Stories and Images
for Young Children
By Sharon Henegar
Illustrated by Doug Dworkin
From Radiance Fall
been hearing a lot in the news lately about the
importance of early learning experiences, including exposing young
children to books and readingand its all true. A child who has been read to
when young is more likely to be a good reader herself and to be successful in school and
in life. And there is nothing cozier than sharing a favorite story: cuddling up together
and studying the pictures in a delightful childrens book.
Books also provide important lessons. And a story doesnt need to be didactic, to
have an explicitly spelled out moral, to get its point across. Even young children can
relate the allegorical experiences in a story to their own situations, especially if they
have learned to discuss stories from an early age. Consider some of our favorite
folktales. Little kids know that Goldilocks is taking some pretty major liberties when she
enters the bears house, and the bears dont have to call in the cops and have
Goldie arrested for the lesson to sink in. And Little Red Riding Hood? Well, she
didnt mind her mama, who told her to stay out of the woods, so its only to be
expected that shed have to face that wolf.
As a childrens librarian, Im always on the lookout for well-written picture
books of all types, and as a large woman, I appreciate the ones with size-positive
attitudes. A new book I especially like is Sunflower Sal, written by
Janet Anderson and illustrated by Elizabeth Johns. Sal is a big girl
whose size is an advantage in her life on a farm. She does get frustrated
when trying to quilther "needles
wont thread and her squares wont square"but Sal is
creative. She grows sunflowers that turn the whole farm into a visual quilt. The
books vibrant paintings bring her happy triumph to life.
Lots of stories boast illustrations of exuberant women of size. Harder to find are nice
round children. A charmer with both is Hotter Than a Hot Dog!, written by Stephanie
Calmenson and illustrated by Elivia. A young girl and her grandmother escape the heat with
a trip to the beach and have a magical day cavorting unself-consciously in their bathing
Mrs. Meyer the Bird, written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch, the large Mrs. Meyer
is a champion worrier. When she rescues a baby bird and raises him in her kitchen, her
talent for worrying finds a worthy object. The story takes a surreal turn when Mrs. Meyer
finds a way to teach her bird to flyand teach herself to leave her worries behind.
Many of us can remember the taunting of rude classmates. In
Fat, Fat Rose Marie,
written and illustrated by Lisa Passen, Rose Marie is the new girl in class. She quickly
gets to know the red-haired and freckled narrator, who proves to be a friend of rare fun
and imagination. Nasty Genevieve, who leads the "Fat, fat Rose Marie" taunting,
does her best to ruin this friendship, but gets her comeuppance with an ice cream cone in
the face (a waste of good ice cream, true, but so satisfying!). This book, although not
subtle, is a nice contrast to Dont Call Me Fatso by Barbara Philips, with its
predictable story about an eight-year-old who overcomes the teasing about being fat by
going on a diet and losing weight.
I come across references to dieting more often than I would like in picture books. Like
all kids, those who are picture-book age dont need diet-think. Even though A Piece
of Cake by Jill Murphy ends with Mama Elephant agreeing that elephants are meant to be
fat, the whole story turns on the diet and exercise routine she has earlier forced upon
the entire family. Likewise, What Should a Hippo Wear? by Jane Sutton ends with Bertha
being loved for her own round self, but not until she laments that she hasnt time to
go on a diet and endures a humiliating scene at the Jungle Dress Shop (which falsely
advertises "We specialize in large sizes").
Of course, being fat isnt the only thing kids get teased about, and stories with
strong little heroines and heroes who keep their self-esteem in spite of all efforts to
deprive them of it are almost always inspiring. For instance, in The Blushful Hippopotamus
by Chris Raschka, young Roosevelt turns red whenever his sister teases him about the
natural mistakes a very young hippo can make. But Roosevelt is lucky to have a terrific
best friend who shows him that hes not blushful: hes hopeful, mindful,
thoughtful, and wonderful. With each new word Roosevelt grows bigger and prouder, and his
mean sister shrinks away into the background.
The Blushful Hippopotamus is one of many books whose illustrations use animals to
depict people. If youve ever browsed the childrens section of a library or
bookstore, you have doubtless noticed this phenomenon. It brings an element
of fantasy and imaginative playfulness to the story, and animal characters carry a
universality that transcends considerations of race or age. Of course, animals have certain characteristics built
in: for instance, elephants and hippopotamuses always represent a physically large
character. How an author and illustrator use that largeness may teach subtle (or sometimes
not-so-subtle) lessons about how size plays out in real life.
George and Martha by James Marshall says nothing overt about size, but the ease of
these two hippos, with their overflowing roundness, is always endearing. In one story,
Martha loves to look at herself in the mirror (what young child would not identify with
this?) with an innocent enjoyment that speaks of healthy self-esteem. Marshall
wrote a whole series of George and Martha stories, including George and Martha: Tons
of Fun and George and Martha: Round and Round. Helpful Betty, another likable hippo
character, stars in two books written by Michaela Morgan and illustrated by Moira Kemp:
Helpful Betty to the Rescue and Helpful Betty Solves a Mystery. Young Betty wreaks
hilarious havoc in her attempts to be helpful, all the while singing songs like,
"Fa-la-la, fiddle-dee-de, here comes graceful little me. Leaping and flying as fast
as a flea, light as a leaf floating free." She truly sees herself as light and
graceful. What a role model!
The Bigness Contest, written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by
Victoria Chess, features a hippo named Beasley. Beasley never succeeds in winning the
blue ribbon he so desperately wants (hes afraid hell never be good at
anything) until he enters a bigness contest, but even that doesnt turn out as he
expects. This story should appeal to all of us who have given up trying to hide our size
and have come to appreciate ourselves as we are.
Sharing a book with a child allows you many opportunities to talk about your values. As
you and the child react to the story, it is easy to share how it makes you feel. Stories
allow children to experience situations and emotions in a safe and protected way,
preparing them for that big world outside our doors. The standard picture book is only
thirty-two pages. Most have a brief text, but those few words can hold life and death and
everything in between.
When choosing books to share with a child, I suggest you grab an armful and read them
through before you take them home. With library books, the price is right: you can read
all you want for free, so experiment widely.
If you have no preschool child to read to, thats okay. If you like to laugh or
cry or simply enjoy a good story, go grab some childrens books for yourself.
Youll be able to appreciate the levels of meaning and nuances that go over a
childs head. Theres no reason to ever give up such a source of delight! ©
SHARON HENEGAR, M.L.S., has been a librarian for more than twenty years. She and her
husband, who is a professional storyteller, live in San Mateo, California. Henegar
currently works at a private elementary school where, in addition to her duties as a librarian, she participates in
such events as Silly Hat Day.
| for Children
Sal by Janet Anderson; illustrated by Elizabeth Johns (Albert Whitman & Co, 1997).
Hotter Than a Hot Dog! by Stephanie Calmenson; illustrated by Elivia (Little, Brown
& Co., 1994).
Mrs. Meyer the Bird by Wolf Erlbruch (Orchard, 1997).
Fat, Fat Rose Marie by Lisa Passen (Henry Holt, 1991).
The Blushful Hippopotamus by Chris Raschka (Orchard, 1996).
||George and Martha by James Marshall (Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
|| (A new edition of the complete George and Martha stories together in one book
was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1997: George and Martha: The Complete Stories
about Two Great Friends.)
||Helpful Betty to the Rescue and Helpful Betty Solves a Mystery
by Michaela Morgan; illustrated by Moira Kemp (Carolrhoda, 1994).
The Bigness Contest by Florence Parry Heide; illustrated by Victoria Chess (Little,
Brown & Co., 1994).
Dont Call Me Fatso by Barbara Philips (Raintree, 1980).
What Should a Hippo Wear? by Jane Sutton (Houghton Mifflin, 1979).
A Piece of Cake by Jill Murphy (Putnam, 1989).
For more on supporting plus-size kids (of
visit our Radiance Kids Project!
this is only a taste of what's inside the printed version of the magazine!