Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)

This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)

This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)

This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.


In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

Where library shelf entropy comes from

During my latest volunteer time at the library, I was asked to shelve more books. (Not that I really needed asking—I was already heading for the shelving carts.) I was given four shelves’ worth of “E” books (about 150 books, or probably 1/3 of the library’s holdings in that section). I think “E” stands for “Elementary”; these are books marked as Level 1, 2, or 3, which I gather is something like grades 1-3. At any rate, when I reached the “E” section, I found that it was already in severe disarray. So I sat down (these shelves are at kids’ height) and started shelf-reading and swapping books back into proper order.

During this process, I observed first-hand three specific sources of shelf entropy:

  • A toddler playing the “game” of remove-and-replace-randomly. (Possibly an attempt to imitate what I was doing, but not with any sense of the actual order.)
  • An indecisive and sulky 6-year-old who was told by her mother to “get 12 books”. She’d pull out a book, glance at it, and either thrust it back onto the shelf somewhere else, or … throw it on the ground.
  • The same 6-year-old’s embarrassed mother, who would pick up each discarded book and put it back somewhere on the shelf… not only in some new location, but with the spine facing inward! While this made it easy to spot misplaced books, I was puzzled as to how anyone would assume that that’s the proper thing to do in a library. Especially while I’m sitting two feet away obviously ordering the books myself.

As I worked, I overheard one of the children’s librarians advising an adult reader, who was participating in the library’s Literacy tutoring program and wanted to know which books to start with. The librarian said,

“Here’s the advice I give kids: the rule of 5. Open the book and read the first page. Each time you reach a word you don’t know, count it on a finger. If you get to 5 by the end of the first page, the book is too hard. If you only get to 1, it’s too easy. Find a book somewhere in the middle, and that will mean you’re learning.”

This advice struck me in two ways. First, how long has it been since I deliberately tried to find an English book to read that would actively stretch my vocabulary? And second, my, how wonderful it would be to have access to a huge selection of children’s books in whatever foreign language I wanted to learn! I’ve picked up kids’ books in Japanese and French on various trips, but they’re harder to come by here, and often pricey to order remotely. But a library! That would be perfect! Do the ESL learners here know how lucky they are? :) And are they aware of their anti-entropic efforts?

“The pursuit of knowledge is my own little battle against the second law of thermodynamics.” – Jeff Vinocur

Lessons from the young’uns

After five days of visiting my nieces (2.5 years and <2 weeks old, respectively), I’ve learned some relevant lessons.

  • Toddlers are really good at figuring out what their points of leverage are. (“Mommy can physically pick me up and move me, but she can’t make me eat…”)
  • As adults, we send mixed messages and do hypocritical things all the time. We don’t realize it until we encounter a strictly literal individual, like a two-year-old.
  • When a toddler refers to a container of sour cream as “ice cream”, it’s not actually worth correcting her (unless you’re really interested in having a knock-down-drag-out argument.). Same with her stuffed “tiger” (actually a leopard), “Hot Dog” (Mickey Mouse), “snack” (can only refer to chips/crackers/pretzels, not fruit/cheese/anything currently undesired), and that prize word: “mine” (telling her that it’s yours is like bear-baiting). Not every moment is a teachable moment.
  • I’d forgotten how much fun rolling around on the floor and tickling someone is, especially a giggly two-year-old who keeps laughing, “I got you!” even when you’re the one getting her.
  • Projectile vomiting is not, as I had thought, just a funny phrase used by the over-inebriated.
  • Breast milk has natural antibiotics (!) and you can use it to clear up mild eye infections, such as those caused by blocked tear ducts. This actually worked!

Other experiences that capture my week:

  • On a walk, we encountered a flower. Me: “I wonder what kind of flower that is?” Toddler: *throws a rock at it*
  • Toddler, after breakfasting: “I’m done!” Me: “Okay.” Her: “No! I want to tell Mommy!”
  • I walked in after an afternoon trip to the grocery store. Toddler: “Daddy!” Me: “No, Daddy’s still at work.” Toddler, running past me to check the garage: “Daddy daddy daddy!” Me: “No, he isn’t home yet.” Toddler, echoing in garage: “DADDY!” Repeat for five minutes. (She does love her Daddy!)

I’m already looking forward to my next visit. :)

From the mouths of babes

Did you know that newborns sometimes vomit blood, even when perfectly healthy?

I sure didn’t, nor did my sister. So when this happened, she took her newborn daughter straightaway to the doctor. He explained that this was likely due to my niece having swallowed blood during the birthing process, and in fact nothing to be alarmed about. “How long does this last?” she asked anxiously. “Up to about seven days,” he noted.

I did some more investigation and learned that, indeed, the most likely cause of blood in a newborn’s vomit is “maternal blood”, either swallowed during delivery or from “cracked, raw nipples from breastfeeding”. (Ouch.) While the blood can come from the baby itself, this is actually much less common (although I didn’t find any stats on it); “The Newborn Child” by Johnston et al. agrees. Here’s an interesting case-study-esque version of how a doctor might diagnose such cases. It also describes the diagnostic test (“Apt test”) that is used to determine whether the blood is from the mother or the baby (the latter contains “fetal hemoglobin”). Rather than just citing the name of the test, the same source actually tells you how it works: mix the blood sample with sodium hydroxide, which breaks down adult hemoglobin (turning the sample dark brown) but will have less impact on fetal hemoglobin (which will stay pink). I really appreciate sources (particularly medical ones) that bother to explain the science behind the process, diagnosis, or treatment!