Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stories For Free Children, the Ms. Magazine Collection

In 1982 Ms. Magazine published a book of children's stories titled Stories For Free Children, Ed. by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. The book contained almost 40 short stories, fables, and fairy tales emphasizing non-sexist, multi-racial, multi-cultural themes, most of which first appeared in the magazines column of the same title. The column that it came from is also considered to be the main inspiration for one of the most memorable parts of my childhood, Free to Be, You and Me, conceived by Marlo Thomas.

The book is long since out of print, and hard to find. I was lucky enough to come across a hard bound version at one of my favorite local bookshops, De Colores Books. (

One of the most amazing things to discover as I poured through the pages was how many of my favorite radical children's stories actually came from the pages of this book. One of which, "X" by Lois Gould, I had been searching for for many years since I first read it in a Women's Studies textbook of a friend almost ten years ago.

"X" is the story of a child whose parents decide not to tell people just what is in between their child's legs, or assign it a gendered pronoun. I remember the first time I read this story thinking, "Yeah! I am gonna do THAT when I have a kid."

Though I did not follow through on that exact idea, I have since become part of a much larger community of folx challenging the gender binary. I have friends who were labeled as one gender at birth, and now live as another. I have friends who prefer to use genderless pronouns such as "they" and "ze." In general, I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who are trying to look at the box we put around the idea of "boy" and "girl" and how we can break it to bits and allow everyone to live in whatever part of the spectrum they feel happy.

With the kids in my life, it is really important to me to pay extra attention to the characteristics we give to things of one gender or another. What exactly are "girl things" and "boy things" anyway? Why is it that, especially once they aren't babies anymore, we have very different emotional expectations and nurturing towards children depending on their sex?

"X" was the first kid's story that I read that challenged these things in a way that would be fun to read and discuss with kids. Recently, I have discovered a new crop of books attempting to do the same thing. (In my next post, I will share some of these.) But aside from "William's Doll" and others from the Free to Be, You and Me soundtrack, and Tomie dePaola's Oliver Button is a Sissy,  for most of my childhood there was a decided lack of children's books challenging gender roles.

Stories For Free Children has a lot of awesome stories that I am excited to read to kids. There are stories about history, adoption, divorce, feelings, guns, empowerment and different sorts of ability. The one stumbling block I found is that the language, and even subject matter is incredibly dated at times. In several of the stories, I would amend language as I was reading, to change words that are out of date, and considered offensive now, such as "My Brother Steven is Retarded." But for it's time, this is a groundbreaking book that teaches a lot about radical children's stories, specifically from my childhood, which feels important to my understanding of the literature's evolution in my lifetime.

My other favorite story in the collection is one that has since been illustrated and published as it's own book; Toni and Slade Morrison's The Big Box.

I had just discovered this story this past year at a friends house, borrowed the illustrated book, and have yet to give it back. (Sorry L and S!) I have to prioritize getting my own copy because it is truly one of my favorite books I have ever read.

The Big Box is the story of how children are expected to behave in certain ways, pushed to the side, and not treated with the respect they deserve. Ok... perhaps this is not a book for very small children. It is pretty wordy, even with beautifully illustrated pages, and the meaning is pretty deep, but I think it could be read with kids over 5 or 6, and discuss with them how they feel like they are treated by adults.

I also think that this book is challenging for adults. It brings up ways in which we marginalize children and try to brush off their needs, often with possessions and inauthentic authoritarian rules.

The book version is beautifully illustrated by Giselle Potter, and makes the meaning of the story translate with so much more passion than the text alone. I would highly recommend checking it out.

Though I had not planned on re-visiting Free to Be, You and Me for this particular project, reading Stories For Free Children makes me think I should. In the context of the history of radical children's literature, even though it was a television special and record album, I think that the impact of these two works in succession shaped a generation searching for a new way to raise kids. I know that Free to Be, You and Me played a huge part in my beginning to explore identity, especially around gender.

So, off to the library I go. To revisit my old friends... "There's a land that I see, where the children are free. And they say it ain't far to this land from where we are."

I wonder... is it too outdated to make an impact on a new generation? Is there a need for a new soundtrack as well as new radical tales to tell our kids?


  1. FTBYAM is pretty dated, but I've already found myself trying to recite, as best I can, some of the stories from memory for the kids. Especially Atalanta and William Wants a Doll. I think at one point Marlo Thomas did update it or make a sequel but I remember not being that impressed by it.

  2. Yeah. They made one called "Free to Be a Family" in the eighties, I think. I have the record. It isn't that impressive.