Checking Our Biases When We Check Out Books

Checking Our Biases When We Check Out Books

by Laura Koennecke
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The other night I was telling my son about a book I wanted to read to him called Little House in the Big Woods; it was one of my favorites as a child. He really likes non-fiction, so I told him that it’s autobiographical, explaining that meant it was based on a real person’s life. I thought that might stoke his interest. I’ve been itching to get him interested in a good story, but aside from Frog and Toad books, which are amazing by the way, and a few Dr. Seuss books, we mainly read facts.

I also told him that I especially liked that I share my name with the main character, Laura. He thought that was pretty cool.

As I was telling him about the book, a weird sense of doubt surfaced. I wondered if Little House was a girl’s book. I wondered if that mattered. After all, little girls read books with male characters all the time. My Side of the Mountain was about a boy, and I loved that book. I had no trouble identifying with Sam.

But there were other books that I read and identified as being girls’ books, like Misty of Chincoteague, even though it has both a boy and girl for main characters. That one I chalk up to the fact that most of the girls my age at the time were obsessed with their Breyer collections and all things horse-related.

So if I identify certain books as being girls’ books based on my own childhood reading, does that mean I shouldn’t read them to my son? Of course not, but how much do we unwittingly withhold from our sons this way. It really bothered me that I considered not reading him a great story based on a little voice that said it was for girls.

When my daughter was younger, I was always happy to see a strong female lead character. She latched right on to Tamora Pierce’s books when they were introduced to her by a grade-school friend. And as parents more actively look for female protagonists, they have a great resource for girl-empowered books in amightygirl.com, which provides characters from many different cultures that young girls can identify with.

This is great, but what if we also started reading stories to our sons with girl protagonists – asking them to see through another person’s perspective?

As the 48-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son (advanced maternal age I’m considered), I sometimes think there’s a cultural divide between myself and younger parents in their 30s. I worry that I’ll become the old person who says the awkward things at the soccer field, you know, uses the words that expose my outdated, uninformed biases like the drunk uncle at a family gathering that everyone rolls their eyes at.

After all, my childhood was firmly in the 1970s. And the fruits of second wave feminism were just starting show themselves. For my older sister to change into jeans after leaving the house was an act of rebellion and a strike against gender norms. Now everyone wears jeans and nobody thinks twice of it. She also wanted to be an auto mechanic and go across country with our cousin Karen who wanted to drive an 18-wheeler. This raised some eyebrows at the time, but now women are excelling in what used to be traditionally male job markets. And the idea that they wouldn’t is simply foreign to many women born in the 1980s.

It’s quite possible that younger parents don’t think twice about gender when they pick out a book, that deep into third wave feminism people don’t project gender norms onto their kids. They say to each other “Let’s get David this biography of Danica Patrick – he loves race cars.”

But we all know that for the most part that’s not true. Just look at the uproar Target caused by removing gender-based signs from their toy sections. Side note: For a fun response to that check out Renegade Mothering (unless you are satire-averse and don’t like salty language, then don’t).

Anyway, as the mother of a son, I’d like to see feminism work for him too. I don’t want him cut off from strong female role models, and I don’t want him walled off from the empathy that comes from reading about people who are not like him. Empathy can only help us all. So dear parents, young and old, maybe we can turn down the little voices that tell us what’s meant for boys or meant for girls, and use books to break down barriers instead of reinforcing them. Let’s loosen the reins and see what happens.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Untold Stories

Untold Stories
by Laura Koennecke
10924747_10203407812172599_3398855842908337277_nWhen I was eleven, we lost my brother Kurt and almost every material thing in a house fire. It was a terrible time for my family that was softened by the kindness and generosity of the people who came together to help us. It was an overwhelming and foggy time, to say the least, but there are a few memories that stick out.

There was all the food being delivered daily. That was the year we had lasagna for Thanksgiving. There was Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s and the special gifts they picked out for us – including the stuffed bear for Sheryl that needed an x-ray at my uncle’s vet office for some reason.

And there were the socks. A boy from my bus route, a year or two older than me, showed up at my Grandpa’s doorway with a huge department store bag filled with socks. Brand new, never-been-worn socks in all sizes and colors. To this day, the thoughtfulness of this gift stays with me.

A few years later, this same boy’s father ended his own life. I cried for him, and I wanted to somehow return the kindness that he had shown my family. So I baked him some chocolate chip cookies. I put them on a plate, wrapped them in aluminum foil and set them on the table in the front hall. All that was left was for me to knock on his door and hand them to him.

They sat on that table for at least a week. I’m not sure what even happened to them. But I know I didn’t bring them to him. I didn’t know how to face that much pain, and I didn’t know if he wanted anyone to know what had happened.

I don’t know what led up to his father’s decision, but I do know that people didn’t talk about mental health much thirty years ago, at least not in front of kids. Thankfully that is changing, but there is still a dearth of information about it.

So why talk about this on a children’s literature site? Because books are powerful. Because they have the power to help heal, to start a dialogue, to let a child know that he or she is not alone, to provide an escape.

Because teachers and librarians can include books that deal with mental health on their shelves.

If you look for books addressing issues such as depression, suicide and addiction, there are plenty for teens. The School Library Journal has an excellent article by Erin E. Moulton about bibliotherapy and an extensive list of books by subject area. 

But according to the Educational Research Newsletter, “School personnel need to be aware that many learning disabled children appear to experience depression during the elementary years.” 

Obviously, this is important for parents to know too.

So where are the books for younger kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m curious. And I’m not talking about “how to” books; I’m talking about books with nuanced characters that young readers and listeners can relate to.

And, are we as parents, teachers and counselors misreading the signs of mental health issues? According to the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The presence of depression in school-age children may not be adequately recognized by teachers. Teachers may be misdiagnosing depressed children as having a specific learning problem.” 

Saying that teachers are misdiagnosing is a bit misleading as they aren’t doctors, but they are often the first people to see signs that a child is struggling.

The Educational Research Newsletter also notes that “Researchers do not agree on which is the primary condition; does being learning disabled lead to depression or are learning problems a symptom of depression?”  

There is so much to learn and so much more research that will be done, but ultimately we need to be aware that mental illness can affect anyone, even young children – either as someone suffering from it personally or someone trying to understand what a parent or sibling is experiencing.

So where do we go from here? I guess we keep talking about it, sharing our stories and reading about it. We talk to our children’s doctors. And we stop being afraid to knock on the door and deliver the cookies.

Do you know of a children’s book that addresses mental illness? Let us know in the comments.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Another Christmas Story

Another Christmas Story
by Laura Koennecke
snow globesBright red mittens and peppermint candy. The bracket Pa made Ma for her china, with its hand-carved curlicues and crescent moons. This is Christmas, I like to think.

As we approach the holiday season, the picture of the Christmas I feel I need to create is shaped in large part by books: Little House in the Big Woods, Little Women, and the lesser known Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

My heart broke a little when I realized my daughter, Anna, didn’t share my love of these kinds of books. She loves a good hero quest, the more broken and conflicted the protagonist, the better. A map at the front of a book is always a good sign, and dragons are a bonus.

It made me wonder why I loved my poor little families. It became clear that their appeal wasn’t in their poverty, but in what they did for each other. In a nutshell, it was their Christmas stories. They fought the scarcity and darkness of winter with warmth and light and community.

The authors, through the families they shared with us, created what I imagine to be hygge, the comradery and coziness cherished in Danish homes and amongst friends. As readers, we can wrap ourselves in the warm embrace of a quilt that was carefully sewn by Laura and Mary at a quilting bee.

When the March girls of Little Women brought their Christmas breakfast to the hungry German immigrant family, they lit a fire and brought warmth and friendship to the home.

Polly and Ben Pepper created a Christmas for their younger siblings by bringing in a tree from outside and decorating it with popcorn and nuts wrapped in bits of bright paper. And they convinced their mother to give them leftover nubs of candles to brighten it. They have memories of better times and want to share those with the little ones.

Sometimes, in adult life, I find moments of soul warmth – the smell of wood burning in fireplaces that evokes images of warm hearths drawing families together, or the way headlights and holiday lights reflect on wet streets in winter. In these moments, decades wash away.

When I was a child, malls were being built everywhere. The closest one to us – in Fayetteville, New York – had a store that’s marquee was a wall of golden-hued lights. At night, Sibley’s glowed like a harvest moon but in a season of snow and short days.

Just before Christmas in those years, Dad would finish up chores in the barn a little early; we’d have a quick dinner, then head out to shop for Mom’s gift. We would climb into the station wagon – as many of us kids who were home and could fit – to go to the mall for Dad’s one and only shopping trip each year. The space between the back seat and the rear-facing third seat was my prime real estate. We’d drive to Fayetteville Mall with its beckoning wall of light.

There was something magical about going out at night in the winter, against the inclination to stay inside, to approach the light and energy of bustling shoppers. There was something magical about going on this adventure with my Dad.

I’m less inclined to go to the mall now. I more look forward to places like Jay Street – a fellowship of independent businesses, coffee shops, antiques and arts, with its brick pedestrian walkway and cobbled paths for skipping. It’s Schenectady’s Diagon Alley – the magical street in Harry Potter’s world – with its quirky store fronts and buildings of a certain age.

Now Harry Potter, this was a series that Anna and I read and loved together. Underneath all the epic battles and mythical creatures, J. K. Rowling created warmth and community and gave Harry a family. The big, loud, crazy Weasley family, with its misshapen hand-knit Christmas sweaters and no money, meant more to Harry than his piles of gold at Gringotts.

And Christmas always comes back to family – the ones we started with or the ones we pulled near to us – and the memories we create together.

I wonder what my 5-year-old will remember – maybe the cobbled street or the brightly lit window displays that reveal themselves as dusk settles or the warmth of hot chocolate chasing away the chill. Alas, it probably won’t be last year’s homemade snow globe that leaked all over the mantel and was quietly thrown away. (Thanks, Pinterest.)

Maybe he’ll remember going with his Dad to pick out my gift, and the way they conspired to sneak it back in the house without me knowing. Or maybe it will be the time that he and Anna, separated in age by 14 years, sat together painting green icing on sugar cookie trees way past his bedtime.

A few years ago, when my parents were downsizing, they had a garage sale. Drawers, closets and shelves were emptied onto tables, jarring memories loose from the deep storage of our minds. My sister Kris and I saw the Ziploc bag full of cookie cutters. Neither of us was going to let those get sold. So many of our memories are caught up in the preparation and in the anticipation that what we are doing will bring happiness to someone we love and in the moments that allow us to step outside the mundane.

It’s as likely as not that presents will end up on a garage sale table someday, but memories of shopping with my Dad and rolling out hundreds of leaping reindeer and lopsided angel cookies with my sisters and Mom, who didn’t even flinch when I tripled the already tripled recipe, will remain. The warm glow of the time we spent together will remain, and the glow is what matters.

Although that doesn’t mean I’m above dropping some heavy hints about the handmade bag in the bookstore on Jay Street.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years, though never under her own name. Her writing has been recognized through a recent Yelp “Review of the Day” and several well liked Facebook status updates. Another Christmas Story is her first attempt at “someday I’m going to write about this.” One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

Links to books mentioned in this post:


Little House in the Big Woods


Little Women


Five Little Peppers and How They Grew


Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7)

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.