April 05, 2018


Owl Always Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag. By Rob Sanders. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. Random House. $17.99.

     Although many kids’ books are designed to reach the widest possible audience, others are self-limited to specific groups by design. Sandra Magsamen’s sweet little board books, especially the ones with bound-in cute shapes or characters aimed at enhancing the very simple narratives, are for the very youngest children and are intended to be as participatory as possible for infants up to age three or four. A perfect example is Owl Always Love You! Projecting from the top of the book, tightly bound into the back cover, is a smiling mostly-green owl with huge eyes, an upside-down triangle for a nose, and a heart-shaped bright red mouth. This little plush animal virtually duplicates the larger of two owls shown on the book’s cover – the attachment to the story is handled to perfection. And there is more: the bound-in plush owl is actually a finger puppet, so the adult reading the book can make it move back and forth and seem to look down into the book’s pages – its eyes already are cast downward, as if toward the illustrations, so this works quite well. The text, simple as it is, is neatly worked into the appearance both of the larger owl and of the smaller one on the cover, whose body is mostly yellow. Within the book’s pages, only the littler owl is seen; the bigger, parental one looks down from above the binding and participates in the story to the extent that the adult reader arranges things. The tie-ins between the words and the use of the finger puppet are very well done. For example, Magsamen writes, “If you fly up high in a tree, I’ll fly there, too, to see what you see.” The illustration shows the little yellow owl near the top of a tree, looking up at such an angle that the finger puppet’s eyes, looking down, seem to stare directly at the in-book picture. Everything is handled with this level of skill in Owl Always Love You! The result is a book that only looks simple: it fits the age level at which it is aimed perfectly, it is designed for the specific circumstances of an adult reading lovingly to a very young child in a participatory environment, and it is created in such a way as to fit into that environment as smoothly as possible.

     The target age range is older, ages 5-8, and the subject matter much weightier, in Rob Sanders’ Pride, but this too is a self-limited book intended for a specific and narrow audience. It is for gay couples who have children living with them, and perhaps for traditional families whose children interact regularly with such couples or have expressed curiosity about them. Despite the age range Sanders writes for, this is not an introductory book about gay rights or the LGBTQ+ community – it is strictly for those who know the topic already and are completely accepting of it. It is a book of hagiography, making activist Harvey Milk and rainbow-flag designer Gilbert Baker into larger-than-life heroes, painting their lives in colors as bright as those of the flag itself while brushing off any opposition to their ideas and activities as mean-spirited if not downright evil. There is plenty of precedent for handling stories like this in this way: books for African-American children and families often portray white people, especially those who lived in the days of legal segregation, as typecast, one-dimensional evildoers. Sanders and illustrator Steven Salerno do not go quite that far, but Pride states directly that the only motivation of Milk and Baker was “to protest inequality and unjust laws,” making it hard for young children to understand how such laws could exist. In one especially dramatic illustration, Salerno shows Milk addressing a huge and completely faceless crowd – only Milk is seen as an individual, with all the crowd members, whether favoring his views or opposing them, simply being blobs of color. The text here says, “Some people listened. A few agreed. Most did not.” But how is that possible, children may ask, when the only thing Milk was talking about was ending “inequality and unjust laws”? Adults will have to fill in a considerable amount of background for young readers of an inquisitive bent. That necessity, and the extremely (and deliberately) unbalanced nature of the narrative here, result in a (+++) overall rating for the book. However, the limited audience at which Pride is directed will have no qualms about rating it (++++) – for that audience, the book will come across as Sanders and Salerno intend, as an assertion of pride in the rainbow flag and the people who brought it into being.

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