Picture Books 2016 #3: It's All About Animals

Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian

What we have here is a social justice book, and while there are a lot of subtly interesting details here, I don't think this one is going to make my favorites list.

The story introduces us to two non-gender-specific worms, which I think is by far the book's biggest strength (but I'll get back to that in a minute). As the title tells you, our two worm characters are in love, and they decide to get married. Their buggy little friends proceed to parade a barrage of wedding paraphernalia past them--things they must think outside the box to use, considering they're, you know, worms instead of people--until finally they get to the sticky issue the book actually intends to tackle: which of these worms is the bride and which of is the groom.

The verdict, of course (it being a social justice book), is that they each can be both; one worm takes the dress and the top hat, while the other takes the veil and the tux, and that's that--except for one more interesting little exchange.

"Wait!" says the Cricket. "This isn't how it's always been done."
"Then we'll just change how it's done," says the worm.

So yeah, that's our message here. It's a story about changing the way marriage works so that marriage can work for everyone (except for the polyamorous among us, as I'll constantly remind everyone until that particular prejudice starts to go away). And that's certainly something that's been done before, and not just in the immediate lead-up to or fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court's recent verdict to permit same-sex marriage.

But as I suggested before, there's something this book has going for it that the others don't. This book has non-gender-specific worms. You wouldn't think that was a big deal, but it is. Removing gender from the equation does two extremely important things:

  1. It allows the book to apply to all kinds of (monogamous) marriage equally. Male/male couples can share the gender roles, female/female couples can share the gender roles, and our "traditional" male/female couples can share the gender roles.
  2. It removes gender from the equation in a way that few books dare. We know nothing about the gender of these worms. Are they both men? Are they both women? Insofar as a worm can be, is one or both of them transgender? Agender? Or do they have some other kind of gender expression entirely? For the purposes of this book, it doesn't remotely matter.

Now, I'll readily admit that I see what I personally consider to be a flaw in the story--something that makes it not quite as progressive as it would like to be. And that's the use of the bride's veil and dress as a counterpoint to the groom's top hat and tuxedo. While this is a story about gender not mattering anymore when it comes to marriage, this is also a story in which traditional gender roles are visibly given to the characters.

Sure, it's nice that they agree to share the clothes, but those clothes can't be divorced from traditional marriage, not in a story that specifically points out that, "This isn't how it's always been done." By acknowledging the difference between the new way and the old way, you are forced to acknowledge what the old way entails--and, extrapolating from that, what those clothes must mean.

If it's a compromise for one worm to take the hat and dress and the other to take the tux and the veil, all they're really doing is splitting up the division of the gender roles. And that's not what I want from a social justice book. What I want from a social justice book is the rejection of those roles entirely; this book is so close to that with its genderless worms, but the reminder of "the man in the relationship" and "the woman in the relationship" reinforces that those things exist, and the story doesn't so much as reject them as redistribute them. And in doing so, it endorses them.

What I wanted to see was for the worms to say no. I wanted to see them say that "those things aren't for us". I wanted them to include those predescribed roles under the umbrella of "changing how it's done". Throw those gendered notions in the trash where they belong.

So, yeah, I didn't quite get what I wanted from this book. What it offers is good, definitely, but it's not quite what I wanted. But more to the point, perhaps, is that I also wonder if children will understand what the metaphor here is. By the time a child is old enough to read this, they're also old enough to have caught on to the notion of gender. So I fear children will only be able to interpret this as just another "gay marriage acceptance" book and completely miss the gender nuance involved.

But I don't know for sure. I'm not a kid. (Feel free to let me know in the comments if yours caught on, though!)

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

This book is a lot lighter in subject matter than the previous, but I enjoyed it just as well. The theme of this one is perspective. As the interior blurb states,

In this glorious celebration of observation, curiosity, and imagination, Brendan Wenzel shows us the many lives of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see.

Now, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a "glorious celebration" of anything, but it's quite an interesting little book nonetheless. The illustrations are very cute, and the point is obvious right from the onset; the minute you and/or your child see what the cat looks like to the dog (especially as compared to what the cat looked like to the child, as portrayed on the previous page), you'll both know what's going on. I love the illustrations here, especially in how varied they are from page to page (or perspective to perspective, as it were), and the note that the story ends on is actually fascinating if your kid picks up on it, transforming the story from a tale about perspective to one about self-perception, as well, and how that can be so vastly different from the way we really are--and the way everyone else sees us, too.

Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso

As the author's note on the final page explains,

Ida, Always is a fictional story inspired by the real pair of polar bears, Ida and Gus, who lived together in New York City's Central Park Zoo.

Spoiler alert: both of the bears that served as inspiration for the story have died within the past five or so years. And further spoiler alert: that's what the book is about. Ida died in 2011, leaving Gus to live two years further without her companionship.

Obviously, the book anthropomorphizes the relationship between the two bears and turns it into a very touching story of living one's final days to the fullest and mourning the loss of one's friend. It's very sweet and a total tearjerker, and while I don't entirely get on board with the message (which implicitly endorses the idea of an afterlife and explicitly endorses the idea of the dead "still being there"), it's a sweet story for people who do.

It's not my kind of coping with death book, and I personally wouldn't give it to a child purely because of the "living on" message, but most people have no such qualms, and for those individuals, I say: definitely consider this one if you're looking for a book on dealing with loss. This one goes above and beyond most others I've read, as it specifically involves the process of not just mourning but dying. If you've got a kid dealing with a loved one who's received a terminal diagnosis, this is probably just what you need.

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

See, I kind of love this book. I really want to love this book. But there's this one little detail I just can't get behind.

But let's start from the beginning, shall we? We've got all the things I love here. We've got a fantasy world. We've got adventurers. We've got great illustrations. We've even got an adorable and misunderstood goblin protagonist. It's funny, it's cute, and it takes the fantasy tropes (especially RPG tropes) we all know and love, and it turns them on their heads.

But... there's this thing. There's this thing I noticed on the last couple of pages that I somehow managed to overlook when it showed up earlier as a minor detail.

Because on the last two pages, there's this girl. There's this buxom blonde maiden stereotype hanging out with a room full of goblins, monsters, and skeletons (and, yes of course she's the only traditionally attractive one of the bunch), and when I spotted her, all I could think was , "where'd this chick come from"? So I went back. Obviously, I'd missed her somehow. Obviously, she wasn't just your traditional hero's reward arm candy in this book about the adventurers being the bad guys.

Except, no, it's actually quite a bit worse than that. Because, yeah, she did show up on a previous page.

She was tied up in the adventurers' loot. And I just don't know what in the fuck I'm supposed to get out of that.

See, here's the thing. My immediate assumption is that this is supposed to be an attempt at taking down the "love interest as hero's reward" notion. Except, you know, no? That's not what this story is doing at all; instead of taking down that exceptionally misogynistic trope, this story actually uses it.

The roles are reversed, sure, but it's still there. Instead of Mario rescuing Princess Peach from whoever kidnapped her this week, or Link rescuing Zelda, we have a creature that would normally be cast as the "villain" rescuing the fair maiden from the nominal heroes. On the one hand, it's partially a clever condemnation of trope; it seems to at least try to point out the heroine's role as one of the "spoils" by literally tying her up in the adventurers pile of victory spoils, but it goes horribly wrong after that. The only indication we have of her willingness to be with the goblins in the end is that she's no longer bound and is smiling instead of scowling.

But if it's supposed to be calling out the objectifying trope of "to the hero goes the heroine/spoils," it's failing miserably. It can't condemn the very same thing that it's doing. It doesn't matter if the woman was bound and clearly miserable in the company of the adventurers and later subservient and smiling in the presence of the goblins; that's the way it always plays out, and swapping the traditional identities of the heroes and villains doesn't do anything to change that.

Seriously, I would have adored this story if I didn't notice it. It's so good in every other way. It's an adorable exploration of the cliches of one of my two favorite genres, and I thought right up until the end that it was going to be something of a new favorite for me.

But there's this objectified stereotype played 100% straight right at the end, and I cannot get on board.

A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

This picture book is delightfully defiant of its readers' expectations. You've got two elements here: a hungry lion and an assortment of animals already stated to be dwindling. So what's happening in the story? Is the hungry lion really eating the other animals? I'm honestly not going to spoil it for you; the surprise is what matters here.

A Hungry Lion is the best of this bunch by far, and even as an adult, I think the book's a lot of fun. I definitely recommend it!

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