Something I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of kids’ stories share a pretty consistent message when it comes to friendships and relationships, and it’s not necessarily one that I agree with. You probably know what I’m talking about. You’ve got one character who is quiet and reserved, and one who is loud and outgoing. Or maybe one is organized and tidy, and the other is spontaneous and carefree. One always follows the rules, the other is a troublemaker. Can you guess which one will learn an important lesson about friendship?
Yeah, it’s rarely the messy, spontaneous troublemaker who changes their ways. The quiet and reserved (“grumpy”) character discovers that it’s just too quiet when the noisy character isn’t around, the neat character (probably called “fussy” at some point) realizes that making a mess is so much more fun, the upright (“uptight”) citizen finally loosens up and wreaks a little havoc–and they all become better for it. Sound familiar?
But what if you’re an introvert, and what you really need is a little alone time to recharge your batteries? Aren’t there situations in which being organized could actually be better than being sloppy? Isn’t there some value in understanding our responsibilities?
Here’s a quick list of older examples I can think of, just off the top of my head.
Rabbit is always getting into trouble, and Mouse is always bailing him out. Why? Because he’s my friend. Does Rabbit ever learn? Is he truly remorseful, or is he just sorry for a brief moment before getting himself into another mess? The lesson: if you’re in a destructive relationship, it’s more important to be loyal than to keep yourself safe.
Jasper is tidy and would rather not play in the mud. Joop loves making a mess. They end up splashing into the water to escape a swarm of bees … and of course Jasper learns to lighten up. Joop continues to make messes. The lesson: messiness is fun and being clean is lame.
I’ve reviewed a couple of these comics in previous Stack Overflow columns. Squirrel is overly afraid of everything; Bird is fearless. Bird gets them into all sorts of danger without ever realizing the gravity of the situation. Just when things get bad, and Bird starts to realize that his carelessness has put Squirrel in danger, Squirrel suddenly realizes that he should be more like Bird. Everyone’s happy. The lesson: safety precautions are for cowards.
In this series of books, Old Man Fookwire loves birds but hates the squirrels, who steal all the bird treats for themselves. But then the squirrels always manage to win him over (and continue eating the bird treats). The lesson: being cute makes up for being intrusive and annoying.
This one I also mentioned in a past Stack Overflow. Bruce is a gruff bear who accidentally ends up with three goslings who think he’s their mother. Instead of eating them, he raises them (reluctantly at first). The lesson: even if somebody asks to be left alone several times, they don’t really mean it.
Now, some of these books above are ones that I’ve enjoyed–some of them have fantastic artwork, some of them really made me laugh. But they all tend to encourage habits and behaviors that are in opposition to my own. That last one–that people who ask to be alone don’t really mean it–is one that I think can be particularly harmful, and a message that I find to be very common. In fact, I found it in two more recent books:
Hector the bear and Hummingbird (the hummingbird) are best friends. But sometimes Hector gets annoyed, because Hummingbird is always copying him and is always noisy. He just won’t shut up. One day, Hector finally loses his temper, snaps at Hummingbird, and stomps off into the jungle. He tells Hummingbird not to follow him (though of course Hummingbird does anyway). Hector only enjoys his peace and quiet for a short time before he realizes he really misses Hummingbird … who is fortunately right there anyway.
Now, I have to say: this book is really cute. I loved the illustrations, which include a lot of other animals in the backgrounds. And Hummingbird’s dialogue is pretty well-written for a hyperactive personality. But in the end, it’s Hector who learns a lesson about accepting Hummingbird’s personality, rather than the other way around. Hector, it seems, is never going to get his peace and quiet … and perhaps what this book is saying is that he really shouldn’t want it anyway.
This book follows a very similar path–Bird just clings to Hippo and wants to be a friend, but Hippo just keeps saying, “Goodbye, Bird!” Until Bird actually leaves, and then Hippo misses Bird–who is right nearby, as it turns out. In this one, though, Hippo doesn’t even make it a full page by himself before looking for Bird. It’s definitely another case where the character says he wants to be alone, but the reader learns that he doesn’t really mean it.
If your kid is an introvert, what do books like this teach her about herself? If you have a child who (wonder of wonders!) actually likes to keep things clean and tidy, do you really want books telling him that he’s boring and no fun?
I have, however, come across a few books in recent years that have a somewhat different approach, and it’s been refreshing to see that. Here are a couple of examples.
In Be a Friend, Dennis is a mime: he doesn’t talk, and prefers actions instead. In this book, he finds somebody who speaks his language and becomes his friend. He doesn’t learn an important lesson about speaking up or being loud. (This one was featured in my Stack Overflow column about dealing with difficult topics.)
Virgil the penguin is fast; Owen the polar bear takes his time. Virgil is often finishing Owen’s sentences and hurrying him along, not realizing that Owen just isn’t quite as fast. This picture book is pretty short, and I have to admit that I’m not wowed by the illustrations, but the message is pretty clear: Virgil needs to be a little more patient and give Owen more time to process. This one is not necessarily about introverts and extroverts, but is a good reminder that not everyone thinks and acts at the same pace.
Octopus plays with the seahorses and various other sea creatures, but sometimes she just needs some time to herself. And once she has had a chance to recharge, she heads back–and is welcomed by her friends. The first time I read this, I dismissed it as another “Oh, look, she left and now she misses her friends,” but I think it actually is a good example of just taking some time away. She actually does spend a bit of time on her own before returning, and I think it’s notable that the friends accept her leaving and coming back.
This picture book is told from Isaac’s own point of view, as he explains his “superpowers”–like his ability to remember lots of facts and being able to tell people about them. And because he’s a superhero and has a lot on his mind, sometimes he might forget to be friendly, even though he doesn’t mean to be rude. It’s a simple primer about habits that some kids with Asperger’s may have, with some concise (and creative) explanations for their behavior, without getting into too many details. I like that it explains both the strengths and challenges that kids with ASD may have in a kid-friendly way. At the end of the book, there are also several links to more information about autism.
As somebody who likes things to be neat and organized, I always bristle a little at books that imply that people like me are needlessly fussy. Where’s the story where everyone realizes that it’s great to hang out with the kid who knows where to find every toy in his collection? I suppose that’s what happens when picture books are written and illustrated by authors and artists instead of accountants.
But I like that there are some children’s books that accept the reality that there isn’t one “right” personality, and I’d love to see even more books that teach kids that there are lots of different types of people in the world.
“Extrovert, Meet Introvert” photo by Katrina Br*?#*!@nd, used under Creative Commons License.