Wednesday, February 11, 2009

King Stork by Howard Pyle, Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

You never know what you'll find at the library. Even the children's section can have some surprises.

I believe parents should look at what their children are reading. Beyond sharing a good story, parents and children can talk about what they like, ask and answer questions, and maybe make up new stories of their own. Some stories give entertainment, some impart practical knowledge, some inspire and others help kids navigate common, or uncommon, obstacles. I think all books teach us something.

Mr. Pyle's story, redrawn by Trina Hyman, follows the attempts of a drummer boy to succeed at three tasks with the intent of winning the hand of a beautiful princess. A magical stork, who can change to human form, helps him with each task. The princess has a mean streak, and magical powers to boot, so the drummer boy needs all the help he can get. After the drummer boy achieves his goal, he is advised by the Stork King to do something to save his bride from her wickedness; he beats her with a stick until she promises to be good. In the drummer boy's defense, she turned into a giant cat, wolf, and snake and tried to thrash him as well, not to mention she cut off every previous suitor's head and stuck it on a pike. I think the Brothers Grimm would be proud.

This is an older book, copyright 1974. The author died in 1911. The slight mysogynistic streak may not have been so noticable had it not been for the illustrators depiction of the princess. Her white gown is open in front almost to the navel, and while there is no obvious cleavage, the details that show through the gown leave no doubt of her gender. I'm sure the illustrator may not have intended to promote stereotypes of beautiful women being evil temptresses whose purpose is to lie in wait for simple men and destroy them. The detailed artwork certainly draws you in, so to speak.

Parents will have to decide whether to let their children read this book. Some may want to discuss the illustrations, others may prefer to keep the book shelved rather than expose it to their children. A protest to a library about the appropriate placement of such books in the children's section most likely will come to nothing. In some cases I wish books had ratings like movies so those parents with concerns about particular content could steer clear of certain works until their children reach a higher level of maturity so conversation can be easier. I for one feel that certain issues are best left for discussion when a child is emotionally and intellectually ready to understand them.

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