I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont, illustrated by David Catrow.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts, 2004.
Board book, 32 pages.
I Like Myself is the story of an exuberant and imaginative little girl* and her dog. The girl states in first person narration that she likes herself in a variety of ways and circumstances.
Each page spread has at least one sentence and some as many as three. The text is rhyming, but the rhymes are at times spread over multiple pages. This book reads like a Seuss imitation, with additional words at the end as padding. It felt like some of Seuss’ affirming early readers, but with a larger vocabulary and a huge disconnect between the words and the pictures. The pace was uneven and relied heavily on the pictures to form a cohesive story. Unfortunately the pictures were even more of a disappointment.
The art was odd. Not weird in a whimsical, fun way, or a challenging modern style. Some pictures have incredibly detailed backgrounds while others are mostly unused space. It is difficult to tell if a character is reoccurring without flipping back and forth repeatedly. The main character appears to have dreadlocks. Great! That’s part of why I bought this. Except that on some pages the dreadlocks seem normal and on others they look ill-maintained. And there is this text:
“Even when I look a mess,
I still don’t like me any less,
’cause nothing in this world, you know,
can change what’s deep inside, and so…” p. 18-19
And the picture. The picture depicts our protagonist in bed, with hair apparently straightened AND in an afro. I haven’t been able to come up with any positive interpretation of these pages. At the least, it displays shocking ignorance. Once your hair is dreadlocked, it does not turn straight again overnight. None my family or close friends wear dreads, yet I have managed to learn this very basic fact, while illustrator David Catrow has not. This is why we need #ownvoices and allies in publishing.
Upon closer examination, one can see foreshadowing of this in the cover image. The dreadlocks there seem to split into smaller, individual curly strands, which I thought represented smaller dreads clumping together as the protagonist spun. I assumed this was just the art style, but stand corrected.
There are two recurring characters in the book besides the girl* and her dog. One is a white boy with glasses who appears to be jeering at the girl on page 14 (on page 15 the text appears “And I don’t care in any way/what someone else may think or say”). The second is a white policeman who appears on page two (where it looks like he has a dog on his head). These two characters are then seen on page 21, staring at the main character and dog as they ride a Suessian concoction similar to a bicycle down the street. Why a white police officer and a boy who had formerly mocked her are observing (police officer with whistle in lips and upraised club) is unclear, but they are not applauding.
After this a section begins where the girl states she would still like herself with “fleas or warts” and imagines a variety of mostly animal parts befalling her. Like most of the book, the illustrations make no sense, either on their own or contextually when read with the text. Yes, the text describes to some degree what is seen in the illustrations. But no effort is made to make this understandable.
Another creepy page has text about being wild and tame. The girl and her dog are shown holding a balloon and laughing wildly at a gigantic lion cowering inside a cage with a tear dripping from his eye. (p. 6 & 7) Even the non-racially insensitive pages make no sense. The book has no cohesive style. Some pages have a richly textured background and others are plain.
The true test is to leave it out, let the children interact with it, and see what they say. They did not like this book. My pre-reader was confused and quizzed the readers – what’s wrong with this book? He couldn’t figure out the narrative without the words and was disturbed by the sudden changes at the end of the book.
N particularly didn’t like the way the character “kept changing, what’s wrong”. The message of self acceptance didn’t get through to these normally savvy kids – I doubt a board book audience will take away a message of loving oneself no matter what. N lingered over the page with straightened hair, but didn’t comment.
About Board Books
Lots of people think that writing (and illustrating) children’s books would be easy – they are wrong. Children’s books have many specific types, and while it is possible to write a book that appeals to different groups, it’s less common than you’d think. Board books and early readers are some of the most difficult children’s books to write well, hence Dr. Seuss’ deserved fame.
A board book serves a dual purpose. The first use of a board book is for the child to interact with the book. Most children will be interacting independently with a board book, whether that complements an adult read-aloud or not. The book’s illustrations should tell a complete visual story that will engage a child whether flipping through the book or looking at a two-page spread. Secondly, it will be used for story time with a parent and child, so there need to be words to read aloud and a simple story understandable to a young child which ideally adds another dimension.
This is very difficult. Most board books tend to fall under either beloved classics parents don’t remind repeating ad nauseum (such as The Snowy Day) or short engaging works based on baby’s experiences of the world (such as Snow). Although there are board books featuring black characters, I’ve been having difficulty finding current board books authored by people of color – many are out of print.**
Do I recommend this book? No. The kids disliked it, Baby wasn’t engaged, and I had trouble mustering up the enthusiasm to examine it carefully for review. I like that Target has more non-white characters on their children’s shelves – hopefully in the future we’ll see more quality books featuring black characters actually written by people of color. Sadly the diverse board book market is too sparse for me to overlook any title until we can add other diverse board books to our growing collection. This will stay on our shelves for now.**
*I have identified this child as a girl for review since the character is wearing purple tights and a barberpole striped dress. However, nothing is particularly feminine about the drawing and no cues in the text or the rest of the illustrations identify the character’s gender. This book could be used with students who identify with a boy wearing a dress, although there are better options.
**I originally wrote this post in late January/early February when we got this book (pictures took a while). Since then I’ve bought approximately 15 board books and was able to identify some #ownvoices board books although sadly, many are out of print.