Saturday, September 3, 2016

INFO 268 Picture Book Depictions of Family: An Unexpected Comparison Across Decades

This week, in my INFO 268 History of Youth Literature course, we have been tasked with locating two picture books from different decades that depict families. I looked through my family's bookshelves and have selected an unlikely pair. Separated by roughly four decades, the two books that I will be comparing are the following:
  • The Stupids Step Out, written by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall, copyright 1974
  • Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, copyright 2015

From the outset, the two titles appear to be very different. The Stupids Step Out is intended to be ridiculous and comical, whereas Last Stop on Market Street is beautifully thoughtful and inspirational. The recognition garnered by each title similarly falls on opposite ends of the spectrum, with The Stupids Step Out securing a position as the 62nd most frequently challenged book of the 2000s decade and Last Stop of Market Street earning countless accolades including the 2016 Newbery Medal, a 2016 Caldecott Honor, and 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. All the same, I found the two titles to be an oddly perfect pair to look at in tandem.

First of all, I want to acknowledge Professor Melba Tomeo for starting out this week's video message to our class as she did. You may not be able to tell from this screenshot, but she has a pipe in her mouth to go along with her mustache. She explained that it is her "impression of every father in every children's book probably right up through the 1980s. Dad's always in his chair, smoking his pipe and reading a paper." Now cut forward to my analysis...

Published in 1974, and even though it is farcical at its core, The Stupids Step Out plays out this exact stereotype, featuring the father Stanley Stupid in his chair and with his pipe on the first page. While there are ridiculous features on the page such as a picture of a tree labeled "flower" and Stanley is wearing a tacky palm tree tie, I don't believe that the stereotypical father imagery is intended as farce.

In terms of family power dynamics, I also think it is telling that the story starts out only showing the father and that the first line is: "One day Stanley Q. Stupid had an idea." The punchline is that "This was unusual," but still, he is established as the thinker of the family and the one who leads them on their journey.

In contrast, check out the opening pages of Last Stop on Market Street. Rather than prominently featuring a solitary man planted stationary in his resting chair, there is a mix of people, including people with different skin tones and hair colors, who fluidly move as they are connected in community. Regarding "connection," just notice many people are holding hands! 

The first pages of Last Stop on Market Street also happen to feature a tree, but it is a living one and not just a mislabeled representation of a tree. In addition, as if there couldn't be a greater difference when it comes to agency, Last Stop on Market Street's opening lines are with: "CJ pushed through the church doors, skipped down the steps. The outside air smelled like freedom..." In this way, we are introduced to the main protagonist, the child CJ. CJ has power to "push through" and the joy to "skip." He is free.

Moving along. When turning the first page of The Stupids Step Out, we meet the entire family, which is a stereotypically nuclear Caucasian family. Father Stupid is married to Mrs. Stupid and they have a son Buster Stupid, a daughter Petunia Stupid, one dog, and one cat. They are undeniably ridiculous in terms of how they dress and do things like stand upside down, and yet the family itself is completely conventional in terms of societal norms related to family structure. 

Regarding plot, Stanley announces, "The Stupids are stepping out today" and the rest of the family is "delighted." Looking at the illustrations, it is interesting to note that Stanley stands alone with his finger triumphantly pointed in the air while the mother and daughter are mirror images, with perfectly feminine bows in their hair and their hands touching their faces, as if in glowing admiration of Stanley.

Turning the first page of Last Stop on Market Street coincidentally echoes this plot. We meet the central family of the story. But, in this case, the family unit that is depicted is simply CJ and his nana. There is no indication in the book as to whether or not Nana is CJ's sole caregiver or just taking her grandson out on a Sunday afternoon. Regardless, the family unit that is highlighted is markedly unconventional when compared with the Stupids.

You can also see in the illustration above that, as CJ and his nana step out, there is rain falling. CJ asks, "How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?" Rather than disparage the rain, CJ's nana values it: "Trees get thirsty, too...don't you see that big one drinking through a straw?" Getting wet is not an inconvenience. Instead, the rain is acknowledged as life-giving.

Meanwhile, as Mrs. Stupid announces that it is "Bath Time!" - note how she is allowed to provide leadership when it comes to a conventional women's task related to cleaning - there is no water. Daughter Petunia asks, "But where's the water?," and father Stanley answers, "Don't be stupid...if we fill up the tub, our clothes will get wet." This is surely silly, but it is also interesting to see how wetness is an inconvenience, even when it is warranted and expected. The page also ends with Mrs. Stupid telling her children, "Listen to your father." Even when the father is being absurd, and when he chides his daughter to not be "stupid," he is to be listened to.

The image of the Stupids self-contained in their waterless bathtub is interesting to juxtapose with CJ and his nana after they board the public bus (they don't travel in a personal car like the Stupids). Rather than closing themselves off physically, the two are depicted with openness, inviting others into their lives as they shake hands with a blind man and are surrounded by other diverse passengers. Parallel to Petunia, CJ asks a question, "How come that man can't see?" and Nana answers, "Boy, what do you know about seeing?" This is strangely reminiscent of Stanley's "don't be stupid" comment, but rather than continuing with a punchline explanation, Nana finishes philosophically: "Some people watch the world with their ears."

Returning to the Stupids, we learn that their journey has taken them to visit Stanley's parents, Grandfather and Grandmother Stupid. In line with the male patriarchy motif, Grandfather Stupid is the one who answers the door and Grandmother Stupid is relegated to residing the the closet "where she always is." This is certainly meant to be ridiculous, but it is also somewhat cringeworthy to me when doing this analysis. 

Also cringeworthy, the main joke is that Grandfather Stupid doesn't recognize his own family. Having had a grandmother with dementia who did eventually come to not recognize me, I can unfortunately see this joke falling flat for some people, even though this was obviously not how the author intended it to be read.

The theme of "recognition" is played out in the total opposite way in Last Stop on Market Street. In this case, even when all of the passengers are essentially strangers to one another, the music of a guitar player is enough to bring them together such that when his song ends, "Everyone on the bus clapped, even the boys in the back." We are shown how even strangers can recognize the value and humanity of one another.

Finally, as the journeys and days end in these two books, there is food. Of course, just as the books have starkly contrasted as much as they have exhibited parallels, the Stupids indulge in ridiculously decadent mashed potato sundaes with butterscotch syrup while CJ and his nana serve meals at a food kitchen. 

As luck would have it, both books even feature dogs in the illustrations at this point. The Stupid family's dog sits at the dinner table, wearing a Native American headdress, which is painfully insensitive when you think about the fact that it is intended to be as "stupid" as Mrs. Stupid hearing a cat on her head or Mr. Stupid wearing socks on his ears. Meanwhile, in Last Stop on Market Street, the smiling dog pictured is a homeless man's companion as they wait in line for their meal.

This is how CJ's journey ends. While he had demonstrated some resistance earlier in the book, he comes to feel "glad we came." Upon admitting this, he worries that "his nana might laugh her deep laugh, but she didn't." She is simply glad, too.

In the world of the Stupids, there is also a tidy resolution with the Stupids going to sleep upside down, with their feet on their pillows. The conventional gender roles also close out the book with Mrs. Stupid kissing her husband on the cheek and thanking him for the day. The final line is "It certainly has been fun," and the book indeed functions for the purpose of plain and simple fun. 

While I have provided some serious critique of the Stupids, I can still appreciate it for its silliness. My son, whose favorite books are the Captain Underpants series, spotted the cover and was immediately interested based on the title and cute drawings. I don't worry about his ability to spot what is silly, and I am definitely not someone who would ever propose banning the book. Still, I am glad - and believe that it is essential - that the title shares our family bookshelves with plenty of other stories such as Last Stop on Market Street so that my children may meet a variety of families who go on a number of different journeys.

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