Kids' Books Grow up Teach Your Children Well

by Roseana Auten

If you're a parent of an elementary school child, then you can probably already spot books that you'd want your kid to read - ones that don't reinforce negative sex roles and stereotypes, or ones that promote good values without preaching. I'm happy to report that a few of those recently landed my way. Seven books for girls, grades 4-6, are produced by a husband-and-wife team, David Katz (publisher and illustrator) and Judith Love Cohen (author or co-author). The You Can Be a Woman... series (Cascade Pass, Inc., [California], $6 each, paper) is specifically intended to get girls interested in exploring careers in the sciences.

While working part-time in Los Angeles public schools, Katz noticed that girls were still not being drawn into their science work. Surmising that this was partly because girls are rarely exposed to the work of women scientists, he convinced Cohen, an electrical engineer formerly with the space program (including the Apollo 12 lunar mission), to write You Can Be a Woman Engineer. Six other titles - ...Architect, ...Marine Biologist, ...Zoologist, ...Egyptologist, ...Paleontologist, and ...Oceanographer - have been added, written with the help of women working in those fields. Three suggested classroom activities follow each story; the books are also available in Spanish.

Every time I even slightly touch on gender inequity in education, I get at least one rambling message on my voice mail, or a heated missive from (sorry to say) some male, reminding me how wrong-headed I am for believing that girls get short shrift in school. Sorry, guys, the numbers tell a different story. According to Cohen, women still represent only 6% percent of all scientists and engineers in the United States, and it's not a matter of women's aptitude for those disciplines. It's a matter of learning to break out of sex roles. But would-be critics of the You Can Be a Woman... series will be pleased to know that the texts focus on the what the women do in their work and why they like it - not on their struggle to overcome sex discrimination. And if you think having the word "woman" in a book title makes no impact on the young female imagination, why not hand one of these to a nine-year-old girl and find out?

But adults are not the only ones who can inspire children to explore new things. At some point, children should learn to encourage each other in their dreams. That's why I'm so impressed with the annual "Publish-A-Book" contest, sponsored by Austin-based educational publishers Steck-Vaughn. Students in grades 2-6 throughout the U.S. write 500-900 words on a selected theme; the top five books are published by Steck-Vaughn and come with a $500 grand prize. I'm not foolish enough to imagine that kids don't think about the money while they're scribbling away (some 10,000 children wrote on the theme of "Wishes" for 1994-95), but the work of these children, I think, is the true inspiration.

And ultimately, when the author's voice is authentic, the prose really soars. Out of the five books published in 1995, my favorite is My Heart Is Full of Wishes, by 11-year-old Joshua Grishaw of Pleasantview, Virginia, and illustrated by Lane Yerkes ($13.98 paper). Grishaw has cystic fibrosis, a chronic, debilitating respiratory disease. But I like his book in spite of his illness, not because of it. His language is unflinchingly honest, a quality I'm afraid that some of the other winning books lack. He harbors fantasies of saving princesses from dragons, hitting the winning home run in Little League, and meeting girls. He's afraid of monsters lurking in his closet at night; he wants his parents by him forever. These are things children don't usually admit out loud, and I don't believe a mere $500 induces this kind of honesty and creativity.

My second favorite book is Joey's Birthday Wish, by 12-year-old Matthew Lambert of Iuka, Mississippi, who also won a grand prize in 1993-94 (illustrations by Victoria Vebell Bruck). The fictional tale (based on one of Matthew's personal experiences) deals with a young boy's guilt about being selfish, after he sees a homeless family. Matthew is sophisticated enough to leave the conclusion open, inviting much-needed discussion. Third place belongs to The Magic Bat, by 11-year-old Geoffrey Griffin of Fort Worth, Texas, illustrated by Don Weller. Like Grishaw, Griffin tells his story in the first person - how he overcame an inability to hit a baseball. I liked the positive message about gaining self-confidence, but I'm depressed to be reminded that a lack of athletic ability can ruin a child's life.

The last two books I liked a little less. Both Harvey's Wish, by eight-year-old Matthew Fitzgerald of Rockaway, N.J. (illustrations by Jean Pidgeon) and Abby's Wish by sixth-grader Liza St. John of Morrison, Tennessee (illustrations by Austinite Michael Krone), are didactic, "remember-to-be-nice-and-help-people" kinds of stories. That's okay, but I have the distinct impression the children crafted these tales specifically to please some adult. That's always a dead end, kids. And Abby's Wish is drafted in quatrains of iambic pentameter so clumsy (at times) that I'd like to have a few words with the teacher who first smiled upon them.

Maybe that's the key to a really good children's book - that it pleases and inspires a kid, in spite of adult approval. n

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