“The Practical Princess,” by Jay Williams, illustrated by Friso Henstra. important speeches. My daughter asked to hear the story again the next night, its equal rights narrative and kid-friendly illustrations already developing more traction than a hundred of my not-sosubtle hints that princesses don’t actually do much of anything very interesting anyway. I kept reading. She liked all of the princess stories, but less of a hit in my book was Jay Williams’ “The Practical Princess.” While the heroine, Bedilia, does manage to think herself out of a few jams, she’s still an elevated beauty who marries the prince. And in an equally sexist turn, the story’s men and boys are generally hairy and useless. More nuanced is the anthology’s final princess installment, “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet” In this tale, by Jeanne Desy, the princess must deal with the prince’s discomfort at her being taller than he is. So she pretends that she can’t stand. Through a series of situations in which she gives up qualities and skills and possessions that are important to her, eventually even her beloved dog, this princess finally learns that what matters is being true to herself She turns runaway bride, tries out some spells and digs a grave by hand. She does marry a prince eventually, but at least it’s the right one. The book contains eight sections: “R is for Rebel,” “Subversive Science and Dramas of Ecology,” “Work, Workers, and Money,” “Organize,” “Imagine,” “History and Heroes,” “A Person’s a Person” and “Peace.” Even with the specific political and historical context that Mickenberg and Nel provide for each chapter, the book’s arrangement feels fluid, as if any of the stories could fit in any of the sectionsa sort of mimetic device that illustrates the ways in which all of these issues are interwoven. There are some clunkers and a few inclusions that presume on academic interest more than they inspire reading. Take this bit from The Socialist Primer: “Is this a spider? It is. “What is its other name? The Capitalist System. Has he got an ant in his web? He has. What’s the ant’s other name? Workingman.” Still, the excerpts from radical primers in the “R is for Rebel” chapter show how easily ideology can be distilled down to the ABCs. And more important than any particular ideology, as the editors explain in their introduction, is to acknowledge that ideology has been worming its way into children’s literature for as long as there’s been any. In 1690, the New England Primer’s entry for “A!’ read, In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned All. As I wrote this review, the Texas State Board of Education was holding a contentious hearing about a proposed requirement that public school science teachers teach the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, so Mickenberg and Nel don’t need to convince me that ideology influences science. But for the unconvinced, the book’s “Subversive Science” section includes Red Ribbons for Emma, a story about the ways in which corporate pollution affects Native American communities, and William Montgomery Brown’s 1932 Science and History for Girls and Boys. While “Bolshevik Bishop” Brown’s biography is fascinating, his writing is all over the place. Regardless, some passages ring inconveniently true, as in: “We asked science to help us produce wealth, but we never asked it to help us to share or, as we say, distribute it. What we need is the help of science all round in planning to produce the physical and cultural necessities of the world and to place them within the reach of all.” In contrast to the Bolshevik Bishop’s pontificating, Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo: A Drama of Ecology spins a tragically funny tale out of what happens when good scientific intentionsin this case, spraying Borneo’s villages with DDT to kill mosquitoesend up destroying a culture’s ecosystem. And speaking of culture: While the widely circulated list of books supposedly on Sarah Palin’s ban-list was at least exaggerated and at worst a fabrication, the place of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the top of the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for five years running proves how books that question societal normseven wildly popular booksare received by the self-appointed gatekeepers of normal society. The problem with the Potter book is apparently that it “encouraged children to disobey authority.” In other words, books about real mavericks get into trouble. The kind of trouble that Tales for Little Rebels encourages mostly involves the 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 9, 2009
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