Some of these books manifest gender invisibility, illustrated by Sam with his Green Eggs and Ham and Max in Where the Wild Things Are -- all-male books where girls simply don't exist. Women may play the backstage role of mom but the primary, if not the sole focus is on the male character. My head nearly explodes every time I read Hop on Pop's ode to "what a day dad had." What about mom? Sure, she doesn't rhyme with sad and bad, but who's asking about her day? In other children's classics, such as the Babar series, Cat in the Hat and the Velveteen Rabbit (the latter even written by a woman!), the narratives are promulgated by male protagonists, leaving little space for girls and women, who are generally either mute or relegated to traditional female roles -- cooking, cleaning, brushing hair, picking flowers, waving fairy wands. It's no wonder that Sonia Sotomayor and other powerful women such as Hillary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg cite Nancy Drew as one of their inspirations; at last, a book with a strong, intelligent, and resourceful female protagonist!
The gender aspects of the books I read to my daughter had been troubling me for some time, and then a dear relative who'd just returned from London brought us a copy of Paddington Bear -- one of my all-time favorites as a child. I'd not remembered that Paddington arrived as a stowaway from "Darkest Peru" and that the British family who takes him in re-names him because nobody can understand his Peruvian name. Paddington, who has never seen a bathroom before, notes that friendly London is not a bit like "Darkest Peru" -- home of the Inca Empire and Machu Picchu, where civilization flourished as early as 3000 B.C. The neocolonialist hubris almost makes you want to laugh; that is, if you weren't reading it to your impressionable child.
Of course, these days there are numerous books to choose from with strong minority and female role models, from the beautiful Grandfather's Journey to my daughter's favorite, D.W., who plays soccer and reads precociously, to The Family Book, which gently promotes diversity in sexual orientation and ethnicity. At the same time, I'd like to share with her the stories that I adored as a child, and certainly don't want to deprive her of the books that she's come to love. Perhaps the answer is to balance these troubling classics with children's books that offer strong female and minority characters and themes. I welcome readers' suggestions of their favorites!