Columns > Published on September 11th, 2023

Why Progressive Kid's Books Suck

Header via Pixabay

While I was browsing the library a bit back, I came across a little book: Feminist Baby.

I hated it.

Not because I hate the politics of the book or feminism or hate women or have strong opinions on trans athletes in women’s sports or hate babies.

Not because I hate the politics of the book or feminism or hate women or have strong opinions on trans athletes in women’s sports or hate babies.

I’ll spare you a third, bolded AND underlined, repeat of that sentence if you promise to read at least one of the previous copies and really remember it for the next 10 minutes.

I hated Feminist Baby not for what it represents, but for what it is: a book for kids that would bore the crap out of kids.

I read other progressive picture books like Feminist Baby, and they were all kind of terrible.

Not because they have bad politics or bad messages.

Because they're bad as books.

What I'm Talking About

I'm not talking about any book that has a character of color or that presents a character with two mommies. A book having modern sensibilities does not damn a book to the hell of bad progressive picture books.

I'm talking specifically about books that address politics and have titles like Anti-Capitalist Toddler, Armando is an Activist, Mariam Tries To Walk The Line Between Cultural Appreciation and Cultural Appropriation When Shopping on Etsy.

These, my friends, are the problem.

The Message Is The Whole

What I found in books about feminist babies, books about anti-racist babies, books about who should touch someone else’s hair (spoiler: nobody), books about people with disabilities, books about gender for little kids—what I found in all of these was a series of wholesome messages.

And that’s it.

They were well-illustrated pamphlets that outline, in too many, too-complex words, stances or philosophies.

Why does that suck?

Because Where’s The Story?

These books read as a series of disconnected statements, things like, “I am just a baby, and I haven’t got gender figured out yet, so leave me alone about it.”

Where’s the narrative? Where’s the action? Where is the memorable A to B to C?

Even a book as simple as The Very Hungry Caterpillar has SOME narrative. Things that happen before other things. There's some cause and effect. There's STUFF.

Information without story is boring. And worse, it's forgettable.

Because Where Are The Characters?

I’m pretty sure Feminist Baby’s main character's name is…Feminist Baby.

And by the end of the book, Feminist Baby has two traits, both of which are contained in the title/baby’s name.

These books don't have characters, they’re just ideas with human outlines drawn around them.

They're B-O-R-I-N-G. They're forgettable.

Why These Books Are A Problem For Adults

If the books are boring and forgettable, their messages will be forgotten as well.

If the message is all there is, and if that's forgotten, what's left?

Why It's A Problem For Kids

Kids in picture books can be princesses, they can be knights, they can drive race cars, they can have wacky adventures. The can fuck up and learn something from it.

But in these progressive picture books, kids are relegated to spending the few pages they get expressing their identity, and that’s it. Nobody in these books is getting in a time machine or going to the Moon with their cat. Nobody is making friends with a ghost. Nobody is unraveling a mystery.

This tells kids that books with progressive ideas are learning books, lecture books, not adventures.

On a subtler level, it's a problem because these progressive books tend to dominate the market for "diverse" books. Displays, listicles, and libraries are packed with this brand of story-less, progressive, diverse picture book, and what THAT means is that when you see a book with a Black kid or a gender-non-conforming kid on the cover, there's a better-than-average chance you're looking at a progressive book.

All this means that kids are being sent a subtle, terrible message: books that feature diversity are boring.

That's not correct. And it's not cool.

The Reason These Proliferate

My cynical side says these books are an easy cash-in for authors, and parents get to feel like they're doing the right thing by buying them. But I don't think it's all that diabolical.

When you’re stocking a bookstore or a library, or even selecting some books for a kid, you want to have a diverse mix. Totally makes sense, great thing to do.

When you can find books specifically ABOUT diversity, it’s easy to see that you’re putting a good mix of books on the shelves or into your kid's head.

There's a desire to do good here, and we see Ibram X. Kendi's name on a children's book, and we're like, "Okay, that dude knows what he's talking about, race-wise. Let's get that."

Moving Forward: Author Side

By all means, center a character with progressive values in your book. Make them a detective! Make them a dragonslayer! Give them something to do! Kids want to be on their side, rooting for them. Kids want to be amazed by their adventures. Kids want to laugh at their jokes.

Your characters can have their identity, nobody is asking for an erasure here.

Just give them a little something to do!

Moving Forward: Reader Side

See if your library has access to Novelist. They probably do, and if they don't, they probably have something similar.

Novelist is an awesome database of books, and what’s super cool is that it has search options you won’t find everywhere.

You can search by "Author's Cultural Identity," including things like "Ability diverse," "Black Canadian," "Indigenous," "LGBTQIA," and tons of others.

You can search by the author's gender, which gives the options for Male, Female, Non-Binary, and Trans.

You can search by the author's nationality.

And here's what's really awesome: You can put in keywords like "Comedy." Or "Scary." Or "Science."

You can find stories, memorable characters, and all sorts of different books by all sorts of different people.

To offer your kids a diverse array of authors who hold progressive ideas, you don't have to forgo story. 

What you'll find, it's almost like any kind of person can write a great picture book.

Imagine that.

Get There's a Ghost In This House by Oliver Jeffers at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Misogynist Baby by Peter Derk at Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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