Comics Club-4-Kidz (February): Kid Tested, Kid Approved

Comics Club-4-Kids is a monthly club exploring comic books for a variety of  age ranges. Since some families have multiple age ranges, Comics Club-4-Kidz helps parents by finding similar themes across varying content so that families can have conversations together. Our intent is to approach literary analysis and information literacy through the use of comics. Character, narrative structure, problem solving/plot development, and visual text were chosen as the focus discussion points to help mirror what our kids are learning in school. Our goal is to help kids in schools or kids homeschooling find new ways to approach literacy.

This month’s theme: gender.

This month’s comics:  Power UP, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, and Superman/Wonder Woman.

Continue reading Comics Club-4-Kidz (February): Kid Tested, Kid Approved

What Boy Loves Pink This Much? Mine Does.

I still remember the moment. I remember the moment when the ultrasound tech told me that I was having a son. I remember fist punching the air. I specifically remember the tech telling me she’d never seen someone bounce up off the table so high.

I’ve always been a tomboy, the “guy’s girl” who has a lot of male friends. I grew up in the 1980s with a wide array of light pink and lavender, elastic waist-banded wide wale Healthtex corduroys. At some point, I turned into the Girl Who Hated Pink.

Hearing that I was giving birth to a son solidified my excitement about not being inundated with the two most traumatizing colors in my life. The fist bump and bouncing were less about sex or gender role and much more about my excitement over not having to see all. that. pink. and. lavender.

Until my son started to make his own decisions. At first, I thought his love of these colors was simply to be a bit defiant and annoying. I mean, after all, he was a BOY. What BOY loves pink with this much vigor? Continue reading What Boy Loves Pink This Much? Mine Does.

I was a Teenage Girl Star Wars Fan

The year was 1977. I was so close to my thirteenth birthday I could taste it.

I remember reading a preview for an upcoming movie in a teen magazine. The movie was called Star Wars. The preview breathlessly promised there was a Princess who was as much a hero as the (cute) guys.

Sign me up! My parents didn’t want to go. Since it was rated PG they forced my brother, who is five years older than me, to go along. He had just turned eighteen and was not amused. For some odd reason, he didn’t want to deal with a bunch of newly minted and *days away* teenagers. He brought along some of his friends. They sat as far away from us as was humanly possible. I can’t imagine why.

It’s easy to forget now, but the movie was not targeted at little kids. It had the aforementioned PG rating. Nor was it targeted to boys alone. No matter what JJ Abrams believes. It was positioned for broad mass appeal.

Marketing was very different back then. This was the mid 1970s after all. Smack dab in the middle of the Womens Liberation movement. Well before the 1980s FCC deregulation. Continue reading I was a Teenage Girl Star Wars Fan

Lands’ End Redeems Itself With Nerdy Shirts For Girls—And Not One Shirt About Being Adorable!

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of taken by Ariane Coffin.

Yesterday, I found a Lands’ End post creep up on my Facebook feed, featuring “Smart Tees for boys and girls.” I got really excited, and even more so when I noticed that out of the 19 shirts on their list, nine of them were for girls. Not one or two, but around 50 percent. No way!

Then I remembered hearing some noise last year about Lands’ End gender stereotyping their kids’ shirts, and I started to feel doubtful. If I removed the filter for “Smart Tees” and browsed everything they offered as a whole, would I find more bad than good?

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of taken by Ariane Coffin.

Well, I guess Lands’ End learned their lesson because I did not find a single girl shirt with the words “adorable,” “cute,” or “sassy.” As a mother of two young girls, let me tell you that’s a breath of fresh air. A hurricane of fresh air.

Time will tell if Lands’ End is just waiting for the dust to settle or has really joined the 21st century, but in the meantime, please excuse while I do some online shopping for my little space geeks.

Tea Without Princesses

Image by Rebecca Angel


Discovery by Eileen Spinelli
The kettle is boiling
The scones are set out
The company’s hungry
And gathered about
And though you seem cozy
And snug, little mouse,
I warn you, Mom’s teapot
Is not a safe house.

Recently, a tea party was held at my homeschooling group for the youngest kids. The leader of this lovely afternoon wanted to read the kids stories while they enjoyed their fine beverage. She went to the library to find some picture books about tea parties. Since there were a mix of genders, and kids with various styles, she asked the librarian if there were tea party books that did not feature princesses and lace. The librarian replied,”Good luck.” Well, she did have luck! I attended the tea party wearing an enormous hat, and enjoyed the stories with the children (and the tea was good too!).

Tea Rex by Molly Idle is the perfect example of how illustrations can enhance a story, not just, well…illustrate it. The text is about the proper etiquette of hosting a tea party and being welcoming to your guest. But when the guest is an enormous dinosaur, it can be pretty amusing to watch.

Tea for Me, Tea for You by Laura Rader is a story of pigs, tea, and not enough room! Very funny.

I did a check on my own shelf and found these two books:

Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor by Eileen Spinelli has colorful illustrations of multi-cultural girls and boys enjoying tea with a variety of short, rhyming poems that children will enjoy. Here’s one I like a lot:

Tea Around the World
In Ireland tea is cozy.
In Russia tea is strong.
In China tea is served to guests
And sipped the whole day long.
In Burma tea is pickled.
In Turkey, sold on streets.
In England tea comes on a tray
With sandwiches and sweets.
Japan has rules for formal tea
And one is wear your socks.
Go to Tibet and you would have
To chip your tea from blocks.
Moroccans favor green tea
With mint and sugar, too.
My favorite place in all the world
For tea is home with you.

The King’s Tea by Trinka Hakes Noble was one of my favorite stories as a child. “The King’s tea had to be perfect. But sometimes things weren’t just right…” In this book, the king complains about his morning tea, and the complaints trickle down from the steward to the cook to the kitchen girl and on and on. The King is taking his walk and overhears the final blaming going on in town about whose fault it was for ruining the King’s tea. Realizing he started it all, the King goes back to his castle just in time for afternoon tea in a different mood. What happens next? Hint: It involves a tea party.

Invite your sons and daughters for tea, and enjoy some fine stories while you sip!

Do You Randomly Gender-Swap Characters in Kids Books?

Cover of Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site

We have recently been enjoying one of my son’s favorite birthday presents from his second birthday. The wonderful book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site was given to us by a relative who would never have given it to a girl, but that’s no problem–it’s an adorable book and my son loves it.

But my husband and I started doing something when we read this book out loud that we’ve done with a few other books: randomly taking some of the male characters and talking about them as female characters. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any girls in the books at all.

To his immense credit, my husband starting doing this with another favorite book called Superhero Me! by Karen Katz. This touch-and-feel book depicts toddlers playing superheroes, but my husband was really surprised that every kid in the book—six characters— was a boy. So he started switching one character, Astrokid, to female: “Astrokid ZOOMS into space, then back to Earth, her home base.” This made me love him even more than usual, since I’m a NASA engineer.

It also reminded me of my pre-parenthood days playing with my nephew. He was five, and his parents had their hands full with 18-month-old twins. My husband and I made sure to spend extra time with him. He was hugely into the Japanese T.V. show Ultraman, so he had us play the different hero characters. I’m sure everyone knew this but me, but the color-coded heroes are also strictly gender defined. I asked to be the Blue Ranger (probably the wrong title of the character anyway, forgive me), and was told by a very shocked young boy, “No Aunt Karen, you can’t be Blue! Blue is a boy!” Same response for Green. I was left with Pink or Yellow. (I hate pink and yellow, have since I can remember.) But I figured I wasn’t there for a consciousness raising session. I just said, “Aww, that’s sad. OK, I’ll play Yellow.” We were there for five days, and by the last day my nephew very generously (and unprompted!) said, “It’s OK Aunt Karen, you can play Green!” Yay!

I’ve noticed that the Richard Scarry books from the 1970s don’t have this problem. In Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, Mistress Mouse operates a tow truck service in her pink overalls and is rescuing people and fixing things on almost every page. Ma and Pa swap driving duties. Pa fixes a flat tire but Ma puts on snow chains. In Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, girls are shown playing with construction toys just like boys. It’s not unrealistically gender-neutral, since girls are shown wearing different fashions, but Pa and Ma are also both cooking in the kitchen. It seems really refreshing compared to some of the newer books that my son has received.

Getting back to the Construction Site book, it has five characters, all using he/his pronouns. It’s understandable given the assumption that boys like stories about big construction equipment like dump trucks, but it just struck us as wrong somehow. So we’ve started alternating the genders of the characters. I notice my husband and I swap different characters different times (so sometimes the Bulldozer is a he and sometimes a she), but our son doesn’t seem to notice or mind yet. Someday he’ll call us on it, and we’ll talk a bit about boys and girls and what they can do, and that will kick off probably a life-long conversation about gender.

I should also note: We’ve never swapped when the story is focused on a single character, so Pete the Cat stays firmly male, no many how times I have to sing the “I love my white shoes” song.

Does anyone else do this?

Saying “Neigh” to Equestria Girls

Previously, I’ve written about obstacles for women in the STEM pipeline, noting that despite the fact that STEM jobs are more stable and better paying, women only make up 24% of the STEM work force, and wondering whether we are gifting our little girls with the same kinds of opportunities and dreamscapes that we lavish upon our sons.

When discussing the GoldieBlox Kickstarter last fall I asked:

Is part of the problem with keeping women in the “STEM pipeline” that young women don’t ever consider STEM careers an option in the first place? If so, is it possible that the toys kids play with impact who they become?

In a 2012 New York Times piece entitled “Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States,” Christianne Corbett, co-author of a 2010 report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” reinforces this idea, stating:

“We see that very early in childhood — around age 4 — gender roles in occupations appear to be formed…[and that] women are less likely to go into science careers, although they are clearly capable of succeeding.”

Researchers say these cultural forces are strong in the United States, Britain and Canada but far less pervasive in Russia, Asia and the Middle East, which have a much higher proportion of women in science and engineering.

Something in our culture seems to be steering girls away from STEM careers. Is it personal preference, the rigid STEM stereotype, or women’s predisposition toward perfectionism, I’ve wondered–and why do young women develop this ubiquitous predisposition toward perfectionism that author, educator, and founder of the Girl’s Leadership Institutue, Rachel Simmons, has documented in her TED talk and books, anyway?

In my own research, when I asked girls What is a good girl to you? I was told: It’s a girl who has to do everything perfect, never disappoint anyone, be liked by everyone.

My gut has said that somehow this has to go back to the sexualized dolls that little girls play with–dolls like the Bratz and Monster High lines–that haughtily populate the pink aisles of big-box retail. In fact, research that Lego completed in order to develop their girls’ line, Lego Friends, highlights just how closely girls actually do identify with their dolls:

“The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. Girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig—she became an avatar [in a way that boys at play did not]. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, would also seem to agree with my premise. In a recent Huffington Post piece, “From Pony to Person: The Disturbing Evolution of My Little Pony,” Orenstein is quoted as saying:

You want a sexualized, self-objectifying girl? Give her sexualized, objectified dolls. You don’t? Have some conversations with the other parents in your community about the potential impact of self-sexualization and self-objectification on girls’ development–including negative body image, eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, poor sexual choices, etc.

Which is all to say that, despite GeekMom Kelly’s charming review of the recent release My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, my suggestion would be that parents steer clear of this franchise. The point of the movie is to sell dolls, after all, and the Equestria dolls are simply Hasbro’s entry into the “Goth Barbie” market–a niche that alleges to reduce bullying and encourage diversity and compassion for differences but follows through by offering an array of nearly identical, long-haired, slim-waisted, mascara’d figures in miniskirts and jackboots.

In a country where women are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinners for their children, I say: Give girls the skills and emotional wherewithal they need to develop confidence and gain stable, lucrative jobs. America, put that Equestria Girl back on its pink shelf! Instead, I offer this short selection of fun, empowering, alternative gifts for little girls:

GoldieBlox toy at Maker Faire 2012. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

1. GoldieBlox

Girls read Goldie’s story, are introduced to Goldie and her friends, then construct and play with the accompanying pulley-system toy, wedding the characters together with basic principles of engineering as they play. According to GoldieBlox creator Debbie Sterling’s research, girls love reading, stories, and characters. That is why the first GoldieBlox toy comes with a book. The solidly-constructed figurines are also designed for stand-alone creative play that girls crave.

2. Mission Math: Sabotage at the Space Station

In describing this recently-released iTunes app designed by two parents looking to engage and support a middle-school daughter struggling with math, says:

Players, ideally girls 9 and up, create an avatar out of 24 million combinations of characteristics, and work in teams to save a space station. They need to use their budding math and computer science skills to repair the science lab. Little boys can play, too — but they need to adopt a girl avatar and operate in a world filled with strong women leaders.

“The chief medical officer is female, her mentor is female, the head of the secret agency is female,” said David, who runs business and operations for the Washington D.C.-based company. “We were highly conscious about developing a narrative where women have scientific or organizational leadership roles.”

3. Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself

The Nick and Tesla series does what toy manufacturers claim can’t be done: it creates something fun and educational for both boys and girls.

In this first book in a projected series, our twin, tween protagonists, brother Nick and sister Tesla, are thrust into a neighborhood kidnapping heist after unexpectedly coming to live with their mad-scientist uncle, Newt. Left to their own devices as Uncle Newt bathes away an experiment gone awry, the twins use the the tools in their uncle’s basement lab to build the bottle rocket that opens the narrative (instructions included).

Complete instructions for four additional projects (including a “do it yourself electromagnet picker upper” and a “mints and soda fueled robocat dog distractor”) are sprinkled throughout the rest of this absolutely engaging mystery-adventure read, simultaneously providing kids with a great story and an excellent entry-level activity book.

Note: I nabbed my copy at Book Expo but you’ll probably have to wait until November to get your hands on this new series from Quirk Publishers. That’s okay, it’ll be a perfect gift for the holidays! The second installment, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage, is slated for release just in time for Valentine’s Day.

4. Lottie Doll

When they created their very-adorable Lottie doll line, Britain’s Arklu doll-making company used research about what young girls actually look like and what activities they enjoy engaging in to design their fully-posable dolls. As a result, the Lottie doll’s dimensions are those of a typical 9-year-old, while her ballet tutu, concert togs, picnic romper, ballgown, or jodhpurs all manage to be fun (often pink), yet age-appropriate. As the website explains:

Our philosophy is simple: everything we do is inspired by the memory of all things girlish and lovely. We want to create dolls and products that are super-cute, fun, and educational, that give childhood back to children and offer great value too.

I had a chance to speak with reps from Arklu last winter during Toy Fair ’13 and was told that if this first line was successful, the company would look to expand Lottie’s interests to include, among other hobbies, sports and science.

5. ElectriCute

At this point, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about research. This last suggestion isn’t a toy so much as a resource–it’s the first video from SparkFun’s new ElectriCute video series about e-textiles. This project explains the ins and outs of working with fiber optic fabric and is a fun, gorgeous, imminently do-able entry-level electronics project for girls!

Have any additions to my list? Leave links in the comments!