Help and angsty feminist parent talk with the school and her daughter.
June 6, 2012 7:10 PM   Subscribe

My daughter has repeatedly brought home books from the school library that I have a problem with. I'm a feminist and I'm anti-censorship. I'm lost.

My five year old daughter started school this year. It's a tiny, state run infant's school with only four teachers and one of the teachers doubles as the head mistress. The head mistress is terrifying, intimidating to me and not very receptive to questions or requests.

Because the school is so small, the kids can only borrow books once per week. The librarian oversees libraries at several schools.

Yesterday, for the THIRD time, LittleTaff brought home a fairy tale... this time Rapunzel. Objectified women with little or no agency, basing marriage decisions on the appearance or wealth of the men, and WITCHES!!!!

After the second version of the Little Mermaid came home, I had a phone interview with the head and told her that I wasn't happy about the way women were portrayed, that I could see some historical merit in the books, but thought they were more appropriate for older children... but also that the Disney version of the Little Mermaid had no literary nor historical merit and did the school need some fundraising for books. (I'm on the fundraising committee. )

The head talked over the top of me, told me that the librarian was excellent, the library was very well stocked and that she'd look in to the very first book because it had the sea witch encouraging the little mermaid to murder the wife of the prince.

So... that was two weeks ago. And yesterday my lovely kid brought home Rapunzel.

I'm conflicted. My daughter loves her library books. She won't let me skim, she is devastated when I criticise the books.... of course making sure it's about the author's silliness and not her choice. But I think all she hears is "Your choice is shit again and the things you like are bad".

We have a house brimming with books that are good for girls and people of race and in all types of relationships....

Two areas of questions:

I have asked my husband to come with me to talk to the headmistrees and librarian in a formal meeting.... what do you suggest we say? Help me with my script. I need to keep calm and focused and I don't feel either. I'm not even sure what I want.

What do I say to my daughter about the books if they continue to come home? She's half Tibetan so finding books that reflect something she might recognise as being like her is almost impossible. They're all white and pretty and all the dark haired women are evil.

My daughter chooses these books.... so I really need to support her, and continue to nurture her love of reading and being read to.

We've talked about how people used to think bad things about women who were doctors before there were doctors and called them witches. She knows witches were actually healers that were threatening to zealots... but that's a complex thing to take on board. And really, she's just a little girl who wants to read a happy story with pretty pictures.

I did do some reconnaissance and go to the Feminist Bookshop in Sydney this morning.... but they've closed down. I really need a feminist parent reality check/pep talk.

(I am a terrible worrier. If you say it in nice words, I'm open to being told that I'm over-reacting. But MrTaff and I are hard core feminists. So that's where we're coming from.)
posted by taff to Human Relations (143 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
She's reading! Let her read anything and everything she can.
posted by sammyo at 7:17 PM on June 6, 2012 [174 favorites]

You're overreacting.
posted by wurly at 7:18 PM on June 6, 2012 [173 favorites]

A five-year old will not pick up all the objectionable stuff you see in these books. As you wrote she's just a little girl who wants to read a happy story with pretty pictures. I think you should just let her be a child that often gets to read the same stories that other kids get to read to, so that she partakes in the common culture. At the same time, you can make some better suited choices by buying her better books (which she will likely read more than once) and/or borrow books from a public library.

Keep your fights for more important issues: you don't want to become known as that crazy woman who complains about everything and get immediately dismissed even if you bring up important issues.
posted by aroberge at 7:18 PM on June 6, 2012 [29 favorites]

Best answer: Her mom constantly criticizing her choices in books will cause many more "issues" than her reading fairy tales about princesses.

Keep your home books the way you want, and let her pick what she wants at school.
posted by katypickle at 7:20 PM on June 6, 2012 [134 favorites]

You can't really prevent your daughter from being exposed to this content for a number of reasons. What you can do is allow her to be drawn to them and ask her why she is and go from there. Why is she picking these stories out? What is she curious about? How is she curious?

I think you just need to ask a lot of questions and get your daughter, as well as you and your husband, thinking about what these books mean and what place they have in the world.

I also don't think you need to talk to the headmistress and librarian about this. Your daughter will see all kinds of things in her life, she needs to learn the skills of how to evaluate what she's exposed to.

And, yes, she's reading - awesome!
posted by mleigh at 7:20 PM on June 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm with you on the feminism thing, and I think this headmistress sounds like a bad listener (whose job it is to at least listen to your concerns and do what's within reason to address them). But I also think you might be overreacting, yeah -- and I think that since you brought it up, you do too. Reading Rapunzel (or whatever) at 5 will not scar her for life or leave her with poor self esteem, especially since it sounds like in all other respects you're totally raising her in an environment that (to the extent you can control it) portrays women and men as equals.

You probably know, as a person with a working brain, that there's a lot of systemic/societal reasons why men have advantages, and they're not going to all be within your ability to control or be things you can shield her from. But you're also her mom, so you worry. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're not going to be able to 100% change the world that she lives in to be the one that you want it to be, but you're doing a good thing in trying anyway, and that alone is probably doing a small bit to make it a better place. The arc of history and all that.

Take a breath, step back, and decide if this is the hill you want to die on.
posted by axiom at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Let her read whatever she wants to read, because: reading! If she's choosing stuff you're not a big fan of from the school library, can you go with her to your local public library (if it's get-to-able) also once a week and be with her when she chooses stuff from there? Can you/do you do storytime with her regularly with other kinds of books?

I read all kinds of awful stuff as a kid - grew up in the 70s, mom was a feminist - and almost never had books taken away from me. I'm still a reader and also a feminist.
posted by rtha at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

My first reaction is that you'll get a lot farther in the long run allowing your daughter to experiment on her own and choose your values than trying to build a world in which no other view is possible. This is probably a smaller version of much bigger struggles to come. Be there to explain your view, support her and model your beliefs. But let her read what interests her.
posted by meinvt at 7:22 PM on June 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

I might be a little too casual about this stuff, but I've always been pretty staunchly anti-censorship when it comes to books, music, etc and my child. Stories are just that and just as as adults we don't believe everything we read in books and movies, I believe children are the same. Letting her read things you don't really believe in can also lead to some teachable moments where you and she discuss a book after she's read it. You might be surprised to find out that she knows it's just a fairy tale and not "real".
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 7:22 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: And really, she's just a little girl who wants to read a happy story with pretty pictures.


Think of this situation as an opportunity to discuss the differences between fantasy and reality, and the differences between roles & opportunities for women now versus back when those stories were written.

Also, I think it's entirely possible to enjoy stereotypically "girly" stuff and still be an independent, self-sufficient woman. Ms. Cat is certainly this way.
posted by tantrumthecat at 7:23 PM on June 6, 2012 [14 favorites]

but also that the Disney version of the Little Mermaid had no literary nor historical merit

The original version would be awfully strong stuff for a five-year-old. I find it unsettling, and I'm in my late 40s.

I don't know what to say except that any school library is only as good as the school librarian, and that it isn't going to irretrievably scar your daughter to be exposed to shallow media, especially if you give her lots of other more interesting things that are more in line with your values and the values you hope she will have.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:23 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was your daughter, my mom was you. She worried, but she let me read whatever I wanted. She did, however, take me to a reading/book signing of Girls to the Rescue. I loved it - I got something kind of familiar, except the girls were the heroes! I don't know if the writing is any good, honestly, but that didn't matter at all.

I think as long as you provide her with that sort of thing, there's no need to worry about her reading some things that hurt your feminist heart. She's going to come across them at some point anyway, and there is something to be said for being culturally literate, even with the parts of culture you find squicky.
posted by SugarAndSass at 7:23 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I personally believe in more, not less. I would let her (him, in the case of my son) range in her choices, because that is how kids will learn to make them even at the tender age of 5. I'd rather the choices get made early when he is still at home, listening, not sophisticated at being private etc.

Make sure she has a full range of choice by bringing the best books into your home. Personally I believe fairy tales are especially big at that age rage because there are clear protagonists and antagonists, so you might look for books that provide that.

I would bring up the issue of "are you offering _diverse_ choices" at the school rather than "these are books I want taken away."

Of course YMMV.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:24 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did grow up with Disney-forbidding parents. It was a bit awkward, actually. I think forbidding something makes it seem more fascinating than it actually is in many cases.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on June 6, 2012 [23 favorites]

If I'm reading this right, the books she's bringing home from school are just a small fraction of the total number of books she reads on a regular basis. I think you need to let this one go, and keep providing her with a wide range of books to choose from at home and the local library. You know, I LOVE TO READ. I read all kinds of things, from trashy best-sellers to daily comic strips to technical journals to Metafilter. I bet you do, too. And if you encourage her to read a wide range of material, I bet she will, too.
posted by raisingsand at 7:27 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's less important what she reads and more important how you talk to her about what she reads and how she learns to think critically about what she reads. Like many others in this thread, I read anything and everything--some of it real crap--because my parents believed I should read anything and everything, but they talked to me all the time about it. Until I learned to separate the wheat from the chaff--not only with regard to the quality of the books I was reading, but also with regard to the value of the ideas inherent in the stories.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:29 PM on June 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think it is healthy to read about things we don't like. Also, there doesn't have to be a message and meaning behind everything she reads - it can be just for fun and entertainment. The stories you mention are all clearly classified as fairy tales, not non-fiction biographies.

I think the most productive thing you could do is create a list and suggest books you would like the library to purchase and offer to students. I don't think any school library is going to stop offering fairy tales.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:29 PM on June 6, 2012

Best answer: But MrTaff and I are hard core feminists. So that's where we're coming from.

The best way to raise a feminist is to raise a child who has an understanding of the way the world works and his or her place in it. I totally sympathize where you are coming from and I am a librarian who has issues with many of the books in my own library. But I am just one person and the community I work for contains multitudes. Access to ideas is essential for people to form their own opinions about ideas. This tends to happen in the presence of multiple, conflicting ideas and not through censure of ideas that we find wanting or otherwise not in line with our own worldviews.

So, I feel you. However, it's likely that you're not going to get the library to keep the objectionable books out. They likely have a policy and procedure of responding to challenges that mostly results in books being allowed to stay on the shelves. I would instead try to focus on having some really good girl-and-women-positive books [and hey, some great books with men-as-feminists which is a sadly underrepresented category in feminist literature] and possibly more multicultural books generally if you feel that that is another problem with the collection.

If this goes right, you should be able to have a fruitful conversation about how the librarian does her job professionally and how you do your parenting job and how you can meet together to find good books for the library collection for your child. Have realistic expectations and understand that if everyone got to keep the books out of the library that were not in line with their own personal worldviews it would sort of obviate the need for having a library in the first place. And that would be sad. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:31 PM on June 6, 2012 [86 favorites]

You are offering her all kinds of choices at home in her reading, and are modeling a feminist viewpoint. I think those are the messages she'll really take to heart in the end. I agree with the folks above that recommend offering diverse choices in books for the library through your fundraising. I also agree with having gentle talks with her about the books ("What would you do if someone mean did _____?" "Do you really think she was a witch?" asking questions without judgment). You might also consider reading some of those stories together and switching up the genders occasionally (princess becomes a prince, etc.). She might be reluctant to show them to you because she gets that they are upsetting to you. Making them less forbidden and less enticing.
posted by goggie at 7:32 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Before you talk to the headmistress and librarian, I would encourage you to think about what you want to see happen here.

Asking that the books be removed might not be seen as a reasonable request. Changing your daughter's reading preferences might not be within the headmistress' powers. Building a diverse library collection is an admirable idea, but one that many librarians already pursue (to the limits of their budgets and abilities).

Having some goals or action items or whatnot in mind will make for a more productive discussion all the way around.

(FWIW, I am a librarian who identifies as a feminist. I'm also anti-censorship, which is why I wouldn't restrict my kid's reading. This is easy for me to say, because I don't have a kid.)
posted by box at 7:33 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a feminist and I love the Disney princesses. They are pretend. :)

Seriously, let the kid read. Enrich at home if you want to.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:34 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Also as a kind of aside, in our house we refer to "story witches" and "real witches." We pretty much see them as separate categories, each with long traditions.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:35 PM on June 6, 2012 [14 favorites]

I do think this princess stuff is mostly crap (except for Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants, and Cornelia Funke's Princess Pigsty, which if you can get your hands on them are fantastic). The Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke is also pretty awesome.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:35 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read a lot of fairy tales as a kid and I loved Greek mythology, which might even be worse than the fairy tales. I haven't grown up to believe I need a man to be happy, and I absolutely self-identify as a feminist. If anything, a lot of these fairy tale heroines are pretty tough. They're tormented and tortured, but they soldier on through their hardships and always triumph in the end. Kids don't always pick up on the same things adults do. I never thought too hard about the princesses getting married to the prince. It was just sort of there.

If you're going to meet the headmistress, I would encourage her to start diversifying the library with stories from other cultures. That is absolutely something that will have an impact on your daughter (as well as be beneficial for the school as a whole). It's hard to explain, but when you're a minority there's something really important about seeing yourself and/or your family represented in media. Good luck!
posted by Rora at 7:35 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let her read! She's not seeing the same stuff that you are seeing. Remember, you are still the biggest influence in her life. You can still demonstrate your values and beliefs without making a gigantic issue over her not checking out the "right" books. Believe me, there will be many other issues for you to tackle during her schooling. Fairytales are minor in the big scheme of things.
posted by Ostara at 7:36 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You fill your home with books your kid likes to read.

She chooses books from her school library. She's happy. Rapunzel (classic fairytale) is harmless. Don't make this into something larger than it is. I don't think you want to be telling what a library can and cannot carry. Trust your daughter. Trust the school you send her to, or don't send her.

There is a rule in parenting when it comes to children and reading. You allow them to read what they want to read. That means comic books, TV guide, ESPN magazine, cereal boxes, sports section, princess stories.

Calm down. This is not meant to come across as sarcastic or judge-y but calm down. All is well. The school library is not raising your kid. You are. Calm down. Calm.
posted by Fairchild at 7:38 PM on June 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Repeat comment but with less grar (thanks Jessamyn):

This was a big issue for me, but happily I raised a daughter who introduced feminism to her year 9 class (she's now 19).

There's one tack you haven't thought of. I think of it as the Jay Smooth tack - it's not who you (the character/the author) are, it's what you do that counts. I don't think 5 is too young to talk about "So Snow White, hey, what you do think about her doing all the housework, eh? That must have been a long time ago, because you know, in a house like ours, Daddy and I share the work." and further to that link, these stories have been changed from what they originally were - check this out! Once the story said this instead!

And perhaps, "do you think these stories are true? or are they make believe?"; "if you lived with a mean person, do you think you would do something different than Snow White/Cindarella etc [AGENCY] than what they chose to do?"

About the appearance issue: It's fun to dress up, isn't it? Sometimes it's fun to dress up because it helps us pretend about the things we want to do, but just dressing up all the time, without getting to play or do anything, that's not much fun.

I personally don't believe you're overreacting. I think stories have always molded what societies want us to believe about ourselves.
posted by b33j at 7:38 PM on June 6, 2012 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, including Sweet Valley High and The Little Mermaid (and Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton, etc.) and my gut instinct is that a robust love of reading, and omnivorous consumption across genres and genre types, is the single BEST guarantee that your daughter will grow up to be a feminist. Know why? Because avid readers read EVERYTHING, and as a result of being exposed to so many different opinions and viewpoints, they learn to think for themselves -- critically -- and not swallow ANY message wholesale.
posted by artemisia at 7:39 PM on June 6, 2012 [41 favorites]

I think you are overreacting. While it can difficult to focus on abstract things as a worrier, focus on the BIGGER picture as others have said-she's reading. This is something that you should continue to praise her for. That way, hopefully, when she grows up she still enjoys reading.

Yes, these books go against what you and your SO believe in, but there will be other books and animated films that she might enjoy that coincide with your values. Perhaps you can read stories or watch moves with her that are pro-feminism instead. Help make her aware of what it means to be a feminist, but also explain what it means if someone is not a feminist.

I think at this age, and any age for that matter, it's important to educate your daughter about all of the possibilities and stances when it comes to ideologies, values, and other beliefs. Encourage her to explore by using different mediums such as books. That way, she can grow up to become a critical thinker that is aware of the world of possibilities rather than sheltered and only aware of one possibility.

I think, if you educate a child by allowing them to read a variety of books and watch a variety of movies then they will be able to develop their own opinions based on their own knowledge, experience, and awareness.

But, you can only help a child grow up to reach this point through exploration and education.
posted by livinglearning at 7:40 PM on June 6, 2012

This is going to school.
Next it will be iCarly.

The best thing you can do is provide her with books at home that meet your values and more importantly, teach her to be critical about what she consumes.
posted by k8t at 7:40 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that the more you make a huge issue out of this, the more uncomfortable you will make your daughter. You might turn her off of reading, and you definitely don't want that.

A better tack might be instead of telling her why the stories are bad, asking her how she feels about them. Talk about different ways the characters might react. Ask her to write her own version of the story. Ask her to write about what Rapunzel feels about all this, or to think about the story from the perspective from the witches. Offer her alternative reading material and compare the different heroines and villains. Make it an activity you both enjoy. Help her become an engaged reader. Just because she's reading fairy tales doesn't mean she has to model herself after them.
posted by synecdoche at 7:44 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I grew up reading anything and everything. Let her read it all and in your home, have books that reflect your beliefs. She'll read those, too. Nothing bad can come from being a voracious reader.
posted by vivzan at 7:45 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dude, I am a feminist lesbian etc., and I think you should chill out.

I LOVED The Little Mermaid and Barbies when I was 5. I begged my mom to let me take dance classes. I totally bought into lots of girly-girl crap. And yes, it was hurtful when I hit middle school and wanted to be thinner and prettier and popular and had to navigate "femininity". But I got over it. And your daughter will also hit up against cultural expectations of women to be thin and pretty no matter what she reads.

You can't protect your daughter from a patriarchal culture. You can provide as many counter-examples at home as you can. You can encourage her to like "boy stuff", but also let her like girly stuff if she does. For as much as we say "OMG kids are programmed by Disney", kids are also able to see through it when they're older.

Give her a diversity of viewpoints. Show her that Rapunzel and damsel-in-distress is not the only way of being in the world. I think you will serve her better if you teach her that "there are lots of different ways to be male or female" than "this way is terrible and wrong".
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:45 PM on June 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

There was a part of Bossypants where Tina Fey wrote that she was upset because her daughter brought home a book about how mothers who work are witches. She asked her daughter about it and her daughter said that she liked the pictures. I appreciate your concern but I think she'll be okay.
posted by kat518 at 7:46 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think this is overreacting. Girls and young people of color living in a white-majority world are forming a sense of self and how the world is and ought to be when they are young, in part through the books they are exposed to. Same as the TV they watch and the people they talk to.

Problems I have with junky branded princess books:

*Even if the books are just garden-variety kinda lame and princessy, they are still reflecting a worldview that says that girl have certain types of adventures and no other. And a world wherein there are often no people of color at all. It's possible that people who are themselves female or PoC are more sensitive to this, but hey, that doesn't mean that it's not happening.

*My main objection to this kind of book is that they are BAD. A LOT of the kind of junky kid books out there (a lot of the branded stuff in particular) are really impoverished and cruddy, language-wise. That is not overreacting fussiness. A kid who is read to from books that contain rich language gets a vocabulary boost blah blah blah. Science! I do not think that guiding the choices of a very young reader, or curating the books available to her, is a form of evil censorship.

*I am pretty concerned about the opportunity branded (Disney, Clifford, Dora, etc etc etc) books give to people to sell your kid crap before they're old enough to understand what's happening. This is totally a hill I am willing to die on. I don't especially care if people think that's censorship or terrible or overreacting, I don't want to fight with my kid about buying some kind of junk "fruit" snack at the grocery store because he recognizes an image on the packaging. This stuff is much more pervasive than people are willing to cop to.

*If you have a very reluctant reader, I think you have to back off and let the chips fall where they may. Whatever gets them hooked. But that doesn't sound to me like what's happening here.

*There are higher-quality fairytale and princess books, even for the very young. I remember an entire mini-industry of feminist princess books when I was a little kid being raised by hippies. It is okay to steer your little one to the most nutritious version of a subject in the same way most parents steer their kid away from soda and toward water or milk. That's not censorship. Once a kid hits the pre-teen years, I feel like an avid reader can make their own judgments. But I disagree that the very young do not need or require guidance in their reading choices at all.

Anyway. I don't think you are overreacting. I think talking to the school about the books in the school (and how they display them in alluring ways) is a conversation worth having. I would not approach it as "I want these crappy books removed from the library", but instead as something like:

"We all want a very mentally nutritious book soup surrounding the kids, right? Of course we do. I am concerned that as the children in our school, the girls in particular, go through the pretty much inevitable "princess phase", they are not being exposed to high-quality, rich-language books that also reflect their interests. I am also interested in seeing books with more diversity in the characters in our library. I took the liberty of coming up with a list of books that are often recommended for young girls and young persons of color. I'd love to see some of these in our library! What can we do together to make this happen? I would also love to brainstorm some ways we can steer the kids toward these high-quality books instead of toward DISNEY'S PRINCESS SPARKLE FIESTA."

Good luck. (FWIW, I am totally with you.)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:47 PM on June 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

Donate some feminist fairy tales to the library, or at least make them available to your daughter at home. Check out Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Gold and Silver, the Talking Eggs, Girls to the Rescue, Dealing with Dragons ...
posted by ChuraChura at 7:47 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, you're kind of overreacting. She's only five years old. Let her read what she wants now, and as she and her tastes mature, you can both explore more feminist options together. Limiting her reading in any way is going to cause more problems than it will solve, and will of course add the allure of the forbidden to anything you won't let her read. Also, I think it could cause her stress and anxiety by making picking books about pleasing you or passing your tests. After all, she's too young to really understand the criteria you're judging her choices against, so all she knows is, "Mommy doesn't like what I like and I don't know how to pick what she likes." Perceiving my parents as being judgey about my reading material would definitely have put a chilling effect on the amount of books I read as a kid.

I think it's part of growing up to read all kinds of books and be exposed to all kinds of stories, and fairy tales are a part of that. I read a lot (A LOT) of fairy tales and mythology when I was not much older than your daughter, some the sanitized versions, and some not. As I grew older, I read the subverted, more feminist versions of those stories, which wouldn't have had anything close to the same resonance had I not read the originals. If your daughter continues to be a voracious, omnivorous reader, she'll go through the same sort of process. We grow up with our stories, and the stories we read at five mean something different to us at fifteen and change again at twenty-five as we read and see more iterations of them.

I think the most concrete and helpful thing you could ask for in your meeting with the librarian and headmistress is more diversity in terms of stories from other cultures. I wish I had had more diverse options than Greek and Roman mythology and European fairy tales when I was a kid, because there's a big wide world of folklore out there, and I think reading a lot of it makes for a strong foundation of cultural literacy.
posted by yasaman at 7:47 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I completely agree with you that these books aren't harmless. I completely agree that they teach terrible lessons that many women internalize at a young age. I deeply sympathize with your situation, and with the fact that many people are going to belittle or dismiss your worries.

But I also agree with the posters saying that this isn't something you can realistically shield her from.

The important thing is to talk to her about what she's reading. Not by criticizing what she picks out, but by asking her in a neutral way about the books and what she thinks of them, and by generally teaching her the values that you and your husband hold so that she can evaluate books by herself on those terms.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:47 PM on June 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

My dear friend Gio is a committed, even militant Marxist, so it is no surprise that he hates Thomas the Tank Engine. Yet he will tolerate Thomas in the house.

This is an answer, in that I feel that reading his post about it might help you reanalyse your feelings about this.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh - also try to introduce her to other awesome female characters who aren't princesses, like Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, Ramona Quimby.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:49 PM on June 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh come on. I read loads and loads of fairy tales as a kid, and I turned out to be extremely independent.

What you do, rather than trying to control what your child enjoys, is introduce other books that represent other perspectives. She'll like some of them and won't like others. Don't push anything on her and don't find fault with the books she enjoys. And for heaven's sake don't complain to the school because your daughter brings home a fairy tale. You'll lose all credibility with them for when you might have a legitimate complaint.
posted by orange swan at 7:53 PM on June 6, 2012

You read Rapunzel and you turned out to be a feminist. Why do you fear she won't?
posted by desjardins at 7:54 PM on June 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

i_am_joe's_spleen, your friend's post is MARVELOUS. Also reminded me of my parents' rants about Babar, which they saw as a total love letter to French colonialism.

This made my brother and me completely fascinated with Babar. Another thing my parents forbade was "Hogan's Heroes" (because "POW camps aren't funny!") and we each binged on watching that whenever it was rerun after we got to college.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:55 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might be comforting to know that while you may not be able to control everything your daughter reads, you can teach her to critically evaluate those texts, and expose her to a wide variety of narratives and cultural discourses. Part of those discourses will be white and western, undeniably, and no doubt patriarchal, too. But, if your daughter's worldview is one shaped by feminists and feminism, you may find she takes what she values from those texts, and leaves behind what has no worth to her.

I think it's widespread that we view kids as textual sponges, soaking up whatever messages we happen to let pass them by. However, much academic study has shown that they are far more discriminating than that. Kids are critical readers with agency just as adults are - albeit for different reasons and in different ways.

By reframing this you may be happier with the thought of her coming home with a variety of texts, i.e.: You cannot control what she reads, but you can shape how she thinks; far more important in the long run.

Anecdotally, my experience as a childcarer was that younger children are often vigorous defenders and definers of gender norms. However, as they get older and start to assimilate other differences and identities, much of this passes. The most pink five year old princess can be a very assertive Grrl-powered eleven year old, so take heart.
posted by smoke at 7:55 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, I'm a pretty hardcore feminist, and I love fairytales more than almost anything, except maybe love and chocolate. So, you know, these things are not incompatible. Introduce her to some awesome girl-power fairy-tales like Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, and maybe read from awesome girl-power retellings by contemporary YA writers, as it's a popular sub-genre. But more importantly, remember that she is a very young child, and that she is not going to be seeing these stories-- or any stories-- the way you are. More than using your feminist analysis, focus on simply talking about these tales-- discuss them with her. Do not tell her what to think, I mean, but ask her what she thinks. Ongoing discussion that encourages both enjoyment and questions does more for developing a strong mind than almost anything else.

Really, it doesn't matter what she reads-- it's the person she is that determines what she gets from it, and the person she is becoming, which you have much influence in. I dunno, I guess I just think it's a really harsh and frightening sort of feminism that can only accept a certain kind of story, or a certain kind of female character as acceptable, especially given these are set and created in the far-off past. We have progressed since then, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to learn from fairy-tales. Far from it. Read some feminist analysis of fairy-tales and relax. Start with Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 'Women Who Run With the Wolves'.

Fairy-tales-- almost all fairy-tales-- are more than they appear, and are chock-full of deep, wild feminine wisdom if you know how to look. These are stories that have meaning on many levels, in many incarnations, modern and ancient. To say that Rapunzel is not feminist is just... a sign you haven't really thought about that story, haven't told it, retold it, internalized and fantasized and made it your own. And fairy-tales are ours-- the human heritage in its purest and most flexible form. There are so many ways to deal with this: retelling them to her, role-playing them, letting her re-imagine these stories any way she likes. Maybe Rapunzel has dark hair-- it doesn't matter to the story. Maybe the witch isn't evil-- maybe she loves Rapunzel. Maybe the rebellion against the witch (she lets down her hair though forbidden to) is a sign of agency, of the ability to dream and hope that remained in her. Maybe Rapunzel was taking action to escape imprisonment, what action was available to her. No child reads a story and only reads what's there. Do you remember that? Do you remember daydreaming, putting yourself into a beloved character, imagining you had wings, imagining you were a fairy or a ballerina or a superhero?

It is adults who are obsessed with the superficial ways we are like or unlike fictional characters-- children can imagine themselves as anything. They can rule the world, and be happy forever, and fly, and do magic, all before 6am on a Tuesday. Fairy-tales help foster and reaffirm that faith all children naturally have that they can be-- and do-- anything, and any transformation is possible with enough effort, and hope, and goodness in your heart.

Feminism says women deserve rights because they need to do the same things men can do. Well, fairy-tales say that we can always find-- or make-- a better world, that magic is real and that true love is the only thing that matters. These things... I really hope they're not in conflict. Hope and love and magic is the thing that empowers us to seek liberty.
posted by reenka at 7:56 PM on June 6, 2012 [28 favorites]

There was a recent question about what the best thing your parents did for you or something like that and if I had answered it, I would have said they exposed me to all sorts of points of view while modeling the behavior and thoughts they thought were best and let me make my choices. To me, you lose the moral high ground when you censor opposing views no matter how fucking stupid those views may be.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:56 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What's nice about feminism is that it's not a dogma. It's doesn't have to be protected from outside influences (like religion). Among other things that feminism does is providing a language with which we can look at the world and come up with our own interpretations of it. Without a variety of views, that'd be impossible.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:00 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Have you visited the school and looked at the library for yourself? Maybe there are acceptable books there and your daughter is choosing Rapunzel over them.

Have you met your fellow parents at the school, and do you know if any of them have similar opinions? You're much more likely to get the library expanded if a group of parents work for it together.

Have you made sure your own house is stocked with the books you do want her to be reading? If she brings home one library book a week, then that should be a minority of the books she is reading altogether, even if she reads it twice a week with you. If you can't find books you want her to read, how do you expect the school to provide them?

I don't think you should have a formal meeting with the principal any time soon, because you don't appear to have made the effort yourself to deal with this, you don't have a plan for what would make you happy, and a blank request to de-stock all Disney books, IMO, will just get you written off as an unreasonable crank that should be ignored at all costs. And even if it happened, she'd bring home a non-branded but equally upsetting book and then you'd have no leg to stand on.
posted by jacalata at 8:00 PM on June 6, 2012

Best answer: You are a big fan of agency. I can tell (because you told us!)

Like any other skill, it requires practice. And it sounds like your daughter is getting a good start on that. She is bringing home books she chooses and is expressing her dismay that you don't like her choices.

Good for you for having a house where it is safe for your daughter to defend what she reads! Or even just that she feels entitled to read what she wants, and to hell with what mum thinks of Rapunzel.

Instead of telling her what is going on in the stories (no agency! objectified! pretty pretty pretty! Misogyny!), ask her what she likes about the story. Ask her what she doesn't like about the story. Ask her if she knows anyone in real life like any of the characters in the story. Ask her how she thinks the characters in the story feel (developing her empathy muscles). Ask her if she has ever felt that way (Snow White's stepmother is jealous and insecure. 5 year olds get that on some level!)

I'm guessing that she sees you and Mr Taff reading a lot. Do you two ever talk to her or each other (in earshot of her) about what you're reading? Characters? Plots? The newspaper? Scenery? That you've stopped reading a book because it got boring or you didn't like the author's style or the narrator was so unreliable you couldn't stand it? Let her know it's ok to dislike a book, because maybe she's just defensive of her choices because she chose them and feels obligated to stick it out? Or maybe she really likes them (which is pretty normal at this age), but it would help her to know that there are all kinds of things to like about reading. Have you shared some of your favorite childhood books with her? Maybe even some that you are not so proud were big hits with you or Mr Taff? you don't have to include that you've grown out of them because they aren't feminist (enough). Does she have books about Monster Trucks or Bob the Builder, or whatever the "boy" books are? Or are all her books gender neutral/girl positive? "Boy" books might stir another something in her that the girl books are bringing up. But maybe not.

To further your daughters agency in ways that will be more memorable than a few hundred readings of awful misogynistic crap, some things that you are probably already doing with her, but I want to remind you about their effectiveness.

Cooking. Gardening. Car repair. Financial planning (save, spend, give/donate). Cleaning up our own messes and not waiting for other people to wait on us. Choosing our own clothes. Dancing for fun. Going on long walks. Talking to strangers and friends in appropriate and comfortable ways. Asking for things we want, and being able to be told no without melting down. Being able to tell other people no and sticking to our decision even if they melt down. Learning animal and plant names. Or the stars. Eating until we are not hungry anymore. Having a small healthy snack when we are a little hungry. Stopping an activity when we are frustrated and need a break. Reading quietly by ourselves.
posted by bilabial at 8:01 PM on June 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: She won't let me skim, she is devastated when I criticise the books....

If you are making her feel terrible when she reads books, you're creating a very strong incentive for her to either stop telling you what she's reading - and more broadly, stop including you in discussions about her life - or to stop reading books.

I assume that's not what you want, but put yourself in her position for a minute. If your husband did this to you, you'd call him a controlling, patronizing asshole and you'd be right. How are you empowering your daughter in this, if you're not respecting her right to choose?

I'm fighting this fight right now, too. Snow White is straight-up bullshit, and my daughter loves it. But she'll be just as unprepared for the world on a diet of purely progressive, egalitarian and feminist literature - of which there is not a hell of a lot out there, relatively speaking, so good luck with that - as she would be on a diet of nothing but Disney-princess fluff. I need her to enjoy reading, first and foremost; politics will come later, and gently, when she's a a little more fully-formed. Let her read what she wants and talk to her about it afterwards like an adult.
posted by mhoye at 8:02 PM on June 6, 2012 [40 favorites]

You're really being no better than those parents who think that D&D is going to cause their kids to worship Satan.

Just relax and let your kid enjoy what she enjoys. If you keep judging her on everything, she's going to resent you and start tuning out everything you have to say.

Kids are smart media critics, and the more they have access to, good and bad, the sooner she'll be able to separate the bullshit from everything else. You can't mold your child into a mini-you, and the more you try, the more she's going to slip away.
posted by empath at 8:08 PM on June 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think you should let her read what she wants to read. And then talk to her about what she read.

She can't really learn why these stories are "bad," according to mom & dad, if she doesn't know what the stories are. Especially at her age, discussing pop culture "bad witches" vs historical "healer/witch" will be much easier if she already has examples in her mind.

I think the Twilight books are awful trash, but I recently encouraged a mom of a female middle-schooler to let her read the books if she wanted. Her mom and I both think they're poorly written and Bella is a bad role-model, but it's a perfect opportunity for her daughter to see that for herself and to discuss it with her mom.
posted by asciident at 8:11 PM on June 6, 2012

Best answer: I have asked my husband to come with me to talk to the headmistrees and librarian in a formal meeting.... what do you suggest we say? Help me with my script. I need to keep calm and focused and I don't feel either. I'm not even sure what I want.

Also: Thank them for getting your child interested in reading, and please, if they can, point her in the direction of books with positive asian and female role models.
posted by empath at 8:11 PM on June 6, 2012

There is a ton of value (especially in small and learning children) in allowing kids to digest things from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints so that they can develop their own value system. Read the story to her. Let her ask questions and answer them as well as you can without getting too overbearing with your perspective. Try and let her make up her own mind and feelings. This is how people learn.

It's wonderful that you're so involved in your child's life, but sometimes with certain things you've got to let that little bird fly.

Good luck!
posted by Fister Roboto at 8:17 PM on June 6, 2012

She's five. She's going to read a lot of crap throughout her life. But at least she's reading. Let her read whatever she chooses. Let her read her little heart out. Don't be judgemental about her choices. But as said so often above, make sure that the books in your home offer a more balanced view of the world.

Honestly, I'd drop trying to convince the library to change the choice of books they offer. It won't do her or you any good.

My daughter was maybe 10 or 11 when the Twilight series came out, and she was desperate to read them because it was the 'in thing' amongst her peers. She eventually read them, and lost enthusiasm book-by-book because she realised they are the work of a not-terribly-good writer and a paint-by-numbers plot.

I like to think that's because I let her read whatever she wanted to read, and she developed the ability to choose between quality and crap.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 8:18 PM on June 6, 2012

Let her read what she wants to read, and let her be what she wants to be. You are supposed to guide her and keep her safe, not force your beliefs into her.
posted by caclwmr4 at 8:19 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look, most fiction out there (including books, movies, etc.) contains gendered notions that you probably don't agree with, that I don't agree with, that most people on this website don't agree with. That's not in question. The question is how to raise your daughter. That's obviously a very difficult and fraught endeavor, but surely you can't think it's possible to shield her from all less-than-ideal expressions of gender norms. As is usually the case in life, your aspirations have to be limited by reality. If you ban your daughter from reading most literature and watching most movies, you'll eventually have a severe case of unintended consequences on your hands. You might accomplish a tiny bit on the feminism front in the short term, but by the time she's a teenager or certainly an adult, she'll figure out that there's a wider media world out there. She'll eventually consume that content even if it was supposed to be forbidden, and it may seem all the more alluring for being taboo and unknown. And at that point, she'll more likely to be talking about it with random friends instead of with her parents.

the Disney version of the Little Mermaid had no literary nor historical merit and did the school need some fundraising for books.

Really, it has no merit? Listen again to the song "Part of your World." Do you not hear the feminist themes in that song — about "bright young women . . . ready to stand?" What could be more feminist than a young woman expressing her interest in scientific discovery — "what's a fire, and why does it burn?" (The lyrics are fresh in my mind since I sang it in karaoke the other day along with a female friend.) I'm sure there's a great feminist critique of the movie to be made. But do you really want to prevent your daughter from seeing anything that could potentially be the subject of such a critique?

You seem to assume that you've seen all the truth that exists to be seen in your world, and educating your daughter is just about transmitting these truths to her. On the contrary, it matters relatively little whether your child shares your views. What matters more is equipping your child to deal with the world in her own individual way.

So I say, let your daughter be exposed to all of this. I'll bet she can handle it. Focus on talking to her about it instead of trying to create the perfect parental filter (considering that the filter is never going to last anyway). You might even learn something from her in the process.
posted by John Cohen at 8:20 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

But I think all she hears is "Your choice is shit again and the things you like are bad".
At 5, I was an insatiable reader (and still am) and I'm grateful that my parents never censored the books I wanted to read. But my mother often commented negatively on other things I liked ("I hate this movie," "I don't understand why you like this song," etc.) and it always made me feel terrible. I felt ashamed for liking the things that I liked. As I got older I learned to ignore it, but even now I can remember how bad I felt when she reacted that way.
posted by lucysparrow at 8:23 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you are underestimating your daughter's ability to be a discriminating reader. I grew up with a feminist mother as well. She would definitely have preferred that I read certain kinds of stories but she never forbade any books to me (well except perhaps cheesy romances when I was very young) and I read widely.

I feel like I always understood when something in a book was different from my reality -- I would often read those passages again just to feel their strangeness again. I remember one book I had saying something about how girls couldn't do something because they were by nature weaker than boys -- that just felt sooo wrong to me. I don't think that made me internalize the feeling that I was weaker than boys -- I just compared it to the world I lived in and felt rather that things had changed a lot, and for the better at that. Certain things went completely over my head -- golliwog dolls in Enid Blyton novels, black-face minstrels in P.G. Wodehouse -- but when I learnt what they were I certainly was able to disassociate my enjoyment of the stories from the customs themselves. Basically, what you're doing with her outside of whatever she's reading, how you're raising her and setting an example for her will give her plenty to contextualize the books with. You might be surprised at how critical a reader she can become.
posted by peacheater at 8:31 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Assuming your own parents weren't hard-core feminists, i think you have some personal evidence that one does not need an exclusively-feminist upbringing in order to develop feminist beliefs. (In other words, "you turned out fine, so will your kid".)

A couple of other semi-disorganized thoughts:
- Later on, it will be easier to have discussions with your daughter about the role of women and female identity if you can use these books as a reference point for your discussion. By reading the princess books and reading the books you have for her at home, you can discuss the differences between them, and this will probably be an easier discussion to have, since you can say "When Ariel ran away to be with the prince...." rather than "When women make life choices based on following a man..."
- The best way to ensure that your daughter will rebel against your beliefs is to use your beliefs as a prohibitive tool
posted by Kololo at 8:33 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate to join in a pile-on, but one of the things my mother did right when I was a kid was letting me choose to read whatever I liked, and to make my own conclusions about what I read. She was criticized by some of my teachers, who felt that I read inappropriate material for my age - I recall a particular fuss being made over my reading The Giver in grade 1 - but she felt strongly about it. Left to my own devices, I read a lot of good stuff, and a lot of total crap, which I believe is true of almost any reader, child or adult.

I never felt intimidated by books that seemed long or difficult or lacking in pictures, because no one had ever put a limit on my reading. It's enormously empowering to a child to be told, whether implicitly or explicitly, "I believe that you can do x," even if x is something as simple as "choose what you want to read and then read it."

Perhaps because I was so free to go anywhere I liked in books, I was a voracious reader as a child, and the benefits have been innumerable. Reading is still my favorite pastime. Further, my love of reading blossomed into a love of language in general, which became a passion for the classics as I grew older. Studying Latin drew me into linguistics, and now I'm an (aspiring) linguist. In an indirect way, being able to read freely has shaped the course of my life. Maybe in twenty years, your daughter will say the same.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:37 PM on June 6, 2012

Best answer: My parents were very anti-Disney, anti-Barbie when I was growing up. They would criticize endlessly if I brought home a Disney book or when I had a playdate with a friend and watched Sleeping Beauty. I ended up feeling immense guilt for liking the pretty princess stories. I'd sneak to read them and was scared I'd get in trouble if my folks found out. Ha. To this day I've caught myself hiding some of my more... frothy movies and books when my mom comes to visit. Their reaction only trained me to hide my tastes from them.
posted by lovecrafty at 8:39 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you need to pick your battles here. She's five. Subtext is lost on five year olds. The what is far less important than that she's reading. There will be plenty of time for politics later in her life. For now, offer her the books that you'd like her to read, but don't try to restrict the books that she chooses for herself. The notion of restricting a child from reading, even material that might not be 100% in line with one's ideals, is abhorrent to me.
posted by shooze at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father read us fairy tales from all over the world; they remain some of my fondest memories of childhood. I took one of the volumes with me to babysit once and discovered a complex scheme of annotation, including an H for heroine, just so I'd have interesting girls in my bedtime stories too. I still love Dear As Salt and the Princess Who Escaped in A Candlestick (have forgotten the original title ages ago.) My parents were extremely opposed to Disney, but I had a little Belle figure from a Happy Meal that I loved for YEARS, and I don't remember ever thinking the Prince was interesting or that Gaston was anything but a jerk, I mainly loved her library and giant yellow dress.

Have you looked for other folk and fairy tale collections? Perhaps you could work on creating new stories with your daughter, to see what she likes and is getting from these books (you could even illustrate them!) Honestly we did the Hobbit when we were six and I thought it was brilliant, but we also got only-slightly-censored old-school versions of a lot of folk tales (ahhh chicken leg houses ahhhhh) so....I don't the witches bit is all that bad, really. I don't think it's a bad thing that you want your daughter to read good things, but I think it's great that she's reading, and that she's already found favorite characters to return to, and to maybe invent stories around, and all the rest that comes of falling in love with a book. If nothing else, please get her the Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Beauty, and oh, everything by Robin McKinley when she's a bit older!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:43 PM on June 6, 2012

I had a dad who went to work, and a mom who stayed home, and basically had pretty traditional gender roles displayed for me. As a kid i dove into arts and crafts while my brother played with trucks. And then i dove into Sweet Valley High, and YM magazine, and lip gloss. And yet i turned into a university student who focused her politics degree on things like identity politics and feminist theory, and then a pretty independent feministy adult.

And basically what i'm saying is: i think you are over-estimating the impact of 'little things' on your daughters beliefs. Because while i did have stack of teen-girl magazines in my bedroom, I also had parents who taught me to always be able to support myself, and to never plan my life so that i needed a man, and that i could succeed and do whatever i wanted to for my education and my career, and that my brother and i were completely and absolutely equal. And because those things so completely permeated the values i was raised to believe, the dumb girly magazines just became entertainment i laughed at.

Don't worry, as the kid of hard-core feminists, your daughter isn't going to somehow not absorb those values from you just because she also read some princess books.
posted by Kololo at 8:50 PM on June 6, 2012

My father read to me a lot and he sometimes read complicated books (huck Finn, Tom sawyer, even little women which probably has its own sexist problems) but anyways we would talk about these books but not in a judgmental way or at least I don't remember it like that...instead it was sort of "people weren't very nice to Jim, what do you think about that?"
So I think you can probably employ the socratic method pretty effectively to get her to think about the female characters and how they're portrayed without having her feel like her choices are shit.
posted by bananafish at 8:53 PM on June 6, 2012

Mod note: Folks if your answers aren't primarily about how to manage the library visit perhaps you should email the OP with your other concerns? Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:55 PM on June 6, 2012

I am pretty sure I have mentioned here before how militant my parents were in allowing me to read anything I wanted at any age (the only rules set were on the number of books I was allowed to take out from the library at once [6], not the content). When I brought home something that either one of them felt needed special attention, they would wait for me to finish it and then discuss the problematic parts of the book with me fairly objectively. Can you try something similar?
posted by elizardbits at 8:59 PM on June 6, 2012

1) Talk to the librarian about reviewing age-appropriate materials. If there are rapes and murders, young children should not be checking them out (without parents' permissions....?)

2) Talk to the Headmistress about this as well. The Librarian should be reviewing the entire library, not just the books you catch after the fact.

3) Let your daughter enjoy age appropriate books. Let her read the ones you don't like and also give her some you do. Rapunzel is not horrible in and of itself. It's not a bad thing to be kind, humble, or even - gasp - pretty. The only problem arises when that's all there is - so instead of a little girl understanding, "this is one way you can be!" she gets the message of, "this is the ONLY way to be!"
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:06 PM on June 6, 2012

I highly recommend you read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by feminist scholar and journalist Peggy Orenstein. The author is dealing with a lot of the same conflicts as you in raising her young daughter. No easy answers but I'm sure you'll find it a helpful read - I did and I don't even have kids yet!
posted by TrixieRamble at 9:06 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the stuff you're into at a young age becomes a phase you later look back on as being immature.

If you take a long view on things, your daughter may develop a better perspective on feminism if she first has a chance to accept some of these ideas uncritically, and then look back on them later once she develops the capacity to analyze things critically.

Anecdata: I was really, really into Rush Limbaugh when I was in seventh grade. Read both his books and gave book talks on them, and I moved way the fuck past that. As a grown up, I *love* that I associate Rush Limbaugh with 13-year-old-level thinking.

Also, I don't think the availability of those books is a good hill to die on with the headmistress.
posted by alphanerd at 9:14 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Are there other feminist parents that you know? It sounds like maybe one of the things that you need most is simply to feel heard and to have your feelings and values validated. It might also be helpful to hear how other feminist parents have thought about these issues and what they've done.

This feels like a really complicated area, as you expressed yourself. I value feminism a lot and I also value being nonjudgmental in my close relationships and creating space for a wide range of stories and viewpoints. (Which I think of as feminist values.)

It seems to me like you're thinking about these fairy tales as poison, and you feel almost frantic in your efforts to protect your daughter from that poison. I agree with you that patriarchal ideas are poisonous. I have this feminist filter in my head and I can't really turn it off. It's like I need that critical voice to pick apart every movie I see and every book I read because otherwise those ideas will get inside of me and attack me. So I get that piece of how you're feeling in a real way.

I also think there's no way you can protect your daughter from that poison. Your daughter is going to hear the story of Rapunzel. I can't imagine anyone growing up in Western society and avoiding hearing some of those stories, you know? And even if she doesn't hear that specific story she's going to be exposed to those messages about how girls should be passive and pretty and attracted to boys.

I don't have kids but I imagine it's terrifying to hear that there's things in the world that could hurt your child and you can't protect them. But that's the existential condition of being a parent.

So maybe you could imagine that those stories are like air pollution. Your daughter is going to breathe some of them in. Your job isn't to try to stop that from ever happening but to give your daughter enough good food and exercise and love and nourishment that she is strong enough to deal with the poisons when they come.

The other piece of it is that it seems like there's some conflict between your knowledge of the harm these stories can do and your desire to affirm your daughter's power to make her own choices. And to be the kind of loving parent who lets go of their own specific visions for their children's life and says, I just want you to do what makes you happy. I don't know how to solve that riddle, or thread that needle, but I bet you can figure it out. The fact that you're thinking about it and aware of both sides is a really good sign.

So, this is sort of continuing the metaphor from before, but my advice would be to relax about her reading Rapunzel. Don't try to immediately deconstruct it for her. Just make sure she also reads some really good feminist stuff. Maybe make a game of it. Say, okay, you get to choose a book to read and then I get to choose a book that we can read together and we can take turns choosing.

Also, I think that you can't just give your daughter your filter. She needs to develop her own. Because the same poison hits people differently (especially people of different generations and people who get assigned to different racial categories). I think an inevitable part of developing that filter is getting exposed to some of the poison. I hope this helps. I think your daughter is lucky to have someone who cares so much about her and is willing both to fight to protect her and to reflect on their own reactions to things and consider whether or not they're overreacting.
posted by overglow at 9:15 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

shooot, reviewing your actual questions:

what do you suggest we say? Help me with my script. I need to keep calm and focused and I don't feel either. I'm not even sure what I want.

"Our daughter has come home with age-inappropriate material. Although we understand this particular book is being reviewed, we are worried this incident will repeat itself. It is our request you have the librarian thoroughlyreview all the library books so they are in age-appropriate categories. The categories for the younger students should be labeled clearly by color on the binding, and the students should have the a library card stickered with the "highest" colors they can take out. This way both the child and the librarian know immediately if they're taking out a book beyond their level. Classification of books should be in line with any academic/publishing standards already in place." You may also add that allowing students to take out book far beyond their level could inadvertently contribute to corruption of a minor....but I'm not sure how that would fly if the original book was meant for a minor too (just an older one).

What do I say to my daughter about the books if they continue to come home? She's half Tibetan so finding books that reflect something she might recognise as being like her is almost impossible. They're all white and pretty and all the dark haired women are evil.
You need to look into some different books because the last statement is plain untrue. Heck, snow white was white, but also dark haired. As a dark-haired individual myself, I really never had any self-esteem issues stemming from light-haired princesses, so if you're worried about that, you probably needn't be. Though, sad to say since you don't like Disney, Disney has a number of heroines that would be less offensive to you. So my answer is - say nothing to your daughter about her book choices, and just get her any other ones if you want (or ask the library to buy the ones you want...). Simply googling "nonwhite children's books" brought me here, which looks somewhat promising for what you want:
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:24 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

We homeschooled our son because American public schools in the South were too conservative for our taste. Is that an option for you?
posted by Ardiril at 9:25 PM on June 6, 2012

Coming back in with a sidenote - if you're interested in learning more about the history, and ambiguities/complexity of fairy tales (what's on the surface can be misleading), I totally totally recommend Marina Warner's excellent book, From Beast to Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. Warner is an ace third wave feminist, and a razor-sharp mind, too boot. I guarantee the book will have you re-thinking your reactions to at least one fairy tale, if not a whole passel. She is a huge inspiration for me, and my thinking around fairy tales (I wrote my honours thesis on Beauty and The Beast. Some people see that as an allegory for domestic violence, but it's so, so much more!).
posted by smoke at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I disagree with the, "At least she's reading!" sentiment of many people here. It's as if anything that's in print is worth reading because it advances skills. I don't believe that. I also don't believe that the messages books send don't have an impact because of age. Maybe not one book at one time, but overall, books with these kind of messages DO make an impression. We still have a culture of women being one down, and I think this is one of the many factors. Kids are still learning early on that attractiveness and superficial things should define women.

I personally really dislike these kind of princess and fairy tale books, for the reasons you've talked about, OP. I also dislike any children's book with violence in them (and I have read some with lots, which was really startling to me). But the truth is, these unfortunate things exist in the world. I also don't think you're doing a service to your child to pretend that they don't. While I don't suggest you advocate her reading these books, when she brings them home, I would talk to her about them. Even if it's just, "What do you think about that? Do you think that's fair?" I think you should also expose her to as many other kinds of books as possible, ones that espouse the values you're talking about.

Being involved with your kid and talking to her about everything is the number one important thing you can do. The world is the world, but you can help her sort it out.
posted by amodelcitizen at 9:32 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with people here that since she's five, she probably won't be scarred by reading fairy tales. However, I do think you have a point. I and some girlfriends started reading harlequin romances obsessively when we were eleven or twelve and read masses of them in our pre teen years. Looking back, I can really see how they gave me a pretty messed up view of how relationships work. it took a certain amount of reflection and time and conscious work to drop some of those beliefs and I definitely think my reading material played a big part in shaping those beliefs. The Harlequin romances were very similar to fairy tales - the girl is innocent and sweet or wild and fiery but still sweet and her life is completed when the strong dominant male shows up. So I think you will have to find a balance between guiding her reading material but not making reading uncomfortable or a big deal. Good luck!
posted by gt2 at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I apologize if any of this is repetitive, but my first thought is that you should read Maria Tatar's The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales because it's a fascinating read (for an adult) and provides some interesting context. Secondly, it is great your daughter has such engaged and progressive parents, but, yes, you are overreacting. You can still raise a strong, vibrant feminist daughter who has read fairy tales. Keep in mind tha many of them are the foundation of most stories we encounter and, if you provide her with the critical thinking skills and values that you think are important, she will view them through an analytical lens, when she is old enough. At age 5, she is not capable of understanding the implications of what is upsetting you, and you are probably right that she interprets your reactions and comments as criticism of her and/or something she loves. She is simply too young to understand anything else.

Right now, she just loves stories and wants to read. Support and encourage that. Fairy tales are a common part of the international experience of storytelling, and, I would argue an important part of literature. They are also reimagined and reinvented time and time again. There will come a time when you can discuss your objections to The Little Mermaid and Rapunzel in a way she will understand but won't also diminish her love for reading and enjoyment of those tales, and/or make her feel ashamed about her reading preferences, but that time is not now. I understand your concern, but really, let this lie for now. As she ages, she will read more complicated material and that, along with your parenting, will put all of these in an entirely different context. You're clearly a loving and involved parent, but you are overthinking this. Anecdotally, I was a voracious and early reader and that included fairy tales, the Bible, Disney, and a whole host of other problematic material, along with some amazing books. I grew up loving stories (and theater/moives/TV/music, basically anything I think of as storytelling) and believing in feminism & equality for all (which are essentially synonymous to me). That's because I had awesome parents and a curious mind. Your daughter will be just fine. Best of luck!
posted by katemcd at 9:39 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Orenstein as a book you should read!

Please don't advocate for tiering books by age in the school library, I appeal to you. Let kids read the books they want to read. They will appreciate and love you for it, as you can see in many of the responses above (and the recent question about how to be a great parent, throughout which 'my parents let me read anything I wanted to read' was a strong theme).

I hope this anecdote will reassure you. As a child, I had a feminist mom (who is a doctor) but she never told me what to read - I just read whatever books I came across. She actually gave me her whole collection of childhood books which were all from the 1950s and I read through them voraciously for years (she had a LOT of books). I was a very early reader (started at age 3) and so early on, I got really into mom's old books, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins - I read the ENTIRE series of all of these (also eventually read my way through the entire series of Sweet Valley High, Babysitters' Club, etc later on). You could say I got thoroughly indoctrinated with the old fashioned style and substance of these stories. I loved them. Still have a soft spot in my heart for them. And I also read all the old school Hans Christian Andersen scary fairy tales too.

I grew up to be the president of my high school gay/straight alliance and my university women's club/chapter of the Feminist Majority Alliance. So, I really feel strongly that reading material as a child is not a predictor of a person's future political/life views.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:41 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say to the librarian, "I really need to feel like my daughter is learning healthy attitudes about relationships and appearance. These books scare me because I feel like they're teaching girls that getting married and being pretty (etc) are the most important things. I'd like to know what you all are doing, or what I can do at home, to reinforce self-esteem for little girls so that I can stop being so worried."
posted by amodelcitizen at 9:42 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just as one datapoint, my obsessive and deep love of The Little Mermaid movie didn't stop me from becoming a pro-choice socialist anarchafeminist iconoclast who fights for social justice every day of my adult life. I've colored my hair red since I was 15, though.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:18 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Joining here as a feminist, myth geek, and parent.

I think it's important to really think about what you're opposed to. Is it fluff? Stories that end in a marriage? Stories where people are beautiful?

Rapunzel, for example: the Prince is actually fairly, you know, immaterial in it. He falls down, gets his eyes pierced by thorns and is blinded, and it's only after rocking as a successful single mom for two years or so does Rapunzel finally find him and fix him up. He doesn't save her.

One thing that might help you, both in life and with this visit to the librarian, is to consider things from a point of value rather than devalue. If I were a librarian, and you came in saying, "Rapunzel is crazy sexist, please don't let my daughter read this anymore," I would dismiss your concerns and stop listening anymore. This is a real danger. You're coming in as a stereotype of what librarians, especially school librarians, hate most.

Try something like this instead: "My daughter is really into princesses and fairy tales, and it made me realize what great books there were out there now about fairy tales from so many cultures! When you make your next book buys, perhaps you could choose something like these amazing Chinese fairy tales? They would be such an incredible read for the kids." And make sure that they're high-value content.

But you need to accept that no matter what, it is extremely unlikely that the librarian will forbid all fairy tales - and if I were your fellow parent at the school, I'd be furious and raring if they did. You need to think long and hard about whether you want to make them forbidden, and thus, more attractive.
posted by corb at 10:20 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not a parent, but I thought it might be helpful to mention the strategies I find most useful in discussing touchy subjects like feminism.

I find that when you are approaching someone with a new concept, it's easier to use examples, concrete requests, and numbers. Your librarian is not used to thinking about feminism the way you do, so you're going to have to educate and encourage her at the same time. Let her know that you respect her work and that you'd like to help her continue to do a good job in educating the public. You're trying to work together, so avoid making her feel attacked, helpless, or ignorant.

Could you come up with a list of books you'd like the library to stock and keep prominently displayed? Could you come up with a demographic survey of your city? Your argument that more diversity in children's books would hold more weight with her if you could say something like, "well, 30% of the children in this city are persons of color. 50% of your patrons under age 10 are female. There are some really excellent books featuring Asian/female protagonists. They are excellent for reasons X,Y, and Z. What do you think of them? Can you put them up on the shelf over there so that children are aware that they are available?"

Also, if it's any consolation: I'm American born Chinese. I grew up adoring the Little Mermaid and white Disney princesses. My parents and grandparents held really sexist views about women. To them, women were the weaker sex, period. It took me a while to get over that. However, they trusted me to think for myself and allowed me to read whatever books I wanted.

Today, I am a staunch feminist. I think of men as my equals, not as shining knights in white armor. I don't aspire to look like a Disney princess, or like anyone but myself. I don't think any particular race is more beautiful than any other. I work in a male dominated field. I'll admit that I still think fondly of Ariel whenever I go surfing. And I sometimes wish I had crazy tough hair like Rapunzel's..

Your daughter has a head start on me already in having the two of you as feminist role models. Show her that being feminist means more opportunity and adventure for her, and she will figure out on her own how silly and limited those pretty princesses are.
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:30 PM on June 6, 2012

On you and MrTaff's ways to becoming hardcore feminists, did you happen to read either or both Rapunzel or The Little Mermaid?

And yeah, as Ardiril asks, could it be that your principles won't be satisfied without homeschooling her?
posted by rhizome at 10:40 PM on June 6, 2012

On the flip side of this, all the 5yo boys are bringing home superhero books where entire worlds are run by men and violence is the main point. I know, because I was horrified when my bright son started bringing home stuff like that. OMG, if I never have to read Spider-Man or Doc Oc or Star Wars or whatever again....

But then something interesting happened. He started bringing home visual novels (or whatever they are called) that kind of looked the same. But these books included Greek and Chinese heroes, Vikings (complete with really interesting history bites and no whitewashing) and even stuff on the caves in Lascaux. And he can talk your head off about literary archetypes and the use of symbolism.

And I'm pretty confident that happened because I resisted (as much as I could) commenting on his choices. My mom was a teacher and she had always talked about Hooked On Books, some 1960s book that said you should let kids read whatever they want because it will get them reading - and then some kids will move on to stuff that is more challenging.

So, because I let my son read a ton of books that shook me to my feminist core, I've now got a son (barely older than your daughter) who reads pretty cool stuff. He also reads the super hero stuff still. But, you know, librarians are smart. They seed the library. They put similar-looking stuff beside the bleah stuff. They lure kids to the light side. They really do.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:42 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I think all she hears is "Your choice is shit again and the things you like are bad"

The problem is this perspective is not really inaccurate. The fact is she loves these things for the very lovable nature they have despite their very real and fundamental problems. I think you should strongly consider the case for not denying your child the very simple and basic agency of choosing what appeals to her, and allow her to enjoy it with a minimum of judgment or lecturing on the content..

I deal with this a lot. The intensely problematic narrative of "resisting evil with awesome violence is awesome!" is near and dear to my young boy's heart. In general I am frequently choosing to expose him to books with serious issues that can't just be left unremarked because the field is so impoverished by leaving them out.

If something is flat-out wrong or seriously objectionable I express my objections outright but in the greyer areas I try to just ask him questions about what he thinks about what's happening in the story, and I believe it is encouraging him to think for himself about these questions.

I know that the biases of this world are deep ingrained in our cultures and this is a serious concern, but have faith in your daughter and in your own parenting. Shape her reaction to that world by engaging her in really thinking about what she gets exposed to, not by trying to sanitize her experience of the world as it is.

You might be able to engage the librarian in helping you seek balancing material as well. The simple case that you want your child to be exposed to strong, positive role models that she can personally identify with is a really basic and reasonable one.
posted by nanojath at 10:46 PM on June 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you lovely, sensible fellow feminists. You each said exactly what I needed to hear. Happy to hear more though, the pro and the anti.

Once I have fully digested all of it I shall let you know how I'll be proceeding. Be rest assured, it will be with less hand wringing and more balance. Back soon.
posted by taff at 10:50 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Read books with her. Ask her what she likes about them, how she feels about them. Tell her why you have concerns about some of the books. You became a feminist though you were raised in a sexist world. I was raised by Republicans, attended 12 years of Catholic school, and I'm a feminist, social democrat, and an atheist, with values very much in line with the values I was raised with, expressed in a way my family doesn't understand. Your daughter will make up her own mind. You can't, and shouldn't, try to stop her, but you can tell her, and especially show her, your values.
posted by theora55 at 11:09 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just another small anecdote, if it helps. I remember reading the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid when I was in Grade 3 or 4. In the end, she dies and turns into sea foam. I remember reading that last page and crying. And reading it again. And again. And crying every single time. I *LOVED* that a book could make me feel that way. It was the first time I really experienced being pulled out of my own world into a different one and I think I can trace my love of reading back to that moment. In a colour-coded system I'm sure that book wouldn't have been available to me.

At that age I honestly thought the book was warning me off against building my life around a man because they couldn't be trusted to make the right decision. Which just goes to show how differently people can interpret things.
posted by valoius at 11:33 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Suggestions for you meeting with the librarian:
"What is the school's collection development policy?"
"Does the collection policy address cultural diversity?"
"Why is it that you allow fairy tales in the library?"
"I'm concerned that my child's reading habits are damaging to her development. What is the current research on kids and reading?"

In other words, treat her as the professional resource that she is. Would you give a dentist or an architect a good talking to about the way they do fillings or the way they designed a building? Not all librarians are great, and certainly there is room for disagreement about how libraries should be run -- but I very much doubt that you have thought more about the library collection and its implications than the school librarian. This is itself a bit of a feminist issue. It's quite common to devalue the professionalism of librarians, nurses and other traditionally female occupations.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:29 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Have you thought about this as an opportunity not to limit the books the library has, but to expand them? Maybe come at this meeting from a positive angle: instead of saying to the librarian and head that the books they have that your daughter likes reading are dreadful and need to be taken off the shelf or not lent to her (something I suspect they have heard from parents with different values that your own), maybe offer to fund raise to expand the collection if it is inadequate? Or donate some books so that there an be a community of little girls and boys who have the opportunity to read great books. Above all it's worth remembering that the librarian who keeps fairy tales on the shelves may well also be the person who fights to keep other books that have values that ou approve if on the shelves. But I would bet she doesn't have a lot if money to play with here, and is doing the best she can with limited resources, so offering to help her expand those resources will put your relationship on a positive footing and be less likely to devolves into a blame and shame games.

There's a book called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes that might be of interest to you. It talks quite a bit about how many classics with regressive values were read as socialist by working class readers, who saw in authors like Walter Scott champions of revolutionary values. Many of them were reading on their own and coming at the material with very little framing as well; they had the values they had and these books just gave them new vistas to explore. I'm not sure you have to flip every page with your daughter saying here's why this book has bad values; this will make her hide her reading or think about it as a place where her choices in reading are marked consistently as wrong, I think, and I cannot see that having a positive, feminist outcome.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:31 AM on June 7, 2012

Oops! I just reread your question and see you ave offered to fundraiser or help with that. I still think it's an approach worth continuing with, though, especially if you are open to a range of different books being offered to children.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:35 AM on June 7, 2012

Have faith in yourself and your daughter--she's smart, she's bugging you to read and won't let you skip stuff. She's not going to turn out to be a blithering idiot, I promise.

Later on, she can sharpen up her social critiques, but right now she's learning to love books and stories and I think it's most important right now that you stand aside and let that part take root. Kids have a lot of bullshit to come to terms with in the world. There's not a huge reason to rush that.

I am the mom of a four year old girl, for what it's worth. Part of being a feminist means having great faith in women, in their intelligence, in their ability to see through bullshit and make their way in the world through their own intellectual steam. Provide support for her and let her do it, and expect it to be a process that takes decades to completely work through as she finds her place in the world. You want to support her and guide her, not indoctrinate her -- you want her to have the critical thinking skills to get there on her own.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:08 AM on June 7, 2012

Feminist librarian mother here. I used to work in a swanky private school, now I work in the public system with a focus on kids. My tips are: work out what you want before you talk to the librarian or headmaster OR your kid; accept you cannot contol the media she consumes and she will start hiding books from you (only reading them in the library, getting friends to borrow them) and work out a model for media interactions that will cover books, movies, TV and whatever the future holds. It's all the same theory, just different specifics.

Also, ignore anyone who tries to simultaneously argue that you should never try to control or discuss media choice because it's all okay and good because it's reading AND that books were their greatest teachers. It's one or the other; either they have an effect or they don't.

Chances are the librarian is already a bit pissy because of the first incident - your disagreement shouldn't affect the entire school without some sort of consultation and cohesive reasoning. They might agree with you about that book but your choices are not those of the entire school community but your actions seem as if that's what you're aiming for. Same with the labels and age categories (particularly since that's going to decrease the complexity available to young children which just kneecaps their reading journey at the outset). So be prepared for some adversarial behaviour if you do call a meeting. Wordwoman has some good questions but every librarian I have worked with would look at you really oddly if you asked why fairytales are in the collection. It comes across as a trap rather than as a genuine question. But the cultural diversity is a great place to start, and recommendations for more inclusive book, more feminist ones, and any other topic you want.

I do like the suggestions for reading either the 'real' fairytales or the myriad modern retellings. I'd stay away from the YA ones - totally inappropriate for her age and problematic on their own. But there are plenty of awesome retellings in the easy reader and picture book categories - talk to the librarian to find them! And talk to your daughter about the ones you are reading - but don't tell, ask questions. Lovely big open ended ones. Leading questions, but open. Talk about different ways of retelling - get all of the Rapunzel books together and talk about the similarities. Don't talk about the quality of the book, just ask what she thinks and why.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:13 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Please just don't do anything (or ask for anything) that restricts what other kids can read because you're worried about your kid. I was comfortable and happy reading stuff that was way too "advanced" or "dangerous" in various ways as a kid; both my mom and I have stories about hiding our "grown-up" book choices from controlling librarians when we were each in elementary school. Be aware also that whatever solution you ask for had better be one you're still totally OK with when she's 9 and wants to read Dracula (or whatever.)
posted by SMPA at 4:54 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can also use fairy tales as jumping-off points to introduce her to other, similar stories with much more ass-kicking-by-girls. She might be a little young still for Robin McKinley, but... dude, if she's reading Rapunzel, you can totally read "Spindle's End" out loud to her and then have a compare-and-contrast session where she tells you what she likes about the female leads in both books.
posted by Mayor West at 5:12 AM on June 7, 2012

Response by poster: I'm still re-reading and digesting. MrTaff will be reading and digesting over the long weekend.... but just for the sake of posterity and in case my incredibly good name should be tarnished (ha!), I thought I'd respond a bit now.

I am anti censorship. Truly. Utterly. I grew up in a house where I could read any book that I had the ability to read. If I didn't have the ability to read it, I knew where the dictionary was and was welcome to devour it all day every day. And I did.

BUT BUT BUT what I realised about myself... coming from my own feminist parents... was that I had accidentally but unhappily, inculcated sexist stereotypes in to my own world view. If someone told me a story about their doctor today, I still would ask, "What's HIS name?" without thinking about it. I tend to assume that police/fire folk are men and that nurses are women.

I felt ridiculously comforted when my obstetrician was a man, I am critical of my cherished female prime minister's voice and appearance.... and when I'm reading a book where the author completely nails the protagonist's gender... I always check the cover to see the author's gender.

So.... I worry that I am inadvertently sexist. Which means I think my parents... (I actually just typed "mother" and had to delete it, see, I'm sexist!) were unable to stop some of the culture influencing me negatively, and permanently.

Yes I'm a feminist, but I'm not a good one. I'm just an angry one.

I love so much of what you've all said. I'm going in to have that dialogue at the school, to talk about the criteria used to choose books. The second mermaid book(Disney Little Golden Book) was a donation... it had a bookplate in the front.

I guess I see these stories like the Bible. An ancient story which includes some very offensive ideas and not something I want to come home ever/weekly. But an important historical document from which there is much to learn. (Not the Disney one though. It's just shite.)

It's just that she's five. And five seems far too young to have to have the big talks about unhelpful literature every single week. And as for them all being white, white, white... I don't even know when to talk to her about the fact that she looks different to some of the kids in her class/they look different to her. I actually don't ever want to talk to her about that. I know I didn't notice race till I was about 11. With that one, I'll just do what my imperfect parents did.... wait till the kid raises it, I guess.

Homeschooling is out because I am the progeny of teachers/academics! (I'm sure that was a bit tongue in cheek, whoever suggested that we do that.) The education system is flawed, of course, but I believe in public education fervently. And I'd be shite at it.

I'd love to hear any more of the big open ended questions any of you could suggest. I always mean to ask them, but they don't come to me naturally.

Again, than you all for your sensible and sound advice. I didn't see anyone speak rudely to me, even when you disagreed. See, metafilter does stuff well! I shall continue to read and mark as best answer.... I would actually like to mark all as best answers, but I gather that devalues the system.

And, I will return. Again. I just don't want anyone to think that I've done a runner. I'm here. Reading and thinking.
posted by taff at 5:19 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, sorry if I'm threadsitting.... I just wanted to quickly reiterate... apart from the Golden Book Disney version, I would not suggest books be removed from any library. Golden Book Disney Arial mermaid is just cheap junk and unworthy of an infant's library where space is very precious. It's more a happy meal toy kind of "book".

I would like to think there is merit in every book that has the privilege to be in the tiny school library. Even if it's not criteria I agree with, I'd like to think there were criteria that had to be met. And that those criteria were transparent. And actually not open to negotiation. Even with ME!
posted by taff at 5:28 AM on June 7, 2012

So.... I worry that I am inadvertently sexist. Which means I think my parents... (I actually just typed "mother" and had to delete it, see, I'm sexist!) were unable to stop some of the culture influencing me negatively, and permanently.

We've all got distorted thoughts about lots of things, and internal beliefs we never even realize we hold. Some come from parents, some from media, some from experiences, some from books -- but all we've got are our brains to help sort that stuff out and it's a lifelong process, not a project you can finish up and eventually get an A on. So you really want that good brain in there and the good brain comes from books and talking.

I don't think this is something to shoot for perfection on, I think it's one of those things where your best hope is developing the good skills to play the game. I think you're kind of taking yourself to task a bit too much.

I also think something about parenting is timing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:28 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) You're against censorship.
2) You are an angry feminist.

Your daughter, little as she is, will have to say something about #1, and she'll likely agree. But she has no participation whatsoever in how #2 came about, and what it means - for you. Let her become her own feminist, in due time. Letting her read helps.
posted by Namlit at 5:39 AM on June 7, 2012

Culture and its influences are inescapable. If your daughter never read a Disney book, if she strolls right past whatever the Twilight of her adolescence ends up being, she's still going to be affected by it, in negative and positive ways.

The best way to combat this is to give her options, and talk with her (in developmentally appropriate) about those options. I still make all kinds of sexist assumptions because they're so ingrained, but those don't automatically make me a terrible feminist, especially since I have the tools (thanks, mom! thanks, various teachers and friends and social justice movements!) to break them down/unpack the knapsack.

There's a kid who grew up next door - she's 14 or 15 now - who went through a long pink/princess phase when she was (much) younger, which drove her lesbian feminist mom nuts. And you know, the kid is *awesome.* She's smart and funny and analytical. She's not a doormat.

One last thing: Yes I'm a feminist, but I'm not a good one. I'm just an angry one.

Take a look at why you think this, because I can guarantee that your daughter is much more attuned to your feelings and attitudes than she is to Disney words printed on a Disney page. You can have sexist assumptions and still be a good feminist; you can be angry and still be a feminist; in this big world, you can probably even like (some of) Disney and still be a feminist.
posted by rtha at 5:42 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Asking to remove Just-One-Book is a place you may not want to be, give it serious thought. A lot of bad historical president has walked down that road.

The only thing I would advise strongly against is how you present to your daughter. You were very right to be concerned about what you said being misinterpreted by her. A story:

I was a very bright kind (in my parents eyes) and they wanted me to be the very brightest kid I could be, they wanted it very badly. Because they (like you) thought that that was a thing their parents didn't do good enough. So sometimes when I brought books home I was told that I could read a bigger big or a harder book, because after all, I'm a bright kid. The books were intellectually infantile and not good enough, and 'what the heck is wrong with that library at his school anyhow' or 'why is such an easy book the core of this syllabus, lets sign up for extra reading' . They wanted the best for me, they wanted to insulate me against a world of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.

All I heard was this "FrenchFry, why are you stupid and reading a stupid book, you are disappointing us"

Children listen, but they don't always hear what you mean. They acted disappointed in those books and I felt they were disappointed in me.

I have never had a love of reading. I've have not finished a book for fun in 15 years.

jesus pete this has me shaking even admitting this.
posted by French Fry at 5:44 AM on June 7, 2012 [34 favorites]

Best answer: One convenient rule of thumb that I mention to my 5 year old when looking for books on her own is: "Does it have an author listed? If not, it's probably not going to be very good". That's a good shortcut to immediately discard adaptations of TV shows and brand extensions after the authors are dead without focusing on the content or the message.
posted by true at 6:01 AM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One of my good friends was really unnerved by having her son start school, and as I talked to her about it, I realized that she was at the point where she really lost the ability to control what he was exposed to, and it was very upsetting to her, because she tried so hard to make sure he only encountered the things she thought were healthy. I kind of sense that you're at that same point, where your control over the culture your daughter encounters is diminishing and it's unsettling, understandably. Totally get that.

I also get what you're saying about princesses and so forth; no question. But keeping her from encountering these books in the school library is unfortunately a drop in the bucket as far as keeping her from encountering and incorporating stereotypes. Lots of kids never take out books from the library, and they manage to absorb plenty that's regrettable. And particularly if you are committed to public education, she's going to see a lot of different things from a lot of different people, and some of it will really bother you, and she'll count on you to balance it with your own perspectives.

I'm not opposed to your talking to the school, but I hope you will be cautious and not approach them in a way that makes it seem like you think they've never thought about this stuff before. Every librarian I have ever spoken to, ever, especially if they deal with kids, has thought about this stuff A LOT, not just the specifics of healthy messages for different kinds of kids but the general idea of how much you can limit what books are in a library to keep the ones that have elements you dislike from touching your kids. So just ... as a kindness, please don't approach it like you're explaining to them that girls sometimes get bad messages from princess books, because unless they are truly abysmally educated, they do know that, and it might be more an occasion for you to have them explain their practices and their philosophy of acquisition than for you to tell them that it matters what kinds of books kids read and explain why.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:02 AM on June 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: (French Fry, right now I just want to hug you. )

I'm a bit scattered, I think. It's very much the thin edge of the wedge but if there is already the original version in the library... the first one she brought home, the murdery one... I don't think it's actually censorship saying if I'd ideally like the golden book should go, or is it?

The murder plot worried me less than the overt sexism and covert racism. I'm absolutely not saying I want fairy stories banned from schools. Hell no. Just some individual guidance from the librarian for my kid.. (other kids?)... and some mission statements or some such nonsense.... about the inclusion criteria.

As I said, I think each book should say thank you to our library for allowing them there. There are so many amazing books for kids to read these days, books had better appreciate how lucky they are to placed on those limited shelves.

Also.. I'm in Australia, our state schools are comparatively very, very well funded. It's determined at a state level so it doesn't reflect the local socio-economic situation.

But this school is in the very left leaning, green, lesbian friendly part of Sydney's inner west. Almost all the parents are involved, educated, and also anti-censorship.
posted by taff at 6:10 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think it's actually censorship saying if I'd ideally like the golden book should go, or is it?

Yes it actually is. The librarian is a professional whose job it is to pick appropriate books for the school library. If you have arguments that the book isn't age appropriate for some reason that might be a decent angle to approach this from and I suggest you consider that. The sexism/racism angle is the thing that gets people trying to remove Huck Finn and other classics from school libraries and you might want to read some about how those challenges go. People want them removed for every righteous reason but what they're basically saying is "I am a better judge of what children in the school district should be reading that the trained professional who has been doing this job all along" It's a problematic angle to be coming at this from and I don't think it's going to get you what you want.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 AM on June 7, 2012 [17 favorites]

I don't know if this makes much of a difference, but to put this in a larger context, I have a friend who is female. She is a librarian in a well-known, university women's library. She is a cataloger. She sometimes identifies herself as a feminist, though I don't know where on the continuum of being a feminist she puts herself.

She catalogs everything in her library from theses written by female university students sixty years ago where she has to catalog the name of the author as "Mrs. Joseph Smith" because that is how said author identified herself in her thesis way back when. She also catalogs pamphlets written by super radical feminists in the 1970s as well as cook books and super conservative religious books that make both of us shudder.

Point is, women write lots of things, and there are lots of things written about women. There is diversity within women and within feminism that you can teach your daughter. From about age 3 - 6, most children begin to figure out gender roles. Some girls will trend toward the super girly princesses and sparkles and shiny unicorns, and some boys will trend to the super boy-y toy tools and and trucks and cars. This is okay, and actually, developmentally appropriate. They're just figuring out how the world works a bit, and you have plenty of chances to teach her that princesses can be construction workers and race car drivers can be ballet dancers, etc.

You can also make your own commentary on movies and stories she may watch. In fact, the Disney "Beauty and the Beast" has probably one of the better female characters (or at least for Disney, anyway). Belle is different than everyone in her town. She doesn't have any friends. She eschews the first guy who comes after her because she can't stand him and thinks he's a giant buffoon. Yeah, there are other issues with much of that movie, but even within that movie, there's evidence of a strong, self-sufficient girl.

You may be interested in the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It's mostly television and movies, but it's doing work you will probably appreciate.
posted by zizzle at 6:17 AM on June 7, 2012

I obviously don't know how your kid will turn out. I do know, however, that my parents have never identified themselves as feminists, and I was raised as a catholic.

However, I was a voracious reader. I read everything. And that includes princess stuff and fairytales when I was young, and I also watched and loved all the disney films. My parents never limited what I was allowed to read, never even commented on my choices.

I turned out to be a feminist, entirely confident in my own abilities to look after myself and save myself. There are a lot of books with strong female characters, but I may never have found them if I hadn't been so into reading. The people who are enjoying twilight now are rarely big readers, because people who read a lot understand the plot is crap and the writing style poor, because they have so much good writing to compare it to.

I also totally missed out on lip gloss, obsessing over boys, and teen fluff books. Because at that point I was reading Agatha Christie, P.G Wodehouse and Jane Austen. And the books aimed at teen girls were almost all so shallow in comparison.

I guess what I'm saying is, I think reading rarely corrupts people. Definately have books at home with strong female characters available, but respect her choices, because she's reading! For fun! And I think that's the important thing, you want to be very careful you don't discourage her.

In terms of addressing the library, I would suggest you stay away completely from the idea of getting rid of books. Approach it from a "I would like to help you acquire more books, particularly in these themes," angle, because more books can't be a bad thing.
posted by stillnocturnal at 6:21 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah, I see what you're saying Jessamyn. We don't really have the Huck Finn thing here. And books being banned is a very rare thing, as far as I know. If ever. Certainly public libraries here would defend their catalogues with their lives.

I wouldn't want racist books being removed. Just one cheap dodgy double.

And some guidance.
posted by taff at 6:23 AM on June 7, 2012

Best answer: And as for them all being white, white, white... I don't even know when to talk to her about the fact that she looks different to some of the kids in her class/they look different to her. I actually don't ever want to talk to her about that. I know I didn't notice race till I was about 11. With that one, I'll just do what my imperfect parents did.... wait till the kid raises it, I guess.

With respect, speaking as a dark-skinned woman who primarily English books while growing up (and thus primarily books with white characters and protagonists) -- I think the fact that you were able to not notice race till you were 11 is a function of you being white (at least I think you are; if not, apologies). I remember being endlessly curious about people and races and how everything fits together and I really appreciated that my parents were not shy about discussing race (or really any other topic). It's not enough to just not mention race and hope that your kid will grow up color-blind -- it's just not going to happen, because little kids are really good at picking up differences, probably especially so if they're a minority ethnicity. Race shouldn't be this topic you don't touch with a ten-foot pole -- it may be socially constructed, but it's still something that's an unfortunate part of the world we live in.
posted by peacheater at 6:24 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: But I will drop the idea of them getting rid of any books. It's been incredibly helpful, this dialogue. I'm getting the wheat and the chaff sorted. I want to know why that book is there, but I won't suggest they remove it. That feels quite ick now that I dissect it. Thanks.
posted by taff at 6:25 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think my mother went through what you're going through in this question. From the day I learned to read, she advocated for my right to read everything; she managed to get me an adult card at the public library when I was seven, though I had to read a random book aloud to the librarian and answer questions about what I'd read, and they kept all their books where I could get them. The only time she tried to protect me from a book was something that involved graphic drawings of field surgery (Where There Is No Doctor - I was ten, and I read it anyway).

For all that, I know she was frustrated and worried about many things I chose to read; they conflicted with her values and her dreams for me, but she did her best to let me follow my own choices - I just had to talk with her about what I was reading, and that made me a more discriminating reader and helped me figure out what I believed in. That started when I was three or four. The books that offended her were often the source of our best discussions, because I could watch her struggle to explain what bothered her, just as I was learning how to construct my own arguments.
posted by catlet at 6:26 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Taff, I think the important thing to remember is that we can never tell what book is going to speak to someone in the way that they can understand. Perhaps the book that you can't stand, that's a cheap dodgy double--maybe that's the book that some child needs to read to absorb some other point that you're not seeing because you're so caught up in the points that you find objectionable. Maybe it's a photo, maybe it's the way the words work, maybe it's the sentence structure, or it could be something completely different. I do know that there are versions of books that I can't stand that others love, and vice versa. I'd have been broken-hearted, as a child, if my favourite version of a book had been yanked just because someone decided that we had another version that was better so why bother having two of them?
posted by purplesludge at 6:28 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was brought up by hippies. I'm talking MSW from Berkeley in 1968 hippies. VW bus, long hair, Mother's March for Peace, Cesar Chavez in Delano, hippies.

I wasn't allowed to have a Barbie because my Dad thought they were sexist (and silly looking). Once we watched Gilligan's Island to see what it was about, my Dad pronounced it, "stupid" and I've never enjoyed it since.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, in a very sexist and racist world, I was presented with sexist books, movies, television and other societal rot.

My folks tell a story of when I was very young and I came home after being with a friend of mine, saying, "Lori doesn't like black people, we don't like them either do we?" After assertaining that I didn't even know what a black person WAS, we drove around and my parent pointed them out to me. With each one they asked me, "so, what is it about that person that would make them unlikable?" Since I had no answer, I decided that Lori was an idiot.

At each juncture, when I butted up against something that rankled, my folks engaged me in an age appropriate discussion and allowed me to make my own decisions.

The biggest gift you can give your daughter is the tools to think for herself, to decide what messages make sense for her, and how to navigate in a culture where images, messages and ideas may differ from those she's been taught.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:31 AM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was obsessed with princess junk when I was five, by age nine I had decided Disney and Barbies were all sexist garbage promoting damages beauty standards (although I still played with them in secret). It's not because my parents kept that stuff away from me--it's because my mom taught me to think critically.

When I was five I tried to watch The Little Mermaid on VHS every day. The love story wasn't what interested me--it was about a mermaid who had adventures and sang songs with fish all day. Ask her what she likes about that story, what her favorite part is. Encourage her to make up her own stories about those characters.
posted by inertia at 6:55 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah peacheater, you're a wise, wise chick. I don't bring it up in terms of difference.... but they live a very Tibetan life. They speak it every day, sing their anthem, march in protests, pray for self immolators and prostate ernestly. They are Tibetan to their very core. Their dad reminds them regularly about the long and continuing fight they have. He's just started a Tibetan school on Sundays... it was in our house till a few weeks ago.

You're right though... that was a ridiculously priviliged notion I had. I have no idea how race will affect them... where we live is quite different to where I grew up and I'm pretty bloody "white".

I struggle with the race thing. We're in such an incredibly multicultural suburb. All but two of my core group of friends are in mixed marriages so our kids are a lovely rainbow. But it worries me because I don't always see the racism that my husband experiences. It's terrible. I'm terrified of fncking up that too. But I think I should leave it to him. 's He is a natural at all of this.
posted by taff at 7:13 AM on June 7, 2012

The mind doesn't have to be formed by what it reads - it can be formed by its own thoughts, in responding to what it reads. One of my favorite quotes is from Emerson, from the American Scholar, where he says "We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. . . . I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. . . . There is then creative reading as well as creative writing."

Emerson's not much of a feminist but he's still worth reading. Let her read and think, not read and simply absorb. One great way to do that is to read all the different versions of one story. Even if the disney version is awful, it will unconsciously remind her that any story is just one account or version...

Also, old fairy tales can be great. I really enjoyed those collections of old german and italian fairy tales when I was a kid (older than your daughter, don't remember exactly). They are often tragedies in the old fashioned sense - cathartic. It's not at all that everything turns out right - either there are big sacrifices or sad endings, but they felt meaningful and intense to me as a young child, but still kind of fanciful, not horrific or depressing.

Good luck!
posted by mdn at 7:39 AM on June 7, 2012

IMO librarians are generally awesome, and valuable allies. Some ideas on how to approach the talk:

1. "I'm a feminist, and I've been a little worried about my daughter reading fairy tales. At the same time, though, I'm against censorship and I want her to be empowered to chose her own reading material. I also understand that you are here to serve all the families of this school, not just those who share my opinion on this point. As a professional librarian, what do you think? What can you tell me about reading choices in early childhood?" (Engage the librarian, invite her to share her knowledge and ideas with you. She has a degree in this. She probably is passionate about kids and reading. She's probably read tons of kids books herself. Avoid putting her on the defensive or creating an enemy.

2. "What options does the library have in the way of non-white protagonists and books with strong female characters?" (Not assuming that the library doesn't have plenty of excellent books for her already). If she says "I wish we had more, funds are tight" you can offer to fundraise. If they already have some great options, you ask to look at them (because you are interested and curious, not that you don't trust her) and relax a bit knowing that she does have a broader range of material when she is ready.

3. Let her know you're excited that your daughter is reading and you appreciate that she is helping to create an environment where reading is encouraged.

4. Keep in the back of your mind that the important thing is the resources you have at home and what she learns from you. The most powerful things in my head came from my experiences with my mom. The books were important too, but they aren't all equally important. Some were fluff I enjoyed at the time, or a brief phase. Some stuck with me forever. Trust that she has what she needs to sort this out herself.
posted by bunderful at 8:19 AM on June 7, 2012

I'm very late to the discussion, but my overwhelming thought is: chill the f*ck out. Excuse my bluntness, but your level of angst says alot.

She's 5. Have respect for her ability to tease out what is right and wrong in books for she will be butting up against this time and time again throughout her entire life. Just wait till she starts reading the Bible, the aforementioned Huckleberry Finn, pretty much anything by Thomas Hardy, etc. My point is that literature is and can be by its very nature the things that you abhor - but that doesn't mean that she will read them to be the truth.

For her, the truth of things will be what she discovers on her own through experience and exposure. If you're truly concerned about sexist stereotypes and indoctrinating her into princess culture, get her books about real women heroes to read along side of the princesses. Take her to meet amazing women who do amazing things everyday. Trust her to see the difference and what she wants to be. This is where your control can best be used.

I've been reflecting lately on how my own adolescence (those awkward teen years) was shaped by my reading choices and I dearly wish now that my mom had stepped in - not to tell what not to read, but to offer other suggestions for things to read that would balance what I was reading. Think of that the next time she brings home one of those books. You're going to be going through this a lot over the next 15 years.

Finally, please reflect on how your seemingly hyper-vigilant sensitivity to sexism, racism, etc might actually have negative effects on your daughter. I'm not saying to ignore those things, but think about how constantly pointing out perceived sexism, etc can be almost paralyzing to someone that age - nothing would seem to be right or proper.
posted by Leezie at 8:20 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's a larger issue here than books that bug you and your spouse.

You and your spouse are incredibly politically active and motivated. Which is fine, as you are adults and you've had experiences and made choices that have led you here.

But the overarching message I see in all of your posts in this thread is that you are trying to make your daughter into a mini version of yourselves, replete with all the political and social consciousness borne of experiences she's never had. You are so concerned with how you and your spouse feel about the books that you brush aside how your daughter feels about the books. Do her interests not matter if they fail to align with the political beliefs of adults?

You're denying your daughter the right to become her own person, with her own beliefs. And I don't think you see that at all.

As such, I see many more struggles in your family's future over a host of other media that don't pass the 'hardcore feminist' litmus test.

Please, let your daughter have the freedom to explore the world as she sees fit. Your role is support and guide her in times of confusion and uncertainty for her. Right now, she's not confused -- you and your spouse are.

If you do this, your daughter will grow up as empowered as you wish her to be.
posted by gsh at 8:23 AM on June 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

A theme in your comments here that I'm seeing is something that I have too: A strong desire to Do All The Things Right.

I'm terrified of fucking it up too.

But I think what your husband and daughter needs is for you to be an ally even when you're not sure how. Yes, they're the authorities on What It's Like To Be Non-White Here, but you have credibility with certain others because of your whiteness (as ugly as that is). Some people will never "get it" otherwise.

It's the same with feminism: You and your daughter are the authorities on What It's Like To Be Non-Male Here, but you want your husband to be an ally and to take a chance on fucking it up rather than leaving all the work to you, especially with other men.

No one knows how to Do Feminism or Do Anti-Racism 100% perfectly. We all fuck it up. Let's not let that stop us.

And you can talk to your daughter about that! What does she think of this book? Would she have changed anything if she was writing it? What was her favourite part? Which of the characters would she want to be? I'm finding it very interesting to hang out with a 5 year old girl who's obsessed with Super Mario Brothers, but who is usually Yoshi or Mario when we make up games about them, and who has never volunteered to be the (only female character, the fucking PRIZE, argh) Princess. So I don't worry about it. She doesn't see why she can't be Yoshi or Mario, and neither do I.
posted by heatherann at 8:24 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also - if she reads Tibetan (and you want to memail me a mailing address) I can send you a couple of traditional tibetan kids storybooks, if you want.
posted by elizardbits at 8:39 AM on June 7, 2012

She's half Tibetan so finding books that reflect something she might recognize as being like her is almost impossible.

I may be in the extreme minority (ha) on this, but I think this can actually be a positive thing. Just because you're depicted doesn't mean you'll be depicted well.

As a very little kid, lots of reading material (pretty much all of it, IIRC) is not about the real world, but that world of pure imagination that becomes so hard to access as freely when you're older. As a little girl, reading about European princesses in castles long ago can be great because it's so far from who (and where and when) you are. It has nothing to do with you, and if it did it would be limiting. If your daughter was reading about Australian Tibetan Disney Princess, she'd have to think about herself the whole time. And for me the best part of reading at that age was being allowed to think about all sorts of other things beyond myself. Knowing that you can identify with characters who are nothing like you on the outside can really broaden your world. I feel sorry for adults who can't identify with fictional characters because they're men, or white, or black, or whatever characteristic that reader doesn't share. (I'm always somewhat agog when I hear people express things like this, but they do, often!)

I am so glad that when I was little, Disney never tried to make a Jewish Princess (ha, again) character so that girls like me wouldn't feel left out. Partly because that would have been awful in so many complex ways, but mostly because if I'd felt the books I read for fun were about me, that would have prompted all kinds of self-reflection that kids that age just don't need to go through. I wasn't trying to measure up to or compare with some book's idea of who I should be. Instead, I could be anyone I wanted (in my imagination) and define who I was on my own terms in reality. It sounds like your daughter will get ethnically and culturally specific information and stories and role models from actual people and the sources they/you provide. She will be fine with the real-life diversity she sees every day. She doesn't need to get that from library books, too.

(Sorry that was really rambling, I hope it made sense.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:52 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The thought I would like to contribute is that children are not very much in control of their own lives, and this is a problem. For the first 18 years or so of a person's modern life (21 if they go to college, especially if they live in a dorm), they aren't really calling their own shots. They wind up being adults without necessarily knowing themselves or being ready to act as independent agents. I know I'm still working on this stuff.

It might be a valid approach (I think it is, at least) to support your kid's ability to make decisions for herself as much as possible, and, I think, above almost every other concern. Whether it's wearing the stupid, ridiculous outfit, reading the wrong book, or picking up a weird hobby. Make her the active driving force in her own life, even if you disagree with her, even if she's just 5, for anything and everything that isn't immediately physically harmful (like running out into traffic or biking without a helmet or whatever). Just give support and initiate regular conversations where you non-judgmentally allow her to work out her own thoughts on a subject—directing the flow of the conversation, perhaps, but resisting the temptation to push her into a pattern of thoughts and opinions that aren't her own.

This doesn't mean you can't have rules about reading or anything else. Maybe she has to dress up for [important event], but maybe she gets to pick out the particular outfit from a range of options she knows are acceptable. Maybe she has to at least try everything at dinner, but after that, she doesn't have to eat what she doesn't want to. And maybe she gets to read whatever she wants from the library, but you purchase books for her that you think she'll like and keep them around the house. Or maybe you read books together every week and alternate who gets to pick the book.

Just knowing that you think a certain way about being an adventurous omnivore, or a feminist, or whatever, will exert a huge influence on your kid. The more positive, loving, and open (rather than judging and narrow) your relationship is, the larger the influence. Knee-jerk rebellion bullshit doesn't happen til way later than 5 for most people. The biggest thing, or one big thing, is to make sure that when she does start growing into a more independent person, she's already well practiced in making decisions based on what she actually thinks and feels rather than what she is told she should think and feel.

I've heard kids described as little scientists. Let her run a princess book reading experiment if she wants to. There will be other experiments.

On the library visit: Perhaps try to view the meeting as a way to gain a more complete view of the scope and diversity of the collection. If it's a large, diverse collection, you can go home feeling secure that the options are their for your child when she is ready for them. If not, perhaps you can then work with the librarian (not against him or her) to strengthen the areas of the collection you feel are lacking.
posted by jsturgill at 9:43 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Addressing the race aspect:

May I recommend the blog Multi-American? While there is a lot of American politics and news, there are also human interest stories like Scenes From a Bi-cultural Marriage. You may also like Kids on Color,

Race, racism, and sexism are big issues that can't be dealt with in isolation. You need to find people with whom you can discuss, process experiences, find community, and give and receive support. It sounds like you're trying hard to understand these issues, but also that you're being very hard on yourself by expecting that you will find the answers, and implement the solutions, on your own. You have got to build coalitions for this. It sounds like you have great resources, too... a multicultural, LGBT-friendly community. Take inspiration for your own parenting from your friends with mixed-race families. Share what you learn with them.

As to messing up the race thing, know that there is no SINGLE correct way to experience race, and not even a single correct Tibetan way or Somalian way or Mexican way. There is also no single White way. You're making your way in the dark but believe me, EVERYone is. Anyone who is at all open-minded makes mistakes, changes their minds, changes directions, and continuously learns throughout their lives. I'd venture to say the same about feminism and the struggle to place oneself in gender dynamic of one's society (they're not all the same, although yes, they are most always patriarchal).
posted by halonine at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2012

I want to know why that book is there

Because it might be the thing that gets a child to look at the other books. What if you were a child who grew up in a house where no one read? What if you watched tv all day when you came home? What if all those books in the school library were a totally foreign country to you? But you saw this little tiny book. And it had Ariel! Just like your Happy Meal toy! And it was short! That doesn't seem too scary. Maybe I can read this one? And then someone shows you a longer story about another Disney Princess and you read that. And then there's a book that's sort of like the Disney Little Mermaid, but different. Hmmm, that might be interesting... And then, and then, and then...

There's absolutely no way to say what children will get out of the books and toys we place in their hands. I constructed my entire religious worldview from about ages 16-25 from science fiction novels I began reading at age 8. I used my Barbie dolls to enact my first thoughts about what men and women in relationships looked like, and what sex meant. Through all of this I was an evolving version of what I am now, an atheist and feminist. As much as you can, put no limits on what you let your child come in contact with, good and "bad". Be there to answer her questions, not direct her with your prejudices. Our minds only get small when our worlds do.
posted by MsMolly at 10:38 AM on June 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Regarding your upcoming meeting, I don't think you should come in with "Problematic Book needs to be eliminated because reasons x, y and z." What if you proposed a "Princess Week," but one that focused on real royalty all over the world, throughout history? If I were five, I wouldn't mind learning about Kandake Nzingha or many others in a fun, brightly-colored way. And even if that doesn't fly, you can still propose it when your daughter is a few years older. I understand your desire to shield your many ways, I WAS her.

But I am now a Womanist (think bell hooks), and I read all of those Disney books and movies. It was my having read them that allowed me to deconstruct them to shreds later on. Furthermore, I'm a strong advocate of letting kids accrue the necessary cultural capital it takes to navigate their social environment; on your daughter's playground, those books are cultural capital. But my parents counteracted some of the damage with books that reaffirmed my humanity as a little Black girl. The anthology Her Stories (the illustrator for whom has just passed, sadly) was a godsend in that regard.

I would start bringing in more books about your daughter's heritage, and books that feature mixed-race, mixed-ethnic, mixed-culture characters. It can be extraordinarily difficult, but the ones you find will be invaluable. Heck, you could also just introduce new reading with non-white characters, period. There are plenty of resources on how to encourage children to cultivate critical-thinking and feminist values. There aren't so many that help non-white children value their heritage, in a world that will white-wash them whenever possible. The bonus effect is that by exposing her to different cultures and characters, you will also be exposing her to different notions of womanhood. All with fun pictures! It's a win-win!

This is the part where I actually answer the question of how to interact with your daughter: she's afraid of your criticism at such an early age, and that criticism can drive a wedge between you - a HUGE ONE - if allowed to fester. Don't critique your daughter's reading choices anymore - she's five! Soon she's going to be sneaking those books in to read them when you aren't looking. Dial back some of the rage-against-the-machine by remembering that your daughter will be looking to you as an early example of what to become or avoid. Then offer to read those books with her, no matter how much your teeth are going to be clenched. Buy the movies, even - because remember, you'll have loads of other less-problematic material, right? Eventually she'll phase out of the Disney things and look for something else; position those ethnically-relevant, pro-woman, multicultural books for when her hunger expands. She'll reach for them soon.

But really, I feel for you. Good luck.
posted by Ashen at 11:19 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

*which! The illustrator for which! So many errors, apologies!
posted by Ashen at 2:12 PM on June 7, 2012

There are so many replies here already but I just wanted to chime in with my two cents. I totally agree with FrenchFry. A similar thing happened to me when I was probably around ten or eleven, I was arguing with my mom in a bookstore because I wanted her to buy me some stupid trashy book. Sweet Valley Twins, if I recall correctly. I don't think she meant it this way- honestly, I think she just didn't feel like paying for a book- but what she said was, "Aren't you a little old for that book, anyway?"

It was completely mortifying and awful. I felt so ashamed of myself in that moment. And even though I loved those books, from then on I hid the fact that I was reading them from my mom, and felt embarrassed and ashamed every time I read one of those books or any other book that was maybe "too young" for me. In fact, I think it stunted my love of reading a bit too. I'm almost 30 and half the books on my shelf are kid's books- Roald Dahl, Twilight, Harry Potter. I wonder whether this is a reaction to the fact that now, since I live alone, I don't have to deal with the shame of reading what I like regardless of how fucking old I am. (Okay, the Roald Dahl books are for my nephew but he is still a baby so my plan is to collect them all and read them again before passing them on to him.) Anyway, I often find myself having a hard time getting into more adult books now. I don't know why, but I wonder whether it doesn't have something to do with that incident. I think what FrenchFry said is so incredibly important. When it comes to reading, just do not judge kids' choices. They will outgrow the crap and move onto better things if you let them, I'm sure of it. But more importantly, don't forget that reading is an escape, it's for enjoyment. Kids work hard at school and sometimes it's more relaxing to just zone out and read something that requires very little brainpower. (Maybe that's why I have so many kids' books, after long days of studying it's all I can handle without falling asleep instantly.)

I'd also like to chime in with the sentiment that sexist, unsavory messages about women are ubiquitous and can't really be avoided. But I think they can be more or less canceled out by one or two really excellent role models, so as long as you continue to be one I expect she'll be fine regardless of what she reads. And I just love b33j's approach- just very casually observing how unrealistic and silly these stories are without discounting their entertainment value. By making a huge deal out of this stuff and expecting kids to understand why, I don't know, I just don't think it's going to work as well. Instead of outrage, just treat it like common knowledge that it's just a story and of course life is not like that. "Oh hey, that's a great book. Good thing life's not really like that, huh? If I had to wait for your dad to rescue me from a tower I might have died of boredom."
posted by GastrocNemesis at 2:57 PM on June 7, 2012

You came to your views on the depiction of women because YOU read all the books, the good and the bad. Give her the same latitude.

And echoing what others have said about kids not picking up on the deeper messages - I LOVED the Narnia books as a kid. Didn't realize they were about religion 'til my twenties. Totally went over my head because I was just enjoying the plain stories in front of me.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:51 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

So.... I worry that I am inadvertently sexist. Which means I think my parents... (I actually just typed "mother" and had to delete it, see, I'm sexist!) were unable to stop some of the culture influencing me negatively, and permanently.

Yes I'm a feminist, but I'm not a good one. I'm just an angry one.

Gosh, don't beat yourself up. If your mom was your primary influence, then she was. There's no shame in saying that.

There's also a difference between "sexism" and "prejudice". In our culture today there is no way your daughter will be able to escape these messages - isn't it better that she can explore some of them in her own home? While, "everything MUST end in marriage!" is not the message you want her to hear, when she comes home with a book where two characters get married, you can discuss that is one of many choices - instead of ignoring its existence entirely in the home and letting her learn about it "on the street" (marriage being, of course, just an example).

In terms of her classmates seeing her as a different color...well, unless they're bullying her I wouldn't worry. My best friend in elementary through junior high was a different ethnicity from me and it wasn't "weird" - both her parents had directly immigrated from the middle east, but that didn't matter to me any more than my friend whose parents' had immigrated from France.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 6:57 PM on June 7, 2012

Oh, I'm going to put in my 2 cents, too.

I had accidentally but unhappily, inculcated sexist stereotypes in to my own world view. If someone told me a story about their doctor today, I still would ask, "What's HIS name?" without thinking about it. I tend to assume that police/fire folk are men and that nurses are women.

When my daughter was 7-ish and really into riddles, I told her "doctor can't operate" one. She didn't understand why it was a riddle, because of course it was his mom. This despite the fact that from ages 3-6 she was OBSESSED with the Disney princesses. Total feather in my feminist parenting cap.

I am also a feminist, university certified. That she loved that trash crushed my soul. She also loved pink! With her whole heart! And Barbies. FWIW, I drew the line on Barbies, and refused to ever buy her one. She still has a dozen or so though, because nothing attracts gifts of Barbies like letting word get out you don't want your daughter to have one. I don't actually mind--I adored Barbies as a kid, as she did for a while. It seemed win-win: she got to play with Barbies, I got to maintain my political purity.

So when she started school and started bringing home truly crappy books, I took it with the same grain of salt. At least I don't have to pay for that crap. We engage with a lot of pop culture, and she always gets my feminist analysis of it. I'm not going to keep her out of movie theatres, which is about our most favourite thing to do, just because the grand majority of popular culture is sexist. I go to movies all the time, even stupid sexist ones, and often enjoy them.

My point is that I think it's more important to help your daughter develop an analysis of the culture we bask in. You just can't keep them hermetically sealed, at some point they need to engage with the culture. Girls aren't dupes and at 5 they have a finely honed sense of justice--it's actually really, really easy to point out to them how unfair or inaccurate a lot of these stories are. At 9, my daughter never fails to sigh in exasperation at yet another super hero film that has only one female character, for example. Or to express derision and outrage about a cow, WITH UDDERS, being the male lead.

I bring home all the best stuff I can find. And I encourage her to think and talk about what she is reading and watching. It doesn't mean she doesn't love stuff that I think is truly execrable (hello iCarly), but I spent years reading Sweet Dreams romances while sitting in front of Three's Company re-runs and I still grew up to fight the man.


As for your actual question: I would approach my meeting with the librarian as a fact-finding mission. Your daughter has brought home three bad books in a row. Maybe she just had bad taste in books? Maybe the library is brimming with excellent books with literary merit and socially progressive values, but she gets enough of that at home and wants the junk food books from school. Before I made any accusations about how the librarian and principal are doing their jobs, I would find out what the collection is like, and ask them about how they choose books and how kids get to pick them off the shelves. Then, if you still have concerns, I would approach it in terms of what is missing, rather than what you want eliminated.
posted by looli at 7:01 PM on June 7, 2012

There are about 100 self-described "hardcore feminists" in this thread, and I'm betting a lot of them were exposed to Disney. Your actions are going to have all the impact on such a young child.
posted by spaltavian at 7:09 PM on June 7, 2012

And it had Ariel! Just like your Happy Meal toy! And it was short! That doesn't seem too scary.

This. Your fears remind me of my parents' generation's distress over so many of my peers reading crappy comic books, which really were sophomoric and yet introduced TONS of my peers into the joys of reading when they'd refused to read anything else before that.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:58 PM on June 7, 2012

My mom was very concerned about the television shows I watched as a child, and she wanted me to think critically about them. We used to watch them together, and she would ask me questions about it, focusing on areas she was particularly concerned with.

For example: I watched the Smurfs, which has only one female character who was created to be "evil" and disrupt the Smurfs. When she is "evil" she is very smart and has dark hair. When she was made "good," she became blond and incredibly stupid.

I think it's obvious why my mom was NOT thrilled about me watching this show as a young girl.

SO she would ask me what I thought of Smurfette's decisions, what would I do differently, how could things have gone differently, etc... I have no memory of these conversations, but I grew up as a girl who instinctively examined and thought about things, and who questioned the assumptions of the television shows I watched - and this has been nothing but good. I also experienced being the sole focus of my mom, and feeling like she really cared about my thoughts and feelings - that they were valuable. This has also been deeply significant to me.

Your daughter is smart and wonderful. Ask her what she thinks. What would she do differently? If she was in Rapunzel's place, what would she do? What would she think of the Prince? Why does she think the witch does what she does? If she could do what the witch, or the prince, of Rapunzel could do - what would she do differently?
posted by Deoridhe at 12:56 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coming to this late; I have been thinking about this since I read the question yesterday.

Like many other people on this thread and in the world generally, I am a feminist who loved - nah, make that loves - Disney movies. I also grew up in a household filled with books and with parents who never censored what I read.

The anecdote I want to share with you is that when I was about 7 or 8, I read the Chronicles of Narnia, which I LOVED. However, I hated The Horse & His Boy - even though I was very young, I could tell that I had more in common than the dark-skinned Calormene than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero Shasta; and I didn't like how they were all depicted as savage and evil. (This is a very simplistic reading, but then I was only 7.) Similarly, around the same time I read Mary Poppins Open the Door by P L Travers, and remember being disgusted when one of the characters calls the chimneysweep a "Hindoo" (because he's covered in soot).

The point of this is that in my experience, I was conscious of not being white from an early age. No one ever really sat down with me and talked about some people being racist, but I was able, at a young age, to understand that people like me were basically being dismissed as an inferior "other" by the protagonists of a lot of classic Western fiction.

I think it really helped me develop my critical thinking facilities to be able to read whatever I wanted, even if occasionally I came across representations that made me angry.

I don't know if this anecdotal information will help you at all. I just think that the key to developing your daughter's sense of herself in the world is just to let her read whatever she wants. Sometimes she'll come across things that make her angry, that don't fit in with what she's learned from her parents, that are confusing! That's okay! That's what makes reading so great - that you can come into contact with ideas that are at times diametrically opposite to everything you stand for.

The positive thing you can do in this instance is to make sure your daughter has access to the kind of books you want her to read, but accept that not everything she reads/watches/listens to is going to have the Mom seal of approval. I'm sure, with you as her mom, she is going to grow up with all the right messages anyway, and by allowing her to read whatever, she'll also have the critical facility to distinguish the wrong ones that society sends her.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:38 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a guy. When I was young I got my hands on the original version of The Little Mermaid and for that year mermaids became something of a fetish and obsession of mine. This is a story in which, no matter what version you read, a woman effectively gives up herself and her identity for a man, throws herself at the mercy of his affections, and either kills herself (real, unhappy ending), or gets married (fake Disney ending) and ultimately bases her fate on his love. Fast forward 30 years later, and absolutely none of those values resonate with me or with the woman I've chosen to spend my life with. Instead, I've largely absorbed the values, teachings, and attitudes of my parents.

Your child is going to be exposed to far worse attitudes and messages than those in fairy tales. And throughout it all, she is going to evaluate those messages through the positive, critical, and empowered filters and tools you set up for her. She'll be fine, seriously.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:35 AM on June 8, 2012

Your daughter needs to read everything she can, and you can trust her to reject what's not useful later. Imagine her at 15, researching some controversial current topic of the time. She will need to wade through different takes on the topic before she develops her own thinking on it. Reading more and widely, not less, is what develops this skill.

You might considering donating books you love to the school library, and/or setting up a fund for purchasing books (which the librarian will select) which promote diversity, equal rights, etc. That will give your daughter and yourself a legacy to be proud of and a touchstone going forward through time. This would be be a way for your daughter to keep thinking about the issue as she grows up and can understand more profoundly the importance of reading and how it builds our characters.

I am a college librarian and teacher of writers age 7 to adult.
posted by Riverine at 1:10 PM on June 8, 2012

Much, much insightful advice here already, so I'll be brief.

One, your goal as a parent isn't to raise the idealized little MiniMe, but rather a strong, kind, thoughtful person -- who may or may not subscribe to your own favorite -isms.

Two, as a parent myself who has made himself known to the school powers that be, my script advice is: don't have one. This is no the right fight, or at least, not the right time. She's five! Which brings me to...

Three, a question: What are you reading her?

What fun, thoughtful, chatty mom-and-daughter conversations are you having with her? Don't script a frowny talk with the library, but script some non-dogmatic talking points and teaching points with your girl. A child isn't educated by her school; she's educated by her parents.
posted by slab_lizard at 9:03 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

taff, one of these days I hope that you have an experience similar to one I had a while back. I'd heard enough about the Twilight series that I knew I didn't want my then-tween daughter reading it. Her sisters (at her dad's) handed her the first one. She came home, told me she'd gotten almost halfway through it, and then put it down. Something none of us do, really. I asked her why, and her response was, "Bella is whiny and never does anything."

I was a very proud momma that day. My daughter is now 14.

Around the same time as the Twilight thing, she gathered up all of her Barbie gear and gave it to the younger girl downstairs (who happens to be mixed race, but my girl had dolls of both colors, so whatever), closet door organizer and all. Her favorite color changed from pink to sky blue. I think her favorite color is now black.

I see what she brings home to read, and I just don't ask anymore except if it's enjoyable. As a result, I tore through The Hunger Games trilogy in a few days before we went to see the movie. Even my son enjoyed those.

After the movie, we came home and totally critiqued the film versus the books, which was very fun. My husband, who isn't a big reader, was totally lost, but that's ok, too.

Some of my reading list would make me blush to list here. There's salad, and there's chocolate, and there's bubble gum. My dad introduced me to Harlan Ellison and Frank Herbert. I found the Pern series on my own. (And then there's the ... Anita Blake books.)

As moms, we have to trust that we set a good example and give them good life tools. I totally understand that it's the hardest part. We are all fallible, after all.

Please trust that you are a good mom. Don't hover too much. Reading about Ariel is bubble gum. A little won't hurt her.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:04 AM on June 11, 2012

WOW! You have gotten a lot of response to your request. May I add one more thing?

The crux of your angst, I think, is posted very early in your explanation. You say "I don't even know what I want." Until you get to the core of the outcome you desire, I don't think anything is going to satisfy that fire in your heart.

My Mom was a feminist...she taught us by example. I don't remember her ever discouraging us from reading anything, in fact our home was full of all sorts of books including the stories you describe. From as early an age as I recall (about 2), Mom gave us choices: for example, she chose two or three outfits for us and empowered us to make the final buying decision.

My siblings and I are all over 50 now and we have never had a problem making decisions, personal or business...and not one of us expected a Prince Charming to rescue, protect or support us. We sure did enjoy those stories as little girls, tho.

I hope this helps!
posted by Mickiezada at 6:21 PM on June 13, 2012

This article that was in the New York Times about how [or if] to read racist stories to your kids may have some helpful suggestions in it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coming to this late too as I just found this this thread. But I found this sentence particularly pertinent:

Before I made any accusations about how the librarian and principal are doing their jobs, I would find out what the collection is like, and ask them about how they choose books and how kids get to pick them off the shelves.

I'm pretty much a hardcore feminist - like very vocal, very aware of pop culture and how it affects girls and young women (I wrote my MA thesis on this). When I read your OP, I could see your point but thought you were overreacting. Your kid wants to read what she wants to read, and, as several people pointed out upthread, it's preferable to a) let a kid read what she wants to read, b) you became a feminist anyway despite not growing up in a feminist household and c) kids could be put off reading if they feel a parent is being critical of what they read. So, even as a hardcore feminist, I thought just her read what she wants.

But. While maybe not in the liberal Sydney neighbourhood you mentioned the girls in your kid's class are steered towards Disney princess books and the boys automatically steered towards the 'standard' books, I think this is a valid point to bring up. Perhaps the librarian, with all good intentions, just assumes girls like pink and sparkly and princesses, and boys like scifi and fantasy and werewolves.

If this were the case, it would definitely piss me off as a parent of a girl. I wrote a piece yesterday (I'm a travel writer on UK stuff) about the Bath Children's Literature Festival, and got quite peeved about this blurb saying 'for the girls...' ('chat to Four Queens of Teen' !!!), while the werewolf stuff was implicitly for the boys. This is really pissy, and overall damaging. So yes, absolutely have the conversation - on how kids in the class are steered towards certain books (or if they are). I would let my kid read whatever they want, no matter how problematic it was for me (reading Enid Blyton/Famous Five aged six and seven was a huge contributor to my adult feminism, because I still remember being angry that Julian always said George and Anne had to stay behind on adventures and that George, even though a tomboy, still had to do the cooking and washing up with Anne). But for a teacher, librarian or anyone else to assume my kid wants to read princessy shit just because she's a girl - I would be *very* pissed off.

I'm not sure this is what's happening here, but wanted to throw it out there in case that might be why you're feeling icky about the books your daughter is bringing home. While recognising that she can read what she wants, she's getting loads of feminist influence at home etc etc - perhaps this is why you're feeling so off about it. I would certainly ask how/why your daughter chooses these particular books. If she just loves sparkly princess stuff, fair enough, but if it's assumed that she's not into other stuff just because she's a girl I'd find that a big problem.
posted by mudkicker at 5:49 PM on June 30, 2012

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