In the last few weeks, Marshmallow and her English class have been reading a version of the classic novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, first published as a short story in 1959 and then expanded by its author to be published as a full novel in 1966. Sprinkles was excited to see Marshmallow getting into the story because she remembers it fondly from her own time reading the same book in school decades ago. In the blog post below, the two bunnies discuss the full book.
Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with your usual short overview of the book?
Marshmallow: Why not? If you like books about growing up or living through a big change, this might be the book for you.
S: I think that is a good way to describe the book. The main character is originally a mentally challenged adult, so he is not really growing up, but he undergoes an experimental treatment which enhances his mental capabilities immensely, and so he is going through a big change.
M: Yes. The main character is Charlie Gordon, and he is the one narrating the story. The book is written as a series of progress reports, all through his perspective.
S: Yes, the entries are like diary entries, right?
M: Yes, most of them. And at the beginning he is using very simple sentences and basic words and sometimes has very poor spelling. As the treatment takes effect, he begins to write more complex sentences and use bigger words. He also starts to write about more personal and complicated things and has to confront some past emotional trauma. So, for example, I should warn all bunnies that the book does have some explicit descriptions of certain sexual feelings and acts. As Charlie gets more and more mentally capable, he begins to notice his attraction to women.
S: Even before the operation, he might have felt some such feelings, but would perhaps not write about them?
M: I’m not sure. It seems to me that Charlie had the mind of a three year old before the operation, and so he did not have any sexual impulses.
S: Hmm, that sounds somewhat unrealistic to me, given that he has the body of a full-grown man; his hormones and related needs and desires would probably be quite typical.
M: Well, I don’t know, but he seems to become more interested in things like that, and that was quite a bit different from the version we have been reading at school. In that version, we do not see any of this stuff. Which is in some ways easier to read.
S: I can understand that. Perhaps that is why a lot of school districts have had discussions about this book, and apparently some have even removed it from their libraries. The sexual content might be a lot for some younger bunnies to handle, even though I was not bothered by them when I was a young bunny reading the book. Then again, I might have been a little older than you… Or who knows? Maybe I read an abridged version, too, and I do not recall very well.
M: Maybe. I don’t know. But the full book is a bit more adult than my usual reading fare. The only other book I have read that is kind of like this one is 1984 by George Orwell, which also had some explicit scenes.
S: I understand. I’d say that both books have very serious messages, and the sexually explicit scenes in both books play significant roles in clarifying those messages. So for example in 1984, the sexual scenes show us the main character’s difficulties with intimacy and the oppressiveness of the general climate. In this book, I think the sexual scenes are a part of Charlie becoming more aware of his body, his personality, his needs and desires, as well as how the outside world views him.
M: I can see that.
S: So who or what is Algernon? Why is the book titled Flowers for Algernon?
M: Algernon is a mouse. He has gone through the same operation that Charlie has, and in some ways, the changes he goes through are similar to what happens to Charlie. So Charlie begins to really like and care for Algernon, because Algernon is more or less the only other creature in the world who is going through the same thing that Charlie is. And then —
S: Wait, don’t give everything away!
M: Okay, no more spoilers. But things do get pretty sad, and the title of the book is in the very last sentence of the book.
S: Yes, that is true. What did you think of Charlie? Did you like him or sympathize with him?
M: I liked him, more at some times and less at others. He is a childlike and kind person at the beginning, and that I really liked. But then as the operation takes effect and he begins to get more and more intelligent, he becomes more arrogant and he does not even realize that. I did not like him that much then. But eventually he does begin to understand other people better, and he remembers and tries to process some of the emotional trauma from his childhood. He justifiably gets angry at some people who mistreated him when he did not know they were being mean. And there I could of course sympathize with him. And he wants to be accepted most of all.
S: I guess that is a very understandable need. We are social creatures and we want to belong.
M: Yes. I think so. So when he becomes too intelligent, that is also isolating. Certain people used to feel better about themselves by putting him down, but now they feel inferior to him and begin to fear and avoid him. In some ways, those people were not good people to have as friends anyways, but Charlie did not know. In any case, in the end —
S: Wait, remember, we don’t want to be giving away too much…
M: Hmm, okay, I guess I should stop here.
S: Alright. Let us do that. Would you recommend this book to other young bunnies? Or perhaps, you’d recommend the abridged version?
M: I think young bunnies might really like the abridged version. Charlie’s story is a lot simpler in it and it is a lot easier to read. And you get to really like him and feel for him, and and the story is still sad but beautiful.
S: Okay. That makes sense to me. Full-blown people are all pretty complex, and I think the original book captures that really well. Charlie is a complex person with a complex story, and the book does give us a lot more to chew on. But the main message can come through quite clearly in the abridged version, too, without the distractions of the sex dimension and the emotional trauma. So how do you want to end this review?
M: I can say my usual: Stay tuned for more amazing reviews from the book bunnies!
Today Marshmallow reviews How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, a 2021 novel by Veera Hiranandani.
Marshmallow’s Quick Take: If you like books about family, friends, or historical fiction, then this might be the book for you.
Marshmallow’s Summary (with Spoilers): Ariel Goldberg’s life is drastically changed forever when her older sister Leah elopes with a man from India.
The book starts in the summer of 1967. Interracial marriage is now legal, however, stigma and bias remain, even in Ariel’s parents. Leah tells Ariel about her relationship with Raj, an Indian college student, and says that they have plans for the future, which greatly worries Ariel. When the girls’ parents meet Raj, they don’t like him. This is mainly because Ariel’s family is Jewish, and Raj is not; they don’t want their daughter to marry a person who is not Jewish. Ariel likes Raj, but she definitely doesn’t want her sister to marry anyone yet. But then one day, Leah and Raj elope, and Ariel’s life is forever changed.
Besides all that is going on in her home life, Ariel has been having problems at school. There seems to be a new rift between her and her best friend, Jane. Ariel is also bullied by a boy who hates Jewish people. On top of all this, Ariel also has trouble writing. Her new teacher, Miss Field, believes that she has dysgraphia. Miss Field brings a typewriter for her to use and asks Ariel to write short poems to practice writing.
Ever since Leah left, Ariel’s life seems to be falling apart. Can Ariel put it back together?
Marshmallow’s Review:How to Find What You’re Not Looking For raises many complex issues such as racial and religious bias in a way that teaches but also gives hope. It shows that bias is not just in other people but everywhere. It also shows that there might be reasons for behavior that looks excluding, such as people wanting to sustain their family culture and identity, but it does clearly show that stigma and bias are not okay.
I found it interesting how the main character wrote poems to express what is happening in the book. I found it to be a good way for the author to tell the reader how the main character, Ariel, is feeling. The poems really add something to the book.
The story is set in 1967; the author uses words like “groovy” to show how the narrator is living in the past. The narrator is also always using the second person “you” and everything is told in the present tense. This gives the story a more urgent tone somehow and like everything is happening all at once, as you read the book.
This book includes information about the Loving vs. Virginia case from 1967 and the ideas around interracial marriage play a significant role in its plot. Martin Luther Jr.’s murder from 1968 is also mentioned. In other words, How to Find What You’re Not Looking For talks about racial and religious injustice very openly. This makes me think that this book would be more appropriate for older bunnies, from 10 and up. There isn’t really any inappropriate content for younger bunnies, so younger readers could also enjoy it, but I think 10 and up would be able to understand the context better and so get the most out of this book.
This week Sprinkles reviews a few books about gender identity written for children.
Marshmallow and Caramel have been complaining that Sprinkles has not written a post since last Halloween (when she had reviewed a handful of children’s books about zombies). So she decided to write another one before the anniversary of that post came around. This is the post that resulted.
This week Sprinkles reviews a few books about gender identity written for children, with a nod to the International Pronouns Day, which was just this past Wednesday.
There have been a range of children’s books about gender identity written recently. In this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about eight of them: Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love; Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall; Neither by Airlie Anderson; Pink Is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban; The Gender Wheel by Maya Gonzalez; Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff; It Feels Good To Be Yourself, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni; and They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez.
I begin with a review of a handful of them that aim to emphasize the point that being different is alright, and there is a place for all of us in this world.
In Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love we meet a little boy named Julián who wants to dress up as a mermaid. He finds acceptance in an unexpected place. The book ends as a celebration of differences. The colors of the book are pastel and lively at the same time, inviting us to Julián’s beautiful world.
In Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall, we meet a little crayon who is blue but is in a red covering paper. He has a difficult time at the start trying to fit in. But in the end he finds that he can be who he is, and life is good again. The color scheme used is simple and reminded me a bit of the book series about crayons by Drew Daywalt. (Caramel reviewed The Crayons’ Christmas, the third book of that series, for our blog.) The illustrations are not intricate but they do exactly what they are meant to and give us a sense of this crayon’s inner world and the world around him as well.
In Neither by Airlie Anderson, we learn of a land of This or That, where every creature has to be this or that, and when there is an individual who does not fit either, they are mocked and excluded from the two groups formed around being This and being That. Eventually we see our outcast, who sees themself as a Both but is called Neither by the two groups, finds themself in a land where they are accepted, along with everyone else. The colors are bright and cheery, and the little creatures are simply drawn but pretty cute.
All three books remind me a bit of a fascinating little book Caramel reviewed a while ago for this blog: From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom. That book had a dreamy atmosphere, and the main character was a child though magically different from others. Julián from Julián Is A Mermaid is also a little child, and I can see a little boy being comforted by reading about him and his dream of being a mermaid coming true. In some ways though, Neither and Red: A Crayon’s Story might be easier for parents who want to broach the subject of being different without explicitly bringing up gender identity. It is easy to identify the perceived and assumed boy-girl gender binary underlying the stratification of the land of This and That in Neither, though it is never explicitly stated. Similarly, the Blue Crayon in Red: A Crayon’s Story is also suffering from his peers’ expectations about how he should behave given what he looks like, but there is no explicit discussion of boyhood or girlhood.
On the other hand, Pink Is For Boys, written by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Eda Kaban, brings up the boy-girl binary right up front. The main point here is that boys can like pink just like girls can like blue. Similarly boys can enjoy bows on dresses and girls can like baseball. The binary is not really questioned here, but instead, children are told that the boundaries of the two categories are porous in many ways, that boys and girls can enjoy all sorts of things and still be themselves.
The first three books I described above were stories and could easily be viewed as fictional, though obviously the authors were writing with a particular goal and an intended moral. The fourth book was more an advice book, a nonfiction text that openly tells the child reading it (or being read to) what to think about the topic.
The next four books fit this mold as well. They are more like an adult talking to a child who is maybe a bit concerned about being different or simply curious about gender identity, even if they may not be asking explicitly to talk about the topic.
Let me start with They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez. Among the four books explicitly about gender identity, this one is perhaps the simplest though definitely not oversimplified. The book starts with page after page of pronouns and pictures of people, and the pictures are pretty amazing.
The emphasis of the book is on pronouns, but the main text that starts after the pronoun depictions is quite extensive. Though organized under headings of Pronouns, Freeing Pronouns, Claiming Pronouns, Creating Pronouns, Using Pronouns, and Playing With Pronouns, the text touches upon the uniqueness of each individual, the creative possibilities of pronouns, and the freedom to be who you want to be. Creators of this book share a bit about themselves too and then have a few words for the grownups. They summarize the main goal of this book really well in their personal introduction:
As parents we want our kids to feel fully free to blossom into their maximum magnificence.
They, She, He, Me: Free To Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez
The Gender Wheel is written and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, too. This book is a bit broader in its coverage of gender identity, and is beautifully illustrated, with lyrical language that explores the implications of thinking of the world and our identities as parts of a circle. I loved how the author kept coming back to the circle as a metaphor and a reflection of the world as well as our own inner lives.
However, the book is very U.S. centric, and explicitly asserts that the boy-girl gender binary was brought to North America by European settlers, who had “linear and rigid” beliefs and so they “boxed people in and kept nature out”. Though I sympathize with the author’s perspective, I see it as quite limited in the global context, as the gender binary is alive and well all around the world, without direct need for any seventeenth-century European influences. And though some native peoples of this continent may have had more fluid perceptions of gender than the ones we are living with these days (according to this Berkeley website for example, “more than 150 different pre-colonial Native American tribes acknowledged third genders in their communities”), this was definitely not always as freeing as some might imagine, and may not have meant what we might think it does. (The same website asserts that “By no means did all pre-colonial Native American communities accept or celebrate gender and sexual orientation diversity.”) So I saw this pass at colonialism as an unnecessary distraction.
The gender wheel in the title of the book is extremely useful as a tool however. It is a beautiful way to visualize and understand the complexities of the construct of gender and it allows the reader to be able to distinguish between physical and biological bodies, how one feels inside their body, and how one chooses or needs to engage with the outside world. While scholars of gender studies dig deep into the nuances of their constructs and appreciate all their complexities, for the rest of us these very same intricacies might be barriers in understanding ourselves and our loved ones. Gonzalez and her wheel make the ideas quite transparent and very much easier to understand (and even discuss with young ones in our lives).
A similar idea is used and offered as a tool in Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, written by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff. This book, too, explicitly describes gender as made up of three layers; these are called Body, Identity, and Expression. (In The Gender Wheel, Gonzalez labels the layers as the body circle, the inside circle, and the pronoun circle.) Having read the two books together, I now find both sets of labels making a lot more sense to me. Unfortunately it seems that the latter book (Who Are You?) does not acknowledge the source of their own wheel construction, and as a result, it is highly likely that this is a case of plagiarism (see Maya Gonzalez’s blog post about the issue here.)
The illustrations in Who Are You? are in some ways a bit less whimsical than those in The Gender Wheel, which definitely reflects its creator’s particular style (as also seen in her book with Matthew Smith-Gonzalez, They, She, He, Me: Free To Be!). But they are definitely not boring or unattractive. Actually they occasionally reminded me very much of the style of the If You Give … series written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, and could sufficiently capture a young reader’s attention.
Who Are You? also comes with a few pages of advice for the adult reader. I think the author makes the (probably correct) assumption that an adult who shares this book with a young person will likely want to have as much support and ideas for resources as they can. So there are resources about how to use the wheel tool provided, how to engage with particular parts of the book with a young person, and where to find other resources (books and films) that can help support a conversation with a young person exploring these issues.
Finally let me say a few words about It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.
It Feels Good To Be Yourself introduces the reader to a few different children who have different gender identities and sexual expressions. Terms like “transgender” and “non-binary” are explicitly defined in child-friendly language, and the book depicts all gender identity-related difference positively and ends with the main moral:
No matter what your gender identity is, you are okay exactly the way you are. And you are loved.
It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.
Having read these eight books, what can I tell the reader who probably already regrets diving into such a long blog post?
First I have to admit I am grateful. I am grateful that our children today have these types of books. I am also grateful that we the parents, too, have access to these types of resources to help support our kids in finding and growing into the people they want to be, despite prejudices and oppressive social models of being a boy / man or a girl / woman in the world. I have found each and every one of the books I mentioned in this post to be helpful, and I think there are little people out there that could very much benefit from reading any of them.
Secondly I think these books would be great conversation starters, with all young people. If your child is not comfortable with the gender binary and its impositions on their life, then pick up one or more of these books and let them read it and then discuss. Or why not curl onto a couch or into a bed together and read them together? Depending on how you usually choose to broach various issues with your little one, there is definitely a book out there that will open the right communication channels for you.
Even if your child is already comfortable in their gender identity, it makes sense to bring these books and topics up for conversation. Sometimes children can be rigid adopters of social assumptions without questioning, and their reactions and comments can be hurtful to other people. If you want to raise children who are open-minded and flexible, and who can respect and love people of all ways of being, then these topics do belong, if not at your dining table (and then again why not there?) then definitely somewhere.
Finally I will add that Caramel told me his two favorites among these were Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall, and Neither, by Airlie Anderson. I can see how the less openly didactic texts might be easier to share with young ones. At some point, though, especially for the slightly older crowd, the books with more explicit discussion of gender identity might be more appropriate. These books can easily introduce these growing readers to the correct terms and constructs to think about, understand, and express their own gender identities as well as to learn about other people around them.
Today Caramel reviews the new book Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, written by poet Amanda Gorman and illustrated by Loren Long. As usual, Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.
Sprinkles: So Caramel, tell me a bit about this book.
Caramel: This book is about change, and how children can change the world.
S: That sounds inspiring! Tell me, how can children change the world?
C: Well, let me tell you what happens in the book. There is a girl in the beginning, who I think might be Amanda Gorman herself, and she has a guitar and is calling people to join her to try and make the world a better place. She helps another person recycle, then the two of them go and help others by giving them food, and deliver groceries to an elderly woman, and then they invite another boy to join their little band, each of them has an instrument. And the three of them go and build a ramp for a disabled kid’s home. Then that kid joins them too, and the group grows, and they keep cleaning up, planting flowers, and they fix up their community buildings and so on.
S: So they all help, and they all work together to make their community a more welcoming place, a good place to live.
C: Yes. And they are making music all along.
S: Well, the book is called A Children’s Anthem, and according to my dictionary, an anthem is a “a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause”, so it makes sense that there is music in there, right?
C: Yeah. And it makes it livelier and more fun.
S: Amanda Gorman is a poet. Is there poetry in this book too?
C: Yes, the whole book is one long poem. All of it rhymes, and it is fun to read out loud.
S: Yeah, I enjoyed reading it out loud with you. We saw Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb” in the inauguration of President Joe Biden this January. Do you remember?
C: Yes I do. Can we put a video of her poem here?
S: Yes, of course. Okay, here it is:
S: So what do you think about the poem that is the main text of the book?
C: There are so many different types of people, and the poem brings them all together. And even though they are all very different, they all work together and make their community better.
S: So you also like the illustrations.
C: Yes. They are very colorful. And the children really look like they are dancing and making music and having lots of fun. But this one boy looks like he is dancing but I don’t think that the position he is in is possible, his feet would break!
S: Yes, but think of it not as standing but while jumping up and down or turning around, in some instant, you might look like you are doing something impossible.
C: I guess he could be jumping up. And there is a kid who is playing basketball and that is cool too.
S: Yes, the children when they join are just doing standard kid things and they just join in to help. And that seems to be the message, right? That we can all help.
C: And even us kids can help too, and if we do, we can change the world.
S: That is inspiring. Okay Caramel, we wrote long enough. Tell me your three words to describe this book, and we can wrap it up.
C: Colorful, inspiring, poetic.
S: I like those words Caramel. And what do you want to say to finish the review?