear that Dyson feels as much like a boy as any other might, he just likes to wear dresses (and really, who can blame him? Dresses are awesome). The book uses humanization techniques to encourage empathy, emphasising familial bonds as a point of identification that inspires compassion.

Some may be put off by the blank, walnut-shaped faces of the characters, but not allowing readers to parse emotion in facial expression forces them to search inside themselves, aiding the cognitive processes of empathy.

10,000 Dresses; Marcus Ewert, Rex Roy (illus)

tumblr_l7mj1uihsf1qctkybo1_r1_5001Bailey, the protagonist of 10,000 Dresses appears entirely genderless on the page. Identified as having been assigned male at birth, the text always refers to her using female pronouns (except in direct quotes). Pronouns are important, so it’s great to find a picture book that gets it right.

Ewert and Roy deliver a classic coming out narrative in 10,000 Dresses, providing as primary antagonists Bailey’s family who are less than positive about Bailey’s pronouncements that she would like to buy a dress:

“Bailey, what are you talking about? You’re a boy. Boys don’t wear dresses!”

“But… I don’t feel like a boy,” Bailey said.

“Well you are one, Bailey, and that’s that! Now go away… and don’t mention dresses again!”

Bailey went to her room.

Bailey perseveres through the reactions of her family, and finally finds acceptance when she meets a big girl named Laurel who helps Bailey be herself.

The text is immersed in the illustrations, validating the images and through them Bailey’s world. Each fully illustrated page is a rainbow and a wide brush-stroke effect adds vibrancy and texture to each spread. Bailey’s feelings are enlarged upon by the illustrations, so when Mother speaks she dominates the page,  lowering the horizon line and skewing perspective and making a threatening presence of her and her ideas.

The final dress of Bailey’s imaginings speaks of her desire to break free. The dress, made up of windows, the dress, says Ewert, allows her to “look out onto the entire world” in all it’s beauty and difference, and when she meets Laurel and together they make dresses made from mirrors the sentiment is underlined. Now Bailey can see the world around her, but she can also see herself.

The book teaches that sometimes we must undertake a journey to be who we are, but pursuing happiness and comfort in our own skins is worth it.

Goblinheart;Brett Axel, Terra Bidlespacher (illus.)

gblinheartGoblinheart is a  gem from a small Liberal publisher that’s new to the market. Mark my words: it will get picked up by a publishing house in the Big Time and when it does you should dash out and buy it immediately. If you just can’t wait, the best place to buy it at the moment is etsy, but if you’re in the US, it’s also available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

This version is not perfect – there are one or two misprints; the hardback format isn’t really right – but these are frivolous considerations compared to Axel and Bidlespacher’s sensitive, wonderful handling of trans issues.

Goblinheart tells the story of Julep, a youngster who lives in a forest-dwelling tribe of mythical creatures who grow up to be either goblins or fairies. Fairies grow wings when they are approaching adulthood, goblins grow claws, and each takes up a role according to the category their body suggests.

Julep begins to sprout wings, but just doesn’t feel like a fairy on the inside:

Julep shook a little, but remained brave. After taking a deep slow breath Julep replied, “I know that you believe that I belong with the fairies. I certainly understand why you would, but even though I look like a fairy, I am sure I am really a goblin.”

The story is a simple one, which directly addresses some of the issues that trans and gender-variant children might face: acceptance both within and outside the family, practical considerations (in this case wing-binding) and having the confidence to self-define. It’s presented thoughtfully and forthrightly in both text and illustration. Bidlespacher’s  monochrome line drawings are emotive and sharp, with genderless bodies against detailed backgrounds and a motif of grass fronds pulling the illustrations together.

Though the book never mentions gender and avoids pronouns, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face. Nevertheless it made me sob uncontrollably the first time I read it. I cannot recommend Goblinheart strongly enough.

Adult resources for understanding and supporting trans or non-binary gender children.

These books have been recommended to be by sources I consider to be reliable; I cannot vouch for them all personally.

The Trans Youth Family Allies website.

A Guide for Parents and Family Members of Trans People in the UK, PDF produced by gendered intelligence.

Transwhat? website.

Transitions of the Heart book/e-book.

Transgender Explained for Those who are Not book/e-book.

The Transgender Child;  A Handbook for Families and Professionals book/e-book.

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*Mainly these thoughts have been me inwardly exclaiming what’s that about then? and not really knowing, so it might be a while.

**Hilarious sample quote: ” Al-Qaeda and the rest of the terrorist-loving Islamic world isn’t [sic] teaching their boys to be women and their women to be alpha males.” BECAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHO WE SHOULD BE LOOKING TO FOR PARENTING TIPS.

Exploring the classics: My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes

My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, Eve Sutton, Lynley Dodd (illus.)

It’s hard not to love My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes. It’s the literary equivalent of that bit in The Twelve Days of Christmas where people get far to excited and dash in from other rooms to sing FIIIIIIIVE GOOOOOOLLLLD RIIIIIINGS. It’s a warm, snuggly blanket of a picture book, familiar and comforting, ready to remind us that in the bustle and transience of life some things are constant.

Written by Eve Sutton and illustrated by Lynley Dodd (probably more famous for her Hairy McLairy series) My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes was first published in New Zealand in 1973. It takes the form of a cumulative rhyme – much like the festive ditty I previously mentioned – which compares the goings on of feline’s from around the world with the reader-narrator’s cat who, as you probably have guessed, likes to hide in boxes.

There is, or course, a universal truth at the centre of the book; cats do like to hide in boxes. Beginning with this recognisable premise, we soon see cats take on a number of human behaviours, growing more outlandish as the book progresses. This sort of frivolity and silliness is great fun for adults and children alike. At the core of the text, though, is a message of love and acceptance.

Cumulative verses often show up  in nursery rhymes (like ‘This is the House that Jack Built’) and as word or memory games. Generally, though not always, items are listed, each with a distinguishing feature, and recited in order. A new item is added each time the rhyme is recited until a conclusion is reached. Such is the case with My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes. The words on the page are lyrical and chanting, affording plenty of opportunities for joining in and meaning that the book is ideal for reading aloud to groups.

Unlike some other picture books from decades-gone-by (Flat Stanley, for example), new issues of My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes retain Dodd’s original artwork. A palette of strong primary and secondary block colours make for a bold, graphic set of images which sit opposite small chunks of text in plain white space. The uniform layout and uncluttered pages provide an engaging experience.

Highly stylised yet incredibly simple, the illustrations seem at first glance like they may not offer much information supplementary to the rhyming verse, but this is far from the case. Most blatantly, the book teaches the names of a handful of countries – along with a crude caricature of the national dress – in a format that makes them easily memorable. Less obviously, and perhaps more valuably, the book teaches a lesson in the value of difference and the universal lack of a standardised measure of love.

The final double page spread of the book gathers together each cat along with their character marker – the Japanese cat with its fan, the Norwegian cat with his surprising girth – and reminds us why they are special:

Look at all these clever cats,
Cats from Spain, Brazil and France,
Cats form Greece, Japan and Norway
Cats who sing and fly and dance…

the ellipsis urges us to turn the page, where we find the narrator’s cat curled sleeping up in a box marked TOY BOX.

“BUT MY CAT LIKES TO HIDE IN BOXES”

The implication is clear. No matter what talents we may or may not possess we are all special. From those with extraordinary talents to those who are quietly just like everyone else, we’re all pretty great. That the narrator’s cat is nestled among their toys, their own prized possessions, indicates a deep attachment. This cat may not be able to fly a plane or dance but he is loved. It’s a message most of us would do well to remember.

Why study picture books?

Why do I study picture books? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to change the subject completely, and introduce my very favourite piece of pre-Raphaelite art.

This is The Awakening Conscience. It’s by William Holman Hunt and it was finished in 1853. At first glance it is a moment between husband and wife captured in time. But look closer. Why is the woman in her nightgown? Where is her wedding ring? See his hat and book on the table? The man is a visitor in this parlour: They are not husband and wife, they are lover and mistress. Read the rest of this entry

Review: The Further Tales of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson, illus. Eleanor Taylor

Published September 2012. F. Warne & Co. List price £12.99

Appropriate for ages 20 months and up

From the cover:

‘Peter Rabbit is in low spirits, what he needs is a change of scene. He squeezes under the gate into Mr McGregor’s garden intending to steal a lettuce – but what happens next is just the excitement that Peter is looking for.

He discovers a picnic basket and before Peter knows it he is in Scotland, and so the further tale of Peter Rabbit begins…’

Beatrix Potter’s series of 24 books, published between 1902 and 1930 are classics, enjoyed in childhood and beyond. Peter Rabbit, who made his first appearance in 1902 with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is undoubtedly the most popular of Potter’s beloved characters. It is testament to the popularity of the naughty little rabbit and his creator that so many adaptations have been produced: from countless animated versions to a ballet, Beatrix Potter biopics, CD-ROMs & other digital media and myriad merchandise, they have been reproduced and absorbed in to our culture and recognised as a significant point in the history of children’s literature. The books are, unusually for the age, child-sized; the illustrations are designed to be read in conjunction with the text; even Potter’s merchandising of her characters was groundbreaking at the turn of the last century. Read the rest of this entry

Three Picture Books about Anger

Picture books are among our first experiences of literature; we encounter them at an age when we are at our most egocentric and impatient, capable of throwing legendary  temper tantrums disproportionate to our tiny size. Using picture books to explore the feelings that provoke such a violent response which we have not yet learned to control is a useful tool in negotiating emotional development and learned cultural values.

Reading picture books about anger can offer techniques for processing feelings of rage, help develop self-awareness and empathy, and can be used, as blogger and teacher Jennifer Downing does with one of the titles below,  to explore the kinds of conflict that lead to anger.

These picture books (one from the 60s, one from the 80s and finally one published just six months ago) each examine the nature of anger either in a ‘safe space’ that is fantasy, or as a sharply didactic narrative of lived experience. Contrasts and similarities between the two approaches make the books interesting companions.

Read the rest of this entry