Rant about board books: Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

I came across this book in the bookstore when Monkey was around 8 months old and it upset me at the time. I’ve been reminded of it lately because Monkey has fallen in love with Helen Oxenbury’s Tom and Pippo books and wants to read them constantly. Oxenbury illustrated, but did not write, the book this post discusses.

“There was one little baby who was born far away, and another who was born on the very next day. And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes.”

This is how the book (Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox) begins. It goes on to show different babies born in all sorts of different places and countries (in the city, “on the ice”, in a tent) while emphasizing that all of these babies have “ten little fingers and ten little toes.”

OK, except not all babies are born with ten fingers and ten toes. And by using this standard anatomy as proof of our common humanity, the book actually implies that children who are born missing a hand or a foot or some fingers are not fully human. Chinese children and Inuit children are like us, but children with ectrodactyly are not like us. If their lack of fingers and toes shows up on an ultrasound, we might decide to terminate the pregnancy and try again for a real baby.

When I vented to my mom about the book, she asked why I didn’t have a problem with books like All of Baby, Nose to Toes or Ten Tiny Toes (seriously, what is it with the baby toes???). I told her that these books merely describe a typical anatomy. You could even modify it for your child and say “eight tiny toes” if you wanted to. Mem Fox’s book, however, states that “everyone knows” that all babies are born with ten toes and ten fingers, thus shutting out the reality and humanity of atypical anatomies in a much more explicit, unavoidable way.

I know, you think I’m overreacting. I know, you think this is silly.

Looking at the customer reviews on Amazon, I was pleased to see a few that pointed out the problem with the book. Then I was disheartened to see the comments on these reviews, for example: “Are you for real? […] If YOU want to teach about differences a great opportunity arises after you read the book. The publishing business does not allow for such luxuries.” And “Your poor child growing up in that joyless environment where they can’t enjoy life because there is another child somewhere who isn’t. How sad.” OK, first of all, having a disability =/= not enjoying life. Nor does having parents who are aware of genetic diversity create a joyless environment.

Imagine that a well known author and illustrator team up to write a book called White Skin and it begins like this:

“There was one little baby who was born in a castle and another who was born to a lowly vassal. But both little babies, regardless of kin, had big bright eyes and rosy white skin.”

Now suppose that critics applaud the book for teaching children that our common humanity transcends social class, that no matter who our parents are we all have white skin.

“But some of us have black skin or brown skin or -”

“Shut up! The publishing business does not allow for such luxuries! If you want your child to know that some people have dark skin, you can explain it to them on your own time. But I feel sorry for your child growing up in that joyless environment.”

No one nowadays would publish this hypothetical book, but Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is doing the same thing. The reason one seems absurd and the other doesn’t is that we have, as a society, refined our definition of human-ness to include those of different colors, races, and cultures. This is not to say that racism doesn’t exist anymore or that there hasn’t been a backlash, but racial variation has been accepted in a way that has yet to happen for anatomical differences.

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