A #KidLit Book That Exhibits Everything I Dislike In Literature (But My Kid Loved It)

Recently, my six-year-old left the library with two thick books in her little hands: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and its sequel, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed, both written by Holly Grant, illustrated by Josie Portillo, and published by Random House Children’s Books. These novels feature a child named Anastasia McCrumpet who falls into the clutches of a pair of mysterious, silver-toothed “great-aunts” who live in a former Victorian psychiatric institution.

My daughter can read on her own, but she’s not quite able to read middle grade books, so I read the first in this series out loud to her.

Ugh.

It was like reading a 294-page tongue-twister thanks to the author’s penchant for overstuffed sentences, alliteration, and arcane vocabulary. Here’s a random selection (similar examples abound on virtually every page):

(1) Anastasia soon discovered that every day at St. Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather. Standing outside one week later, after seven days of rain and fog, she blinked through the twilit mizzle at the moss fuzzing the asylum bog. (page 59)

(2) Because would-be sickie Mrs. McCrumpet had consulted every expert medic and smooth-talking quack in Mooselick, Anastasia was familiar with many pills and syrups and cure-alls. For example, she knew that waving a bottle of smelling salts beneath someone’s snoot was supposed to jozzle them awake. (page 94)

This wasn’t a quick read, but I powered through it because my daughter wanted to find out who Anastasia’s “great-aunts” really were and why they took her to St. Agony’s. Honestly, I got sucked into the story too, enough to convince me to keep reading even though the novel contained many of my literary pet-peeves, including (but not limited to):

  • Coincidences that resolve the conflict.

Basically, a couple of half-baked characters show up near the end, save the day with random powers, and then turn out to be more than merely superheroes. Some could argue that there are causal connections between these events, but they are weak at best. These characters come out of the blue.

  • Unnecessary negative emphasis on physical characteristics.

How do you know who a villain is? By their unibrow, and Anastasia even refers to an unsavory character as “The Monobrow” instead of using her name.

I also didn’t like certain descriptions in the novel, such as this one, which presents larger body-types in an unfavorable manner for comedic effect:

From somewhere in the house crooned a noise like EEEEEEEE-ooooooooooaaaa. Of course, it was just St. Agony’s settling into its foundations, like a lady with a large rump trying to squeeze into her bikini bottoms. (page 52)

I found myself cringing several times while reading this book.

  • No diversity.

All of the characters in this 2015 book are white. Penguin Random House should try harder to offer alternatives to the homogeneously white narratives that already flood the market. They should publish books that (1) reflect the identities of readers from non-white backgrounds, and (2) introduce readers from racially homogenous families and communities to fictional friends from diverse backgrounds. Fictional friends are no substitute for real-life experiences, but it’s a start.

Conclusion:

I used this book as tool to teach my daughter about plot structure, kindness/acceptance, and the importance of diversity in literature. Our discussions were interesting, and I’m happy to report that my commentary did not ruin her enjoyment of the story. We will read the second book of the series together–we already have it from the library–but it’s too soon for me to commit to the third book, which is scheduled for release next month (August 2017).  My daughter might have to read that one on her own. She is much closer in age to its intended audience than I am anyway.

At the risk of “spoiling” one small piece of the plot, here’s what my six-year-old had to say about The League of Beastly Dreadfuls:

“It’s a good book because I liked it. It shows you how important librarians are.”

Yes, it does. I have nothing to add about the lovely librarian in the story, but when it comes to real-life librarians, we are certainly grateful. Thanks to them, my daughter has access to books I wouldn’t necessarily choose for her, and I think that’s a good thing.

21 thoughts on “A #KidLit Book That Exhibits Everything I Dislike In Literature (But My Kid Loved It)

  1. ‘Respectful dissent is welcome.’ I like that and thank you for it.
    There’s a prestigious university near where I live. A student entered the exam room recently and found that the four portraits of famous people who have added to the prestige of the university have had their white faces blanked out. This is why it’s just as important to have whitenwriters write about their own.

  2. I’m glad that you think it a good thing your daughter should choose for herself.\
    My mum stopped choosing and buying my books when she found a bunch of them under my bed, unread.
    I loved fairy tales, the Grimmer the better. I would read translated versions from all round the world and wouldn’t have noticed or cared what colour they were. Children are like that. It’s the biased adults in their lives that stuff things up for them.

    As an adult, I’m all right with diversity in most things, but when you talk about the ‘white narratives that already flood the market’, I have to ask, why ever not? I’m sure that in non-Western countries the stories are predominantly be non-white narratives that are flooding their market. Lately, and I find this ironic and am surprised you haven’t heard of it, there’s been outrage when white authors write about ethnic characters they aren’t likely to know anything about. It’s called cultural appropriation. I’m all for reading the books our children read and discussing it with them, but I’m totally against engineering what’s being written and what our children read.

    1. Depending on how it’s done, merely including a non-white character in the novel isn’t cultural appropriation. It would reflect how our society really is. Authors need to do their research and seek the advice of people who identify with the groups they are representing in their stories.

      There has been improvement — more books feature non-white characters than ever before — but when you stack the newer books up against all the classics, it’s still pretty hard to find books that reflect racially diverse characters. When I was a kid, I *never* saw multiracial, Muslim characters in books. My children do, but I really have to search for those books.

      http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/02/17/515792141/authors-and-illustrators-of-color-accounted-for-22-percent-of-children-s-books

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferbaker/2016/01/26/first-publishing-diversity-baseline-survey/#7b5b20fc4159

      http://blog.leeandlow.com/2017/03/30/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-book-publishing-2017/

      1. Good writers are already thorough in their research. It still doesnt stop the outrage that’s aimed at them. What are they meant to do? Cite their sorces at the beginning of every novel?.
        Black, white, purple, we all like to read our own stories and want our children to relate to the black white, purple heroes in them. As I’ve often said, do as I do, is the best way to raise children to be tolerant.

        1. I’m assuming you mean people of all colors like to read stories about people who look like them. Yet, when you write “black, white, purple,” you’re suggesting that there are black and white people and everyone else is “out there” or “exceptionally strange and hard to imagine,” like if we actually imagine a purple person. Besides, our personal stories aren’t just about our skin color, but the make up of our families–two parents, one parent, two moms, two dads, one of each, raised by grandparents, adopted children, etc.–and if no one tells us these families exist, we don’t even wonder how they might live. For instance, for many, many years I thought every family was just like the Wakefields of the wildly popular and famous Sweet Valley Twins novels. The mom and dad were very successful and made a gorgeous home for their three children: the perfectly gorgeous, blond Twins and their older brother Steven, who never teased his sisters too much (very gentle). The parents were described as looking like older siblings of their children. They listened perfectly, and everyone respected each other (unless Jessica was getting into shenanigans).

          NOW. I also see the point about white writers getting chewed out for attempting to write characters that are not white. People can hire sensitivity readers or have a diverse group of beta readers to avoid mistakenly writing stereotypes. It’s not hard, but it is harder than writing only white people. During an even for Martin Luther King, Jr. day this year, a man asked the audience what the guests at their wedding would look like. He said if we can only picture one person of color, our friends aren’t diverse enough and that’s OUR problem. And I agree.

          1. I made up a story about a dragon, two Knights a prince and a princess. My grandsons were the Knights, their parents, the prince and the princess. They love being read to, but keep coming back to this story about them and their exploits. Stories were once lovingly polished and passed down the generations by word of mouth before being written down. We all of us, like to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read. I meant nothing more or less than that.

            I put it to you that-good writers of non fiction and fiction, before they even put pen to paper, will have all the boxes ticked, including thorough research. It’s their business to do so. Research isn’t the problem, it’s people who don’t want white writers to write about them. And other people who do want white writers to write about them. Frankly it’s too hard an ask. And I can’t see why it’s only white writers that are asked.

            And ps, the Sweet Valley Twins series sounds bland.

            1. White writers have better access to the platform. Historically, they were the only writers awarded publishing contracts, and today, they still disproportionately receive them. According to Lee & Low’s study (See link above):

              “While the number of diverse books has increased substantially, the number of books written by people of color has not kept pace. In fact, in 2016, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published. In other words, while the number of books with diverse content increases, the majority of those books are still written by white authors. We wrote about this phenomenon back in 2015, and the numbers haven’t changed much since then.”

              THAT is why they are being asked. They are also being asked because reflecting diversity in our society is the right thing to do. Why exclude people who exist and deserve to see themselves in the books they read? Writers are free to do whatever they want, but they are not above criticism.

              Yes, I understand the dangers of cultural appropriation. When authors do their research carefully and seek out sensitivity readers, they increase the odds of reflecting diversity in an appropriate way. Writing is never risk free.

  3. Oh no! I absolutely hate people equating monobrows to being evil. I’m not saying that books are the sole reason it took me so long to accept my monobrow, but it was really difficult for me to grow back monobrow after I decided to stop tweezing my eyebrows.

    I think that the discussions you have with your daughter will educate her about the issues and she will realise the difference when she reads books with better plot structure and more diversity.

    1. I think this series would be an awful choice for children with monobrows. My girls have light colored hair, so their monobrow doesn’t really show, but mine did. I would’ve hated this book.

  4. I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the problems in this series. You are balancing them with other books that do offer the things you like. Your discussions with your daughters are also extremely helpful. I would have killed to have a mother like you when I was a kid. (Well, not killed, but you know what I mean.) 🙂

  5. This is a very generous post: thank you for sharing it. I know some great writers in the UK who are really pushing for diversity in children’s literature and receiving grants and support for it, which is so wonderful.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! I’m also glad to hear that there are writers in the UK who are pushing for diversity in children’s literature. It is so important.

  6. Reminds me a lot of why I didn’t enjoy A Series of Unfortunate Events. Some parts were okay, but then others I was like wait what you can’t just say poof and fix it.

  7. I did this with my kids too, and remember how happy I was when my father let me read some books that he very obviously didn’t approve of. Libraries are great for this!

    1. My children love going to the library and picking whatever they want. I try not to intervene, unless it’s obvious the book isn’t appropriate for them (I can’t remember the last time that happened).

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