July 13, 2011
When you see a lot of children's picture books on a daily basis, there's a danger of forgetting the old warning about books and their covers: You start to think you can tell almost at a glance whether a given book is going to be interesting or not. Hubris comes easily.
In most cases, the feeling is more or less justified, too. Most of the standouts of the genre are at least partially illustration-driven, and you can indeed tell right away, in most cases, when you're dealing with something extraordinary in that regard.
But then comes the book that serves as your comeuppance, the notice that you're not the at-a-glance expert you thought you were. For me, that book is actually a best-selling series: Judy Schachner's Skippyjon Jones books, which I first came across back in my Cookie magazine days. They were already wildly successful even then, but the first one I came across looked like a lot of other mildly interesting anthropomorphized-animal picture books out at the time, and didn't stand out all that much even after a quick read. I didn't really get it; with a shrug, I put it aside.
My older son eventually came across the series and immediately adored it, and a few bedtime readings later I belatedly saw why. Skippyjon is a Siamese kitten with big ears who likes to imagine he's a Chihuahua, with a group of imaginary Chihuahua friends, Los Chimichangos, with whom he goes on adventures. And the tales about him, which I initially found just mildly amusing and even a little silly, are in fact surprisingly interesting explorations of a family's acceptance and encouragement of a child's vivid imagination. Schachner's rhymes are subtly clever, and the storylines themselves, especially Skippyjon's relationship with his mother, are endearing. The latest entry in the series, Skippyjon Jones, Class Action, which deals with its protagonist's desire to go to school (which his mother sensibly notes is something dogs, not cats, do), is a worthy addition.
All that said, another issue turned up as I got to know the series better, one that's a subject of conversation on many a blog out there right now. Skippyjon uses "his best Spanish accent," as the first book puts it, when he's on his Chihuahua adventures, and many of the books' rhymes rely on adding "-o" to the ends of all sorts of words. To borrow a catchphrase from Daniel Tosh, is it racist?
There's no question of anything demeaning or ugly-stereotypical about anything Skippyjon and his pals do, and the books are if anything a celebration of the Chihuahua persona, so ultimately I'd say not really. But I did have pangs of doubt when reading the book aloud for the first time, and I can certainly see how a children's book series centered around a Taco Bell chihuahua accent might be considered offensive. (Bloggers and commenters of Latino background seem to come down on both sides of the matter, from what I've been reading.) Certainly, thought-experiment parallels with other ethnicities and dialects quickly move into extremely hot water.
At any rate, the whole episode has been a reminder that a whole lot more can lie below the surface than is immediately apparent in children's books. I really can't judge them by those covers.
[Image courtesy of Dutton Books]