Is Ladybug Girl a feminist? Gender roles in David Soman and Jacky Davis’s Ladybug Girl Series

In my perusal of the internet in search of non-sexist picture books, I have come across several people hailing Ladybug Girl by David Soman and Jacky Davis as a feminist celebration of children’s imagination. Being drawn to children’s books that break down gender and other stereotypes, I had to check out the series for myself.  Overall I would say that these are some of my favorite picture books, but that they do fall into some of the more typical traps of gender stereotyping.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl"

Cover of Ladybug Girl

The  series justifiably garners a lot of praise for depicting a young girl using her imagination  to be independent and capable. Whenever Lulu finds faces a challenge, whether that is building a fort in Ladybug Girl, finding her trusty dog Bingo in Ladybug Girl and Bingo, facing down an army of giants in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad, or finding ways to compromise in Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy she reminds herself that she is Ladybug Girl and Ladybug girl can do anything! Whether the challenges are part of her imaginary play, like the army of giants, or real-life conflicts with friends, she is able find the courage and strength to find her own solutions. This is a powerful antidote to tropes that cast girls and women as damsels in distress.

However, I think the series is more accurately a celebration of imagination rather than feminist offering for young children. While the companion board book Ladybug Girl Dresses Up shows Lulu in a variety of costumes, including typically masculine characters like Sherlock Holmes, the character that gives the series its name is the tutu-clad Ladybug Girl. As a woman who has always insisted that I can climb trees and go hiking in skirts just as easily as pants, I appreciate the fact that the tutu doesn’t slow her down. Still, she may be deviating from the princess norm, but she is hardly escaping the expectation that girls find their power in ruffles and bows.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy&...

Cover of Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy

The books become more enmeshed in problematic social norms when we exit the world and see her interacting with other children and her family. Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy introduces Lulu’s friend Sam from music class. The two children struggle to find common interest on the playground–Sam wants to play diggers, Lulu doesn’t want to get sand in her boots, Lulu wants to play on the teeter-totter, but Sam isn’t interested. Realizing that she never has trouble finding fun things to do when she is Ladybug Girl, Lulu invites Sam to join her in imaginative play. He agrees, and as Bumblebee Boy works with Ladybug Girl to vanquish a giant snake, save Bingo from a monster, and otherwise defend the playground from danger.

While I appreciate using imagination to find common ground, I couldn’t help but notice that the imaginative games change when Lulu has a male playmate. Left to her own devices, Lulu rides giant turtles, builds forts, and hunts for treasure. When Sam joins the game, it becomes an “us vs. them” world of superheroes in conflict with villains.  On the way to the playground, Ladybug uses her strength to help an elderly neighbor carry groceries; Bumblebee Boy uses his stinger (a stick) to battle a monster (the tire swing). From Lulu’s concern with getting dirty in the sandbox to her grudging admission that “being a princess wouldn’t be so bad,” the play preferences of the two children reflect gendered stereotypes about how girls and boys play.  I find the minor character of Dragonfly Girl–who wears pants and is excited to be able to breathe fire–to be more compelling, but she does not get very much attention in the series.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl at the Beach"

Cover of Ladybug Girl at the Beach

Unfortunately, gender stereotypes extend beyond the children and their play styles. In Ladybug Girl at the Beach, we see Lulu’s father loaded up like a pack-horse carrying all the umbrellas, bags, and blankets  necessary for the family outing to the beach, while Lulu’s mother walks with the children.  While Lulu’s father is present in many of the books, he has few lines, making him more of a background presence in Lulu’s life than an active figure. This reflects common beliefs about the different roles of mothers and fathers. Lulu’s mother, on the other hand, has the time, energy, and money to prepare art projects and cupcakes for all of Lulu’s friends in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad. 

Lulu lives in a very specific world–one where everyone is white (except for some background faces at the playground), where pre-school children enroll in music classes, where people live in large houses with giant libraries on acres of land (and yet can walk to a playground).  While such settings are not unrealistic–there are in fact plenty of upper class families out there who take camping trips together, and trips to the beach, and have entire fields of sunflowers in their yard–I would like to see Ladybug overcoming some of the challenges that happen when children encounter kids from backgrounds different from their own.

Despite all of this deconstruction, I want to re-iterate that I really enjoy this series. I have read all of them to my son, and get excited when I find a new one at the library. The stories deal with real problems children face without being at all didactic or preachy, and the art is lovely. It would be a five-star series if it just worked a little harder at avoiding stereotypes and including more diversity.

Advertisements

Sing Along Picture Books Part II: Books that aren’t songs, but beg to be sung

In my previous post, I mentioned a few of my favorite picture book versions of children’s songs. Sometimes, though, a picture book will come with no musical notation, no “to the tune of ___________” encouragements, and yet will beg to be sung nonetheless. Or at least, they do if you are the kind of person who tends to make up silly, random songs for everything from diaper changes to walking up the stairs.

charlie parker

I first encountered Charlie Parker played be bop by Chris Raschka at a musical story with a musical therapist from Boston Early Intervention at our local branch of the public library. The woman who does story hour sang the story, snapping her fingers and tapping her feet as she went.  When I later checked the book out of the library, I expected it to have some sort of musical notation to lead me to her tune.  Nope. But really, no notation is needed. Chris Raschka captures the rhythms of jazz in his writing. You might not arrive at exactly the same tune we use, but I guarantee that you will be tempted to belt out reeti futi reeti futi reeti footi ree!

jazz baby

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many of the books I find myself singing have jazz themes. Lisa Wheeler’s Jazz Baby introduces you to a scat singing, blues dancing family and their rollicking neighborhood as they celebrate and ultimately rock their jazz baby to sleep. We love this book because it is fun to read (and sing!), and because it places the baby in the context of extended family and neighbors in an urban setting. So many picture books reduce the family to its nuclear manifestation, or worse, a simplistic mother-baby dyad. In Wheeler’s book, Uncles, Aunts, Grandma, Grandpa and all the neighbors join the fun. R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations provide the cast with a multiplicity of skin-tones, to capture the true diversity of our families and our world. A 2008 Geisel Award honor book, Jazz baby is great for early readers as well as reading aloud.

moo moo brown cow

I feel a little silly putting Jakki Wood’s Moo Moo Brown Cow in a post about picture books that aren’t meant to be sung, because it seems so obvious to me that it is meant to be sung to the tune of “Baa baa, black sheep.” However, none of the official descriptions or reviews I have read say anything about singing it so I am going to put it in this post anyway. In Moo Moo, Brown Cow, a curious kitty asks all of her animal friends about their offspring, beginning with “Moo, Moo Brown cow, have you any calves? Yes kitty, yes kitty one spotted calf” and working up to “Glub glub rainbow trout have you any small fry? Yes kitty, yes kitty can you count all ten?” This book gives an opportunity to practice several different concepts: colors, animals and their babies, animal sounds, and counting. I would not recommend this book for colors though, as the illustrations don’t always match the text (the picture of the white duck is very clearly yellow).

Sing Along Picture Books–Part I: Illustrated children’s songs

Hanging out all day with a toddler or seven you find yourself doing two things endlessly: singing silly songs and reading picture books.  It is great when you can do both at the same time! Here are a few of our favorite kid songs turned picture book:

knick knack paddywhack

Knick Knack Paddywhack  has two great things going for it: a familiar if somewhat nonsensical children’s book and fantastic illustrations.  Paul O.  Zelinsky’s beautiful artwork has earned him a Caldecott Medal for his other works, and that award-winning quality is evident in the bright colors and highly detailed pictures in Knick Knack Paddywhack. What makes this book truly amazing, though are the moving parts.  Toddlers always love books with flaps to lift and tabs to pull, but this book is in a class of its own. The final page with all the Old Men playing in an orchestra made of numbers while the little boy claps and taps his foot will enchant parents as well as children.

Miss-Mary-Mack-

Mary Ann Hoberman has a knack for extending well-known children’s rhymes into full length picture books. Of all her books, Miss Mary Mack is our favorite. It includes the musical notation for the song, which is simple enough to play on a child’s xylophone. The book tells the story of a little girl who befriends an elephant who in turn chooses to live in her back yard rather than return to the zoo. There is always a lot going on in the illustrations which encourages conversation with the little ones in your life. My son particularly likes the dogs chasing the zookeeper away.

hush-little-baby-frazee

Marla Frazee is one of my favorite illustrators. Her drawings of people are realistic and, in other books, depict a wide spectrum of human experience.  She illustrates the classic lullaby Hush, Little Baby through one frontier family, sacrificing the diversity that characterizes so much of her work.  Since the song really does focus on one baby and the things parents will do to appease it, this singular focus makes sense. Frazee introduces a jealous but ultimately loving older sister whose spunk and repentance we can’t help but love.

happy and you know it

The next two book s are both part of the barefoot books sing along collection. The collection as a whole features mostly well-known kids songs with illustrations of diverse children on every spread.  If you’re happy and you know it, adapted by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Sophie Fatus takes the familiar motions of hand clapping and feet stomping and adds some new ones that your toddler will love.  Sophie Fatus develops an international cast of children you can get to know on the back page of the book where each child’s name and culture of origin is spelled out. The book also includes “hello” in a number of different languages.  The depictions of the children tend toward the traditional or iconic (Japanese girl in a kimono, Dutch girl in front of a windmill, Irish boy in an Aran sweater), in a way that sometimes makes me worry a little about stereotyping.  However, I think it is difficult to represent 36 cultures through 36 children without relying on some form of cultural symbolism. The fact that the Western children are also shown in “traditional” clothing and landscapes helps to diffuse some of the West/rest Modern/traditional dichotomies that often form in mulch-cultural discourses.  Also, Fatus includes both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese children, two girls from India–one who speaks Punjabi and one who speaks Hindi, and three children from indigenous cultures of North America.  This can help counteract notions that native people belong to the past, or that diversity is unique to “immigrant” nations like the USA and Canada.

animal boogie

Debbie Harter’s Animal Boogie is also part of the Barefoot Books sing along collection. The song is not one that we had heard before, but it is catchy and who doesn’t like to imitate animals when dancing around with a toddler? This book has a much smaller cast than If You’re Happy And You Know It, and the children are not identified with any particular culture.  I bought this book because the girl who sings about the bird is in a wheelchair, and it is really hard to find children’s books that include people with disabilities particularly if disability is not the focus of the book. While I think it is important for children to read stories that focus specifically on different aspects of the human experience, I also think it is important for everyone to be included in “mainstream” books.  Unfortunately, the illustrations also use skirt to signify girl–apparently even if you are going to be wiggling in the jungle with a snake, if you are a girl, you don’t get to wear pants. While If Your Happy and You Know It comes with a sing along CD, Animal Boogie comes with a cd-rom with an animated version of the book. There is no way to just listen to the song without the animation playing. Since I firmly believe in no screen time before two, and the only CD player I have is my computer, this means I have to start the song and then quickly tab to a different window to keep my toddler from staring bug-eyed at the moving images on the screen.

Great books for young toddlers

When my son started learning what knees were for and took of toddling around my house, he went into book boycott mode. As a bibliophile myself, I despaired every time my efforts to read to him were greeted with emphatic screams and violent arm flailing. I should not have worried. By the time he was fifteen months old, he’d developed into a tiny little bookworm. Now, at seventeen months he has lost interest in most of his board books and has graduated to simple picture books. He starts asking to be read to as soon as he wakes up and doesn’t stop until we force him into his crib at night. I am on a constant quest for new things to read to him. In my searches of lists of great books for toddlers, I find the same books come up over and over again. While we also enjoy Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle, when you spend hours every day reading out-loud even their impressive repertoires get old. Here are some of our favorite lesser-known gems:

Il Sung Na’s vivid illustrations are a hit with young toddlers and caregivers alike. In Hide & Seek, Chameleon challenges his animal friends to the classic children’s game that gives the book its name. The illustrations are expressive, the animals’ choice of hiding spaces is entertaining, and toddlers will love searching for Chameleon on ever page. They can also practice their counting skills with Elephant as he waits to seek out his friends.

I will be honest, I didn’t expect my toddler to enjoy this book. It is aimed at three to five year olds, and Susan Marie Swanson’s prose is neither silly whimsical. It is, in fact, beautiful and poetic. A young girl meditates on the transformation of sunflower seed into sunflower and the work the flower does in order to “be like the sun.” I think it is Margaret Chodos Irvine’s illustrations that draw my son into the book. Her printmaking evolved from a “desire to maximize color, texture, and shape“–three of a toddler’s favorite things. For me this book is proof that it pays to think beyond my assumptions about my child’s reading level.

There Are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwarz might just be the perfect book for toddlers. It is interactive: the cats in the book talk to the reader, there are flaps to lift, and when your toddler leans over to blow the cats dry after they are swamped by a tidal wave of fish I promise you will nearly faint from the cuteness factor. And it is much, much more fun to read aloud than your average lift-the-flap books, which, to be perfectly honest, I usually cannot stand.

Once again, I think I Want My Hat Back is aimed at an older audience, but it provides a wonderful opportunity for silly voices and facial expressions. My son now anticipates the big moment when the bear remembers that he has, in fact, seen his hat and starts grinning from ear to ear. A word of warning though, the humor is a bit on the dark side–if you don’t feel comfortable reading books in which bears eat rabbits this is not the book for you.

For a long time I avoided any book with the title “Goodnight [insert thing here]” after reading too many bad clones of Goodnight Moon. I am really glad I opened my mind in time to find The Goodnight Train by June Sobel. The book is not, as I first assumed, about saying goodnight to a train. Instead, it is about the train that carries you from wakefulness to sleep. It rhymes delightfully, and Laura Hulisa-Beith’s detailed illustrations give plenty of opportunity for conversations with your child. In particular, watch for the relationship between the skunk and the man with the giant toothbrush.

I hope that this list provides some new ideas of books to read with your little ones. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments!