Stories for all: thinking about our culture and gender in books

So I just posted my review of The Princess in Black, and I wanted to give a signal boost to Shannon Hale and what she's talking about on her blog right now.

In my review I said that my boys love The Princess in Black books, and that is totally true. But I could see why some boys wouldn't want to read them. As a culture, we often discourage boys from reading books about girls.

Shannon Hale has just hosted an awesome series on her blog. She's talking about Stories for All, and especially about letting boys read books about girls without shaming them. I have to say that I knew this was kind of a problem, but I grew up in a home where we were encouraged to read everything. It wasn't my problem. It's only been in the past few years, as my oldest son has gotten a little bit older, that I've started noticing the social pressure for him to avoid doing girly things. I don't know if I cared before, but now, I think it's personal.

I took the kids on a hike the other day. They insisted on bringing books along.

I don't want my sons to feel like they can't read a really good book, because they would be teased or judged for carrying around a book with a girl on the cover. Girls carry around books about boys all the time, and adults don't mind at all. I think a lot of people recognize that it would be good for boys to learn how to cook. I haven't heard much teasing about that, at least in his generation. But the books? Yeah, we've got some habits to change, there.

So, anyway, I'm going to link to a couple more of my favorite pieces on Shannon's blog. All of them were good, but I particularly liked this one by a librarian who conducted an experiment, and the one by a young author whose book has a pink cover, and this one that starts with Ramona the Pest, and especially this one, by a guy who wrote a book with a girl as the main character.

For further reading, I definitely recommend #storiesforall on twitter.

I hope you'll look into this, whether you have sons or daughters, and whether or not you're a parent.

Have you observed kids being told they should stick to books that are marketed to their gender? Do you think it's a problem?

I'd love to talk about it.

The Princess in Black!!!

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, pretty in pink. But then the monster alarm rang, and she transformed into . . . The Princess in Black!

The Princess in Black
The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

I absolutely adore this series. If you're a long-time reader of Everead, you've heard me mention it before: when I heard it announced and when I first laid eyes on it.

The Princess in Black books are "first-chapter books" or "early chapter books" or whatever you want to call a book that has 14 or 15 chapters, each about 5 pages long. They're easier than Magic Tree House books, and more completely illustrated.

When The Princess in Black came out I bought it right away. I may have even pre-ordered it. I love Shannon Hale, and I know that Shannon and her husband Dean do good work together from their foray into graphic novels: Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Plus, LeUyen Pham came to my attention for her awesome illustrations in the Alvin Ho series (another early chapter book series I love) and won my heart forever with The Boy Who Loved Math. With my favorite author and my favorite illustrator teaming up, chances were good I was going to love the book they made. As it turns out, I really liked The Princess in Black, but I got sidetracked and never wrote a review of it.

It has secret passageways, secret identities, huge monsters and goats in distress. It has princesses, pretty dresses, and a unicorn. Most importantly it has humor in the text and humor in the illustration and both my boys love it. You better believe that The Princess in Black is a book for both boys and girls because if you don't you're just sticking your head in a hole. I've never met a boy that didn't like it.*

And book two is even better! The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party is more structured, and I think it would be easier to read. The first time I read book one, I was confused by one of the sentence fragments and surprised by the back-and-forth of two narratives happening during the same time (Duchess Wigtower in the castle and The Princess in Black in the pasture). Obviously that didn't ruin the book for me, I still loved it. But I think that book two keeps things together better, with the repetition of Princess Magnolia having to leave her own birthday party over and over to go fight monsters.

Not only are the stories so much fun, but they're sprinkled throughout with little details that make you smile. At least, they make us smile. Jacob loved that Princess Magnolia's unicorn was named Frimplepants. I love the cardinal, who looks like he's wearing a black mask of his own. Benjamin (age 7) loves the phrase "Twinkle twinkle little . . . SMASH!" and was worried for a minute that it wouldn't make it into the second book. Levi (age 5) loved seeing the different ideas the monsters had for how to eat a goat: in a sandwich, in an ice cream cone, etc.  Jubilee (age 2) requests the books and talks excitedly about what's happening in the pictures while I read.

You might be surprised at the level of the vocabulary in these books. Though they're first chapter books, I wouldn't call them "easy readers." You know, some books will only use a certain number of words (sometimes listed in the front) in order to help children practice sight words and learn new words. That's not the case with these books. I found myself explaining what it meant that the princess "minced" across the room in book one, and spotted the word "exasperating" in book two. As we read about the party, I found myself explaining to Levi that the princesses names were flowers, and each was dressed to represent her name. Different turns of phrase, especially "That is curious," caught my attention as well. These books may be short, but I consider them complex, in a good way. For more educated opinions on the second book, you should definitely read the reviews by Jen Robinsion and Ms. Yingling. I didn't even catch the alliteration that Jen mentioned until she pointed it out.

I highly recommend these books for ages 3-8 particularly, though I think they're worth reading no matter what age you are. When I received the copy of book two that I requested from the publisher, it came to light that Jacob had never actually read book one. I couldn't believe it! I handed them to him that night and stuck close by so I could here him chuckle and get his commentary.

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party only disappointed me in one way: I need more of Duff the goat boy! I trust he'll be featured in book three, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde, which comes out in February 2016. UPDATE: My review of Book 3 is here!

Just so you know, some of the images above are affiliate links. If you shop through them, I may earn a small commission. Thanks. :)

So, have you read these yet? Are you interested? Definitely share your thoughts with me.

KidLitCon 2015 - a quick report

Just had to pop in real quick to say I loved KidLitCon.

It was so great to be in a place with people who were all the exact same kind of nerdy as I am.

I thought the conference was the perfect size. Big enough that it was definitely a conference and not just an oversized book club, but small enough that you could meet and connect with a lot of people.

I got to meet all the people on my list of "people I must meet at KidLitCon." Yes, I had an actual list, mostly of people whose blog and faces I know from Cybils and twitter and such. And, I feel like I went beyond super-bonus-level by meeting so many really cool people that I wasn't even planning on meeting. Without exception everyone I met was kind and intelligent.

I loved all the sessions that I went to, and the two that I presented in went really well. Better than I expected!

While I was at the conference, I was tweeting some of my favorite quotes from people.

I also put up some fun instagrams:

Party in Balltimoar!!! #KidLitCon @mmfbooks

A photo posted by Alysa Stewart (@everead) on

I feel like I didn't get my crazy eyes quite crazy enough. But hey, I turned the sky pink and used three exclamation points, so . . . come to think of it I should have used more exclamation points. This may be my only regret about the whole shebang.

And I just wanted to tell you that when I was on the phone with my kids, my two-year-old Jubilee did the cutest thing ever.
"Can I talk to mommy?" I heard her ask.
"Yes," I heard my husband say.
Then she queried, "Mommy can I have a snack?"
Hahaha! "Of course you can! Daddy will get it for you."
We had the exact same conversation the next night, too.

In short, I came away from KidLitCon feeling inspired with so many great ideas and feeling empowered to do them through new knowledge and community support. If you're thinking about going next year, just start planning now. So worth it.

Increasing Emotional Intelligence: My Dream for You is Happiness

So in the last little while I've been wondering what books I can use to help my kids understand and control their emotions. Some temper tantrums may have started this train of thought.

I was thinking about the guest post that Lindsay did for me, and how she recommended Your Fantastic Elastic Brain as a tool for teaching kids about how they can have a growth mindset.

"What book can I read to my kids that will help them learn that they can react to disappointment as a temporary setback instead of a crushing defeat?" This is my question. Because they react to not getting a snack right before dinner or having to do chores before screen time as if it were the end of the world.

Anyway, I thought about what I was going to do today and remembered that I needed to review My Dream for You is Happiness, and something clicked. This book is very straightforward about happiness. My favorite line is "There will be tummy aches and stormy days and times when you want to stay and play when it's really time to go. It's OK. You can still be happy."

Choosing happiness. That is definitely something I want my kids to learn. It's something I still need to be reminded of regularly. I think that's only human.

So let me tell you about this book.

My Dream for You is Happiness
by Carole Ann Hausman,
illustrated by Joanne Raptis

When I got an email asking me if I'd like to review My Dream for You is Happiness I read the description and I was like, "I dunno, this could go either way . . . It could be horribly cheesy." But then I looked at the cover again and I was like "Aww, that's so cute! It reminds me of My Neighbor Totoro. I want to see all the other pictures inside." So then I googled the illustrator and spent more time than I had intended looking at her work online. And I requested a copy of the book.

And hooray! It's not super cheesy! It's just the right amount of cheesy. Just great. A simple text with lots of adorable pictures and a nice message.

The art is in the chibi style. If you're not familiar with it, among it's hallmarks are huge heads and eyes. According to an online tutorial I read, chibi bodies should only be 1.5 times the size of the head. I was reading about this because I was reading Melissa Wiley's book recap Our Week In Books and then browsing adorable chibi instagram journal of chotskibelle and searching "How to Draw Chibis" online so now I'm pretty much an expert. Not. :)

The cover does give you a good idea of what the interior art will look like: muted tones, simple backgrounds and great light/shadow. Each page is illustrated with a different child in a scene, and I feel this helps make the book even more universal. Boys, girls, babies, parents, grandparents, and puppies are represented. Skin tones vary. I'm not going so far as to say everyone will recognize themselves in its pages, but I did appreciate the variety.

Since the book was published by a very small press (so small that the website has only this one book on it) I'm guessing it didn't have a big team behind it. I think the book would've benefitted from a couple of small changes: it has one typographical error in the front-matter, and in the corner of one picture there's a sunshine that stands out as quite odd to me. But over all I'd say it's a really sweet book and nicely done.

I plan on keeping it in my collection, and using it as a tool to help teach my kids about choosing happiness. We've read it together already, but I think with repeated readings its message will sink deeper into their minds.
Turns out bookstores reward people who refer customers to them. The images above are affiliate links, and if you use them to make a purchase, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

While we're talking about buying stuff, this is some of the illustrator's work that I mentioned looking at. Custom chibi drawings from the Joanne Raptis's Etsy shop. I think it would be so unspeakably cute to have a family portrait done.
UPDATE: So I read this book with the kids again, then asked them what happiness meant to them. They were confused by this question, so I rephrased: "What makes you happy?" By this time they had got into the dress ups and started going crazy. Benjamin (pictured right) said, "I'm happy when I'm silly!" Both boys agreed that they were happy when they were full of good food. I plan to ask them again when they get home from school. And I challenge you to ask your kids what makes them happy. Then share what they said in the comments below. 

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