In this penultimate article in my series on how to choose children’s books, I will address the issue of commercialism in children’s literature. Specifically, I will offer some advice on avoiding overly commercial children’s literature, and why parents ought to do so. I will use Disney Princess books—and the Disney Princess Collection in particular—as a concrete example of an important kind of books I think adults should avoid exposing children to.
If you would like to read this series from the beginning, click here for the first article, “How to Choose Children’s Books”. For the previous article in this series, “Choosing Children’s Books with Educational Themes,” click here.
Disney Princess Books: Reasons to Avoid Them (and Their Ilk)
I think Disney Princess books are a prime example of the kind of overly commercialized children’s literature that adults ought to avoid when choosing children’s books. Why? Glad you asked:
First, the stories in such books are generally of a very low quality. For example, in the Disney Princess Collection, the “stories” are basically just 10-page summaries of movies like “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “The Little Mermaid”. It doesn’t get much less creative than that people. Moreover, unlike the movies themselves, there is virtually no character development in the stories, so they come off as totally flat and boring. Exposing children to this sort of book instills very low expectations of literature, and does nothing to encourage a taste for creative, lively, interesting writing. In short, stories like this have very little developmental value, and would have virtually no subjective appeal for children were it not for the pictures of pink princesses and the child’s associations with the corresponding movies, TV shows, trips to Disneyland, etc.
Second, in some cases books of this sort can actually be developmentally detrimental. For example, I think the stories and characters in the Disney Princess Collection foster a generally insidious set of values. Many of them encourage a passive, helpless conception of femininity (why else would the princesses always need to be rescued?), terrible expectations of romantic relationships (bordering on the idolatrous, in my view), and damaging female body image. In short, Disney’s portrayal of princesses generally undermines the sort of balanced self-understanding that is foundational for a child’s healthy development. Click here for a nice elaboration on the troubling values Disney’s princesses encourage.
Third, books like the Disney Princess Collection are really just instruments to capitalize on and perpetuate the marketing of huge corporate machines (like Disney). The point of publishing these books is not to expand a child’s horizons with good literature, but rather to subtly and steadily transform her into a loyal consumer of a certain kind of products. Here is a quote from the head of Disney, in 1989, taken for an excellent article on marketing to children: “The Disney Stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television shows. The television shows promote the company.” In other words, Disney has a very tight and coordinated strategy to promote their brand. This strategy involves saturating the children’s market with toys, TV shows, radio programs, movies, and lame excuses for books, so that children will become life-long contributors to the Disney empire. Makes me shiver to think about it. In short, these books are mere instruments for generating money.
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I have no problem with authors, publishers, and marketers of children’s books being paid for the work they do. Thus, I have no principled problem with treating children’s books as commodities (i.e., items to be bought and sold). Indeed, if we could not buy and sell children’s books, I’ll wager there wouldn’t be nearly the variety and quality that we see today, since authors would be unable to devote a lifetime to working on their craft. What I do object to is the thoughtless production of low-quality literature for the sole purpose of generating profits and brand loyalty. In my view, that’s what a book like the Disney Princess Collection is about.
The Plush Toy Test
With this brief rant complete, I will conclude with a bit of advice on how to identify overly-commercialized books like the Disney Princess books, so that you can avoid them more easily. In short, I recommend that you apply what I will call, the “plush toy test.” Here’s how it works: when you come across a children’s book that you are considering whether to choose, ask yourself whether you have previously seen the characters in the story via some other form of mass media. Have you noticed a movie or TV show about them? Did your children receive a toy in their McDonald’s happy meal that looks like one of them? Does your child snuggle at night with a plush toy that looks like the main character? If so, chances are good that the book is a low-quality pawn in a huge marketing campaign, and thus is not worth your time or money.
A few examples might help clarify the plush toy test a bit. Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are was, of course, recently made into a feature film. But, since the book preceded the movie by a long period of time (and since the book was so famous and ground-breaking), chances are you would not have encountered the mass-merchandising machine that often accompanies the release of children’s feature films before you encountered the book. In other words, you probably wouldn’t have seen plush toys of Max or his Wild Things kicking around before you knew about the book.
Alternatively, it is very likely that you would have encountered a plush toy of Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, or the Disney Princesses (or some other mass-media representation of them) before you ever encountered a book with one these characters in it. As a result, the plush toy test should raise a red flag if you were considering a book like that.
Of course, the plush toy test will not be fool-proof: in some cases you might not discover a perfectly good book until after the movie based on it has already become wildly popular and invaded McDonald’s happy meals. For example, this might be the case with the Harry Potter novels, or with William Steig’s original 1990 picture book, Shrek!. However, the plush toy test will at least be a rough-cut way of making you pause and examine the sort of book you are considering for your child.
The next post in this series will be the final one of the series. In that post I will consider the value of book lists and other trusted authorities in helping adults choose good children’s books.
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