Opinion: Are these the least woke children’s books?

As a new parent, did you try to set your child up with wooden toys and natural fibres and woke reading material only? And then, largely by way of well-meaning grandparents, discover that plastic, acrylics and the patriarchy still found you? Same.

While I’ve decided I’m not mad about the nostalgic Duplo and the quick-dry “knitwear”, it’s the children’s stories from yesteryear, and some more recent, that I’m loathed to keep on the bookshelf.

After a year of nightly bedtime stories, and at the risk of the opprobrium of other mums and dads out there, here are seven of the least woke, morals-amiss kids’ books I and fellow parents have come across.

1. The Mr Men series, Roger Hargreaves

First published: 1971

Sure, these are classics, but so was Dr Seuss … While the tales of Roger Hargreaves’ colourful odd-bod characters are innocent enough, consider the names of some of the Men: Mr Strong, Mr Funny, Mr Perfect. Then compare them to a selection from the Little Miss line up: Little Miss Naughty, Little Miss Chatterbox, Little Miss Giggles.

2021 marks 50 years since the first book in the series, Mr Tickle, was published. No doubt, was Hargreaves to conceive of the series today we’d see a far more acceptable range of empowering traits bestowed in place of the Little Miss monikers.

2. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr

First published: 1968

It’s the final dilemma and its resolve that will irk many new parents reading this classic story: “Mummy”, pictured with broom in hand, looks at the mess left by the tiger and declares: “I don’t know what to do. I’ve got nothing for Daddy’s supper.” Oh, but don’t worry, Mummy (read: damsel in distress), Daddy (knight in shining armour) has arrived home to save the day: when he learns the tiger has “eaten all the food and drunk all the drink”, he comes up with the brilliant idea to take the family out for dinner. Phew.

3. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein

First published: 1964

A popular yet highly divisive book, the story personifies a tree, referred to as “she”, who willingly gives to a boy at various points in his life. She gives him her fruit, her branches, her trunk to build a boat. She gives until there is nothing left but her stump upon which the boy, who has become an old man, sits to rest. Praised as a lesson in unconditional love on the one hand, it’s also been deemed sexist, encouraging of an exploitative relationship and exemplary of a son treated in such a way as to create a human incapable of gratitude and reciprocity. If this one’s already on your bookshelf, perhaps the story can be used as a discussion tool around how not to treat your parent …

4. Giraffes can't dance, by Giles Andreae and Gary Parker-Rees

First published: 2006

We’re introduced to Gerald the Giraffe with his “awfully crooked” knees and “rather thin” legs which make “running around” problematic for the animal. It’s then posited that he’s also “really very bad” at dancing. As such, he’s teased by the other animals and feels so bad that he skips out on the annual dance. But when a kindly cricket helps him find his groove, he returns to the dance and is applauded by the animals who were cruel to him earlier. Good for Gerald, but as a friend pointed out, the moral is amiss here: If you’re bad at something, everyone will make fun of you. To be accepted, you’ll have to find a way to be good at it.

5. Butt out! By Stuart Lynch

First published:2019

This is one I’ve stuffed behind the change table, even though my son loves to prod the squishy bottom that runs through every page. While it’s clearly an attempt to provide a lesson about teasing, it doesn’t strike the right balance, doing more to suggest cruel taunts and illustrate the characters in belittling settings than it does to provide examples of kindness and acceptance.

6. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

First published: 1963

Surprised to see this one on the list? As fun and fantastical as the story of Max and the Wild Things is, a friend and fellow parent points to the problematic parenting depicted here: Max, dressed up as a wolf, playfully threatens to eat his mum. But she punishes him by sending him to his room without dinner. My friend’s take on this: “No wonder he has such a rich fantasy life, he’s processing the trauma of his abusive home.”

Side note: Like Max, the author is also said to have often gone to bed without any supper as a child. However, according to the Guardian, it was because Sendak couldn’t stand his mother’s cooking.

7. Frida Kahlo (Little People, Big Dreams), By Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara

First published: 2016

First things first, the book itself is fantastic, as is the Little People, Big Dreams series it is part of. The stories of well-known individuals as children who went on to excel in various fields present a sense of accessibility to achieve great things, no matter one’s situation, gender or personal challenges. As absolutely woke as these books might be, I can’t let slide the following, spotted in the footnotes of the hardback version of Frida Kahlo: ” … she took part in tomboy activities like riding a bike and playing sports, and once wore male clothes …” Even a little clarification that these were considered tomboy activities at the time would have made this passable.

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