As the author of 10,000 Dresses, a children's book about a girl who very firmly does not identify with the [male] gender she was labeled with at birth, it's probably not a big surprise that any kids' lit that deals with gender (and all its congeries of related themes) interests me greatly. So, I'd like to talk about a "how babies are made" book that blew apart even my very progressive (or so I thought!) ideas about gender and biology. All this with bold and colorful illustrations to boot! I'm talking about the new picture book What Makes a Baby, written by Cory Silverberg, and illustrated by Fiona Smyth. (Full disclosure: although What Makes a Baby was originally self-published, it has subsequently been picked up by Seven Stories Press, the same folks who published 10,000 Dresses. That said 1) I don't know Cory at all (not even on Facebook!), 2) no one at Seven Stories has been told I'm writing this book review and 3) - most important of all - I'm really really really bad at faking enthusiasm for things I don't like! So, with those provisos in mind...
First let me talk about the art. The illustrations, as I said, are rendered in a style that I personally like a lot, though I know some people find such work grating. I would describe it as Todd Parr (who I love) meets Keith Haring (ditto). It also hearkens back to the post-hippy kids' book art which cropped up a lot in my own late 1970's childhood: for instance Daniel Pinkwater's The Big Orange Splot (another book I'm a fan of). To wit, the style looks very hand-rendered in magic marker: everything has a thick black outline, and the colors you get, if not Red, Yellow, or Blue, certainly don't get any more exotic than their preschool offspring, Green, Purple and Orange. It instantly evokes the era when we were all free to be you and me ARTISTS, and we had all probably just been eating something freaky far-out like tofu or frozen yogurt. Or carob. I'm just sayin'. Again, personally I LIKE this art style: I'm a big fan of big shapes, striking yet simple composition, and high contrast colors.
And the fact that it evokes the various strains of 70's utopianism, I for one appreciate, and find thoroughly fitting. (And I am not using the term 'utopian' dismissively, please note!)
Okay- now on to the text and the content thereof. As I said earlier it blew me away- in that it shook up idées fixes I didn't even know I had. A tiny sample of text, I think, will show how very differently this book handles ye olde narration of conception: "When grown-ups want to make a baby they need to get an egg from one body and sperm from another body. They also need a place where a baby can grow."
This is all completely true and accurate, and yet, notice how many ye olde words DON'T appear in the above, words like man, women, mother, father, male, female, penis, vagina. In fact, none of these terms are mentioned ONCE in the entire text! Meanwhile, the book describes and depicts the uterus, also a c-section birth, provides an emotionally vivid portrayal of labor, PLUS it gives a very child-friendly explanation of DNA, so please don't think the book is vague or skimpy in anyway. It just makes the decision to do away completely with any formulation of father=man=penis=penetration=sperm, or of mother=woman=vagina=receptive=egg + uterus. (In the old model, both egg and uterus are always furnished by the same woman, of course! For how could it be otherwise? [=sarcasm smiley here])
By point of comparison, here's an image from the book *I* grew up with - "How Babies Are Made"- showing the, ahem, titular moment. (I wish I could find the full text online somewhere- I would love to do a sentence by sentence comparison of these two books! I'm sure the language used is VERRRY different, every step of the away. But I think this picture alone rather proves my point. (Many a dissertation could be derived just from THAT BEDSPREAD.)
Anyway, I for one am thrilled at the arrival of this book - Cory's book, not the bedspread one. I live in the SF Bay Area, where a bazillion people I know of every gender identification are in every sort of family configuration you can imagine. The field-day that the press had a few years back with Thomas Beatie, dubbed 'the pregnant man,' seems absolutely antediluvian to many of us. As a new(ish) internet meme asserts: "Some women have penises. Some men have vaginas. Get Over It."
Free to be, you and me, kids.
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First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
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Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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