April 01, 2010

(++++) IN THE PINK

Pink Me Up. By Charise Mericle Harper. Knopf. $16.99.

The Very Little Princess. By Marion Dane Bauer. Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles. Random House. $12.99.

     Although both these books are intended for children roughly ages 5-9, they are so different in approach, seriousness and intensity – and even in format – that few kids will enjoy them equally at the same time. Pink Me Up, designed as a picture book, is light and amusing – albeit with an underlying message of some seriousness. It is all about the “Pink Girls Pink-nic” for a little girl bunny and her mother – and what happens when mama comes down with a sickness (pink spots all over her!) and cannot go. That turns the anticipated best day ever into the worst – until guess who steps forward to take mama’s place? Daddy! But the little girl protests, “It’s a PINK girl party! Boys are NOT pink!” But they can be, her father says, and finds a pink tie in his closet. Hmm…not enough…but it’s a start: “‘Don’t worry,’ says Daddy. ‘We just have to pink me up.’” And so they do, drawing pink polka dots on his shirt, taping pink stripes to his pants, putting pink stickers on his jacket, and more. Daddy looks so good, and he and his little girl have so much fun, that “all the girls want to PINK UP their daddies, just like me” – and Charise Mericle Harper, whose illustrations are as much fun as her story, shows six little girl rabbits imaging their daddies as a pink business bunny, a pink doctor bunny, a pink painter bunny, and so on. The book’s message, for parents who want to emphasize it, is one of avoiding gender stereotyping and simply enjoying people as people. But this is not really a “message” book – it ends with the little girl falling asleep as she dreams that “we’ll all live pinkishly ever after” and with an inside-back-cover picture of her cat wearing a pink hat – and it is fine just to take the story at face value and enjoy it from start to finish.

     There is pink all over the cover of The Very Little Princess, too, and the color figures in this short novel as well. But this is quite a serious book, and the color has serious implications, as Marion Dane Bauer explains in one of her many direct-to-the-reader comments: “:I could have told you that Zoey’s favorite color isn’t really pink, it’s purple. She used to like pink when she was a little girl, but now she prefers purple. And her mother has never noticed that she has grown beyond pink to purple. That’s just the way her mother is.” In fact, the way Zoey’s mother is – which becomes clear only gradually – lies at the heart of this tear-stained tale, which centers both on 10-year-old Zoey and on a tiny princess doll that Zoey finds at her grandmother’s house when her mother takes her there for the first time. Princess Regina, who (it turns out) has been Zoey’s mother’s and grandmother’s doll and dates back even farther than that in the family, wakes up and starts talking to Zoey after the girl inadvertently drops a tear on her. And Zoe, after getting over being startled by the living doll, is only too happy to take care of her – or, well, maybe not that happy. For the doll is princess-bossy, and the game of Princess and Servant, which Zoey remembers playing with her mother, is not much fun when the doll does all the ordering-around and expects Zoey to obey without question. Still, Zoey is glad to have something to do while her mother and grandmother…well, not fight exactly, but discuss something involving Zoey very seriously indeed. Bauer’s writing in this book is quite remarkable, giving the doll’s perspective as well as Zoey’s and creating some real depth of perception about a never-explained form of mental illness, in which Zoey’s mother’s mind is – “well, perhaps the best word is full. Her mind is so full, in fact, that she often doesn’t notice things like Zoey’s growing from pink to purple.” But tear-stained though the story is at times, it is not a simple tearjerker, thanks to Bauer’s skillful presentation. It is a story of the wonder of small things, of adjustment to life’s uncertainties and reversals, of understanding and acceptance of another person’s inability to connect – even when that person is one’s own mother. There is a tremendous amount packed into 122 pages here, and there is far more maturity in this doll-comes-to-life story than anyone would ever imagine from simply seeing the pretty pink figure on the cover.

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