Today’s guest post is by Kim Werker, a Vancouver-based writer and editor.
I remember learning about dinosaurs and fossils when I was in kindergarten. I had such a romantic fascination with them. How disappointing to learn only a few years ago that the beloved brontosaurus really should go by another name.
Maybe it’s our never having encountered an actual dinosaur that makes them so fascinating. Or maybe it’s their storied size. Or maybe it’s literature, which so vividly imagines and personifies them for us from the time our eyes can focus on the page.
My nostalgia for my childhood love of dinosaurs took on new depth when I walked into my local library with my two-and-a-half-year-old son Owen a few months ago, and listened as he belched out his first capital-I important question to the poor woman behind the desk who seemed as stuck for an age-appropriate answer as I was. “Why dinosaurs are essinct?” he asked. She blanched.
Though I took his question seriously and embarked on a fairly fruitless search for books that tackle such a question satisfactorily for a reader who has understanding neither of time nor death, I quickly learned that fictional dinosaurs satisfy his curiosity just as well. I’ll leave him to decide when he’s a little older whether to have nightmares about balls of fire crashing into Earth.
My childhood interest in dinosaurs was different than Owen’s. At just three, he can name a dozen species on sight (I never went beyond the most common handful). He is a cataloguer of his interests in a way my friends lead me to believe is typical of their sons, too. Before they’re potty trained, these boys school us on the differences between backhoe loaders, skid steer loaders and excavators. It leads me to wonder why. Why is there such a stereotype about boys and vehicles and dinosaurs and sport balls? Why does my son embody the stereotype so fully when I tried so hard from the beginning to expose him to things like unicorns and rainbows? Why does he correct my mislabels of bulldozers while he shows no interest in princes or princesses?
It seems a young child’s interests are all or nothing. Owen loves dinosaurs, every sort of vehicle, Busytown, land animals and sea creatures. About other things he may show interest for a few minutes at a time, but when it comes to these very stereotypically boyish things he is known to spend an entire hour moving from zooming toy cars to flipping through a book about trains to flying a helicopter through the air to putting out pretend fires to squealing for me to protect him from a hungry T. Rex.
I try to talk to him about princes and princesses, and he changes the subject. I offered once to make him a tutu after he commented on a little girl wearing one in the grocery store. He put his hand on my arm, looked at me without a hint of humour, and said in a quiet voice, “No tutus.”
One evening, when my brother phoned for help buying Owen a book for his birthday, our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Go find a display of picture books and tell me about one that jumps out at you.”
Him: “Mmm. There’s one here with cupcakes on the cover. It looks cool. Exciting.”
Me: … “What else do you see?”
Him: Shuffles around, muttering under his breath. “Well, there’s one here with a dinosaur driving a fire truck, and–“
Me: “Stop right there. He’ll love it. Doesn’t matter what’s inside.”
Helping an uncle buy a good gift is different from a parental desire to expose one’s child to great stories, delightful art and skillful writing. I admit I had low expectations for the quality of this book my brother found, such is my experience of books banking on gendered stereotypes, but I also know that a book involving both dinosaurs and rescue vehicles would be a sure hit, which is what a gift from an uncle to his nephew should be.
Imagine our collective delight when we discovered that the book, Dinosaur Rescue, by Penny Dale, is actually gorgeously illustrated and skillfully written. There isn’t a hint of lazy pandering in it. And imagine our further delight when we discovered she’s writing a series of books that involve dinosaurs and vehicles. We’ve since added Dinosaur Zoom! into frequent rotation.
Going to the library with Owen, I’ve become humbled by the importance of book covers for children’s books. He cannot read, but he navigates the low shelves of picture books with the discerning eye of a kid who knows exactly what he wants. Pulling books half off the shelf as he goes, he only stops when he sees one of his stereotypical interests – a train, a race car, a dinosaur, a spaceship. Only once in his life has he pulled out a pink title (and even that one was more of a muted purple).
Determined to raise a son who doesn’t shun things that are “girly”, I’m frequently at a loss in the face of his dogged determination to ignore all the other stereotypes I try to nudge in his direction. At a loss, but no less fascinated by it. I look forward to seeing how his interests evolve as he grows up.
Evolution. There’s a topic we’ll no doubt have fun exploring together in books.
Thank you for sharing this, Kim! Kim’s next book, Make It Mighty Ugly, is due out in September. She occasionally writes a blog called A Short Read about her adventures reading with her three-year-old, and you can find more of her work at www.kimwerker.com. Dinosaur Rescue, the third book in Penny Dale’s dinosaur series, is out now – you can take a look inside below.