Kid's Stuff -- Books About Boys
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Boys are different than girls. There... I've said it...!!! Phew. However, there are also all kinds of boys, and all kinds of books that explore these differences. Since our kid's a girl, we haven't delved that deeply into the topic yet... Any suggestions for favorite books?

"All By Myself"
Written by Aliki
Illustrated by Aliki
(Harper Collins, 2000)
A nice, super-well behaved little boy named Peter goes through his daily rituals, waking, dressing, eating, going potty, going to school, etc. all by himself. The theme of independence ("by myself!") could be more strongly stressed in the text, but that's no biggie... What matters is the book's exuberant, celebratory tone, which shows a happy, model child doing various everyday activities... The pictures are nice & easy to follow... And what parents wouldn't wish to have as nice a child as this? Good role modeling and a lot of fun things to point out discuss while reading the book with your child. (B+)

"With A Little Help From Daddy"
Written by Dan Andreasen
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003)
A sweet, good-humored book about daddy-son relationships... A cheerful little elephant tells how he is "the tallest boy on my block... strongest boy on my block..." all with a little help from his ever-present dad, who cheerfully lifts him on his shoulders, helps him make his bed, etc. This is a very earnest book, verging on the saccharine, but if you are the parent of a nice, sweet little boy and want to do your best to encourage those qualities or to prolong that stage in his life, this book is probably an excellent choice. Author Dan Andreasen has worked extensively as an illustrator for other people's work; here he proves a capable, if workmanlike picturebook creator. While the text isn't terribly clever, the artwork is bold and friendly, and very easy to understand. Good for younger readers. (B)

"Ballerino Nate"
Written by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley
Illustrated by R. W. Alley
(Penguin/Dial Books, 2006)

A great dance story, with a gender twist. After attending a school ballet show, a young boy named Nate decides he wants to dance ballet as well, but his older, butcher brother Ben teases him and tells him that boys can't be ballerinas. With his parents' support, Nate perseveres and enters a dance class, which he loves even though he's the only boy there. Ben keeps teasing him until one day Mom takes Nate to see a professional dance company where half the ensemble are men, and one of the principal dancers meets Nate and gives him encouragement. It turns out Ben was right about one thing: men can't be ballerinas, but the man suggests the word ballerino instead, since that indicates a male dancer. The PC sentiment aside, this is a lovely book, with great artwork that captures the personalities of all involved and provides lots of nice details (including the older brother playing video games at home, giving this a decidedly contemporary slant...) There are a few rough spots in the text -- particularly when the dad makes a parallel between the two girls on Ben's softball team and Nate going to a mostly-girl dance class; that passage could have been clearer -- but it's no biggie, the story is still a winner. A heartwarming book about gender stereotypes that makes its point without placing too much emphasis on the "you're a sissy!" part of the equation. Recommended! (A)

"Alexander's Pretending Day"
Written by Bunny Crumpacker
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
(Dutton Books, 2005)

An absolutely wonderful book about a sweet little preschool-age boy spending the day with his mom, asking her all kinds of cute, imaginative play questions, like, Mom, what would you do if I turned into a big lion? The mom puts down her newspaper and plays along, and they share one of the sweetest fantasy-play exchanges seen in a kids' book... Alexander becomes ever more imaginative, becoming a dinosaur, a monster, a river and even a book. The warmth between these characters is quite moving, and Dan Andreasen's artwork is marvelous -- a perfect compliment to a delightful story. Highly recommended. (A+)

"Crusher Is Coming"
Written by Bob Graham
Illustrated by Bob Graham
(Viking, 1988)

A young boy is agog that Crusher, an older boy who plays on a football team, is coming over to visit. Worried that Crusher won't like him if he seems too much of a "baby" or sissy, the boy pesters his mom not to be too mushy when Crusher is around, and to keep the baby out of sight. Turns out Crusher is a bit of a softie himself, and has as much fun playing with the baby as he does with the older brother... There's a new baby at his house, too, and he's an old hand at playing kootchie-kootchie-koo, even if he is built like a Mack truck. The book zooms by and has an air of inevitability, but it's a nice turnaround on traditional gender stereotypes... Graham sharpened his storytelling skills in later books, but this is still pretty cute. Worth checking out. (B-)

Shirley Hughes -- and the "Alfie" books

"Boy, You're Amazing!"
Written by Virginia Kroll
Illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa
(Albert Whitman & Co., 2004)

One of a pair of self-esteem books for young kids (along with its companion, Girl, You're Amazing!) this celebrates the accomplishments and potential of young boys, highlighting athletic prowess, emotional growth and professional paths. While the book is quite nice by itself, if you consider it alongside the "girl" version, there is an unfortunate gender bias, despite Ms. Kroll's obvious best intentions. The "boy" book has a much heavier emphasis on physical accomplishments and outwardly-directed and the "girl" book, while it has some of this, is more internal and emotional. This may reflect innate gender differences, but it's still disappointing in this day and age. On the positive side, this is a fun, energetic, entirely positive picturebook, and it does make a sincere effort to also praise boys for skills that stereotypically are thought of as "feminine": gardening, taking care of babies, doing art projects, expressing emotions. (B)

"My Little Brother"
Written by David McPhail
Illustrated by David McPhail
(Harcourt, 2004)

This one's pitched at a slightly older age group than most sibling rivalry books... The narrator is an older boy -- maybe 7-10 years old? -- whose pain-in-the-neck little brother is perhaps three or four. The older boy complains that he has more responsibilities than his brother, and that the little guy keeps getting in his stuff. But when it comes down to it, they're both buddies, and when he goes off to camp, big brother leaves his younger sibling in charge of their puppy and all of the toys. A sweet, nostalgia-drenched book... Not McPhail's best, but still pretty darn good. (B+)

"Time To Get Up, Time To Go"
Written by David Milgrim
Illustrated by David Milgrim
(Clarion, 2006)

A really cute little book about a boy who spends the whole day taking care of his doll the way a parent would -- feeding it, dressing it, putting it in a stroller, taking it to the park, bathing with it, putting it to bed. Nice, light touch on the gender issues: yes, it's a boy playing with a doll and being all nurturing and cute, but the best part is that the text doesn't make a big, explicit point about it. We just see the boy doing all kinds of fun stuff and are left to draw our own conclusions. I like the artwork (friendly, direct, effective) and the text, too, which has an uncomplicated, simple rhyming structure. All in all -- recommended! (You could also read this along with William's Doll, if you wanted to hammer the gender stuff home.) (B+)

"The Dangerous Snake And Reptile Club"
Written by Daniel San Souci
Illustrated by Daniel San Souci
(Tricycle Press, 2004)

This book introduces the Clubhouse gang, a group of kids (all boys in the first book) that share wild enthusiasms and re-name their club with each new adventure. Here, the boys get into reptiles and amphibians, forming the "The Dangerous Snake And Reptile Club" of the title. They catch dozens of tadpoles, salamanders and non-poisonous snakes, then put them on display for the folks in their neighborhood to see. The reptile club eventually loses focus and the animals are set free, but in the last panel of the book, the stage is set for a sequel, when the boys find a "meteor" in a neighbor's back yard. This series perfectly captures the excitement with which preteens delve into their passions... I'm not wild about the artwork, which borders on the grotesque, but the books work -- my kid loved 'em and wanted to hear more. (B)

"Space Station Mars"
Written by Daniel San Souci
Illustrated by Daniel San Souci
(Tricycle Press, 2005)

After seeing a scary B-movie about Martian invaders, the Gang gets into outer space stuff, and decide, improbably, that a rock they find in a neighbor's yard is really a meteorite. Just as they're trying to figure out whether it's radioactive or not, a new kid named Neil shows up in town, and he just happens to be a slide-rule science geek with a passion for finding extraterrestrial life. The story is kind of confused and awkward after that -- eventually Neil decides the space aliens are angry and wan their rock back, which proves to be easy when a "space ship" lands nearby. The best part of the book is when they visit the ship and it turns out to be a water tank (a real one, located in the San Francisco Bay Area!) I wasn't wowed by this one, but it does reflect some of the giddy excitement kids had in space travel and science in the post-Sputnik era of the late 1950s and early '60s. (C+)

"The Amazing Ghost Detectives"
Written by Daniel San Souci
Illustrated by Daniel San Souci
(Tricycle Press, 2006)

The ever-changing club has expanded to include a girl, Allison, and has a new, ghostbuster-y mission: someone -- or something -- has been breaking into the clubhouse at night, making a big mess and eating all the candy bars! What could it be? After careful consideration, a ghost seems to be the only answer, and the gang has to figure out how to get rid of their otherworldly visitor. The comedy comes from the pictures: when the kids hear about "strange" things happening in the neighborhood, they see the ghost at work (whereas we, the readers, see the real causes: gophers, alley cats and raccoons...) Nonetheless, they do their research and figure out the best way to chase a "ghost" away...and it works! Another fun evocation of the split-second enthusiasms and all-consuming interests of the pre-teen set. Fun! (B)

"The Mighty Pigeon Club"
Written by Daniel San Souci
Illustrated by Daniel San Souci
(Tricycle Press, 2007)

Through a kid at school, the Gang becomes interested in homing pigeons...When their pigeon-keeping pal develops an allergy, the Gang inherits his birds, but swiftly find that keeping a flock of birds is kind of a pain. The pigeons poop all over their clubhouse (and the kids have to clean it up... yuck!) and all their neighbors complain about the birds. They eventually find a new home for the flock, but along the way the book is kind of a bummer. The preoccupation with poop is realistic, but not much fun to read about; similarly, when the Gang runs afoul of a priest whose church they try and ditch the birds at, the kids respond by running away. Again, realistic behavior for a pack of 8-10 year-olds, but maybe not something you want modeled in a kids' book. An okay adventure for kids in that age range, and an okay message regarding responsibility and be-careful-what-you-wish-for object lessons... Didn't grab me as well as the earlier Reptile Club book.... (C+)

"Where The Wild Things Are"
Written by Maurice Sendak
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
(Harper Collins, 1963)

Well, yeah. Of course you have to get this book... It's just so damned good. Beautiful art, canny, well-crafted layout, fun story, cute kid. And big, fuzzy monsters, too! What more could you want? Sendak really hit each note just right when crafting this book... That's why it's such an enduring classic. And, if Max in his wolf suit isn't the archetypal mischievous little boy, I don't know who is... He's fun to read about, but I shure would hate to be his babysitter! (A+)

"Block City"
Written by Robert Louis Stevenson
Illustrated by Daniel Kirk
(Simon & Schuster, 2004)

A colorful adaptation of one of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems in the Child's Garden Of Verses. As with many of Stevenson's poems, this captures a certain brand of childish wonder... Stevenson's 19th-Century preoccupations with the details of the British Empire (sailing, fleets, royalty and churches) may be a little hard to identify with nowadays, but young readers will still enjoy the close, ground-level exploration of imaginative toy play. The richly-drawn primary-color landscape of the bedroom floor is reminiscent of Kirk's illustrations in Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, which has a similar theme, and the visual appeal alone is sure to draw little readers in. (B)

"William's Doll"
Written by Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrated by William Pene Du Bois
(Harper & Row, 1972)

An epochal book about outsiders and kids who are "different," this story was later adapted to be part of Marlo Thomas's kid's music revue, "Free To Be You And Me." The story is simple: William is a boy who wants to own a doll so that he can care for and nurture it. His brother mocks him, calling him a sissy and a creep, and his father tries to steer him towards more "manly" pursuits, like basketball and model trains. Finally, his grandmother visits and sticks up for him, buying him the doll he wants and telling the dad to chill out. It's a good story, although there are a couple of teensy sticking points... Even though it's kind of the point of the book, the schoolyard mockery and verbal abuse may be a bit jarring for smaller children. (It's easy to read around, though...) Also, although the story is supposed to be about how it's normal and okay for boys to want to play with dolls, William is dressed somewhat effeminately, like a stereotyped, old-fashioned prep-school gay, complete with a signature red ascot. In some ways it would have been cooler if he'd been dressed like a plain old, grubby little boy, in t-shirt and shorts, or whatever. Still, the book holds up pretty well even with the hippie-era artwork, and the message is still quite welcome. (A)

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