When reading Maus one of my students (who was not from the West and was not “white”*) mentioned that having the characters represented as mice made them easier to relate to, since she just assumed the mice looked like her, whereas had they been drawn like white Westerners there would have been a stronger sense of estrangement (something I had not considered in terms of Art Spiegelman’s work before). I thought of this again when looking up something about Groovy Girls (my daughter loves them) and found a thread on Berkeley Parents Network about getting dolls that don’t look white. Even if you vary your dolls’ complexions or read books that represent different kind of human families, they have to look like something, but there are tons and tons of books that have animals and tons of kids play with stuffed animals (rather than dolls), opening up more imaginative possibilities. Some books leave open more possibilities than others. The Five Little Monkey books seem to be a large family of monkeys (five siblings, they sleep in one bed — sometimes and sometimes bunk beds— and sometimes they jump on the big bed) with just a mom; whether or not it is a single mom, a divorced mom, a widowed mom, a mom whose wife is away, a mom whose husband is away, is not clear to me from the books themselves. It’s pretty nice that the monkeys could represent such a range of backgrounds (totally nondescript monkey family). In the final scene of Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake (formerly Don’t Wake Up Mama, more on that later) the Mom appears to maybe be flirting with the firefighter, but she could also just be happy about the cake (if she is flirting, is it just friendly? questioning her sexual identity? unfaithful? exploring her new options?). Given the Mama’s situation, I got curious enough about the author’s background (Eileen Christelow) that I looked it up, thinking I would do a quick, always problematic biographical reading of the monkeys’ situation. Luckily it didn’t really change my mind that the situation is very open to interpretation. Another parental figure may show up in one of the other books, we haven’t read all of them yet but we are going to soon (we’ve read four of them over and over and over again). My daughter has Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake memorized and as cute as I find it when she says “Don’t spill the oil!” in the process of reciting the book, I need a little more variety in my life.
*All these terms are so problematic/meaningless/too meaningful.