Books From My Youth: Tight Times

Tight Times (1979), by Barbara Shook Hazen; illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. The pictured edition is from Puffin and is available from Powell's and AbeBooks.

Tight Times is the story of an economic recession from a very young child’s point of view. The book appears to be set in New York City (Brooklyn, I think) and Trina Schart Hyman’s drawings capture the beauty and difficulty of the time with great tenderness:

image borrowed from Artslice and enhanced in iPhoto

The child in Tight Times wants the usual things: a dog, time with Mom and Dad, favorite foods and toys. We feel the pinch of tight times the way the child does: less time with Mom as she works more; “Mr. Bulk” cereal instead of the tastier cereal “in little boxes”; “soupy things with lima beans” instead of roast beef. Of course, our perspective is broader than the child’s. When Dad comes home too early and says he “lost something”, we know why he’s crying, and we know what’s in that “special drink” he fixes himself. (We also see Mom’s cigarettes, which I’m sure would not appear in a kid’s picture book written today).

One of the beautiful details of this book is the carefully created ambiguity about the central character’s gender. We don't learn the child's name. Hair, clothing, and toys are also gender-neutral. The publisher’s note refers to the child as “a small boy”, but I think that’s their projection. I love this detail because the child’s gender is simply irrelevant to the human feelings and struggles of the story. Also, any small child can identify with the kid in Tight Times without feeling deep down that the pink-and-purple-sparkly bows or blue-spaceships-and-backhoes are there to exclude them. Finally, just getting away from all that crap is refreshing.

We have a lot of love for this book in our family. When I told my younger sister that I’d gotten a copy for my niece and nephew a few months ago, her eyes went all far away and she said, “when Dad loses his job, the kid says “I told him to look behind the radiator, because that’s where I found my lost puzzle piece”! My niece and nephew also love the book. My nephew, now seven, fancies himself too old for a story about a pre-schooler. But when I read it to his sister, he somehow ends up hanging over my shoulder by the time the kid finds an abandoned kitten in a trash can, feeds it, and names it Dog.

My niece M’s response to the kid’s neutral gender presentation surprised me. While my nephew simply assumes the kid is a boy like him, M. looks for clues as to the gender of the kid, relentlessly, every time I read the book. Well, the hair is sort of like a girl, but the clothes are sort of like a boy, she’ll say. Never mind that she herself has similar clothes and hair much of the time. It reminds me of the day her brother came home from Kindergarten and told her that only boys can be doctors, even though his own pediatrician is a woman (I had to talk him through that one).

M. takes the gender hunt even further, arguing that the kitten in the book (whom the author refers to as “she”) is not a she but in fact a he, “because I think Dog is a boy’s name”. This is a child who, one year ago, was lecturing me about how the crocodile in Taro Gomi's wonderful My Friends/Mis Amigos could very well be a girl and I shouldn't describe it as "he". Something has changed since she was three. I think that she used to project her own identity onto book characters/animals, but now she is trying to figure out where she fits, and that worries me, because I already know society's answer to that question. So every time, I point out that her "clues" are not definitive and moreover, it doesn't matter. All kinds of kids want dogs, like their favorite cereal, and get scared when their parents cry.

For other pro-feminist kids' books, check out the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List, and share your favorites in comments.

Other Books From My Youth: The "Thinking Machine"

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