“What if he won’t like it? You don’t want to pressure him, you need to make sure you are supporting what HE likes, not what YOU like,” my husband said to me once as I was looking at comic and video game themed onesies and baby toys for our forthcoming offspring on Etsy.
My response: “How are we going to find out what he likes if we don’t even try with what we know? I have to start somewhere.”
When Asher was teeny tiny, we had similar versions of this conversation a few more times—mostly from Brandon to me to make sure I wasn’t imposing my will and interests upon our kid without considering his wants. Which, fair, how do you know that an infant is really loving “Don’t Let the Penguin Drive the Batmobile!” or watching “Dragon Prince?” However, just because my child is still young does not mean we absolutely have to limit our books, TV, and outings to the quintessential early childhood educational content… besides, there is plenty to learn from comics and superheroes too.
This conversation with Brandon reminds me of a deeper topic: the line between childhood and adulthood. If you were to Google “adults and play” or “why don’t adults play?” you will find article after article about how adults have forgotten how to play, how to genuinely play. Adults are taught that once you hit eighteen, you leave childhood wonderment behind and embrace the life of college, family, work, bills, and responsibility; that play is limited to adult-oriented activities and we leave behind our cartoons, games, stories, etc. That we only revisit these things when we have children of our own but even then we don’t necessarily fully immerse ourselves in play, we pretend to play. Adults are supposed to play the ROLE of a dinosaur while minding social expectations, instead of getting on the floor and BEING a dinosaur. It’s an interesting difference in mindset, when you really think about it. One involves keeping adult expectations at the forefront– we are consciously thinking about how we are playing; the other we are allowing ourselves to be 100% immersed in the game.
Now, I recognize I am writing to a very specific audience who are probably, on some level, scoffing at the notion of giving up childhood play and wonderment, so I am clarifying that I am talking about the general population overall; and while I am not sourcing anything in particular (because I am super lazy), I am recalling information easily found in social research journals and articles, as well as opinion pieces, so bear with me for a bit.
I am going to focus on the US since I don’t know a lot about other countries and their sociocultural expectations, so I speak from a very narrow window. I would love to know from readers around the world what trends they have seen as well. In the US, older generations have had this rigid belief in being an adult as being a separate world than as a child. Childhood loves are looked at through a lens of nostalgia– something we can happily reminisce about, but not to engage in any further. That old adage of “cartoons/comics/Trix are for kids,” and the farther back in time we go, the more blatant the divide is. Which, makes ABSOLUTE sense when we think about what was going on in the world as we go back– war, economic depression, having multiple children at a younger age to insure survival of some, lower life expectancies… there were causes and reasons for adults to take a hard right turn from childhood. Even today, the idea that we stop loving the things we enjoyed as kids as soon as we hit adulthood lingers in many social circles as the children of Boomer and older Gen X parents are coming of age (or, in my case, well into adulthood). I am not saying let’s go hate the old people, but I am saying let’s recognize how generational beliefs are passed down to the next. I was already feeling the pressure from my peers and family that I was “too old” for some of the things I was interested in as a kid, and I wasn’t even driving yet at the time.
I grew up in the 1990s, last of the 1980s babies, of the older Millennial generation (GO GEN Y!). In the 90s and the very early 2000s, when you were a preteen, loving superheroes, comics, cartoons, anime, and fantasy wasn’t super trendy unless it was “Lord of the Rings,” “The Simpsons,” or “Halo;” and here I am, loving “Sailor Moon,” “Pokémon,” and the OG “Super Friends.” So, not only was I against this belief I should be outgrowing these things because comics and the like were “for kids,” I was also under the peer pressure that I would be the “weird” teen in class for liking little kid stuff that is also not “cool.” Thankfully, I found Cartooning Club in junior high with Greg Hatcher. Greg created an environment that encouraged girls, boys, and enbys alike to love what they love and be proud, and that there are FULL GROWN ADULTS WHO WOULD TOTALLY SIT AND READ OR WATCH “The Batman” WITH ME…. ahem, but I digress, back to my point.
Now, let’s add on the layer of being a Millennial. I am NOT starting a generational battle, I am NOT going to go there, at least not today. The Millennial generation is the first to really struggle to meet socially implied lifetime milestones, at least in the US. Remember how I mentioned that when you hit eighteen you had to do the whole “go to school, get job, get married, buy a house, have babies, and be a grown up” thing? In the US, it was expected that these things were done before the age of twenty-five, before twenty-three if you are an all-star. But, with how our world is today, Millennials and younger folks are not able to meet these milestones; they can’t afford housing or college, they may not want kids and/or want to wait until they are much older than their parents were to get married, and finding a job with a livable wage is a serious problem in this country. Accomplishing more than one of these things before thirty is considered a big deal for Millennials.
These struggles were popularly noted as this generation started to ask “is this adulting?” whenever they were able to achieve something that previous generations considered “easy.” Adulting: the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks (I legit looked up the word and this is actually IN the dictionary). That term was literally coined because we have a generation of people who, because expectations can’t be met, are unable to gauge if they are successful or not. Are we adults if we haven’t done the things? How do we do the things? Am I successfully completing said things??????
The silver lining in all of this? Millennials began to refuse to let go of childhood interests. If they are unable to measure themselves to the standards of adulthood, why not keep playing with our action figures and collecting Pokémon cards, right? They started saying that it was OK to still love “Avatar: The Last Airbender” as long as we all agree that there is no live action movie in Ba Sing Se. This cultural shift provided the foundation for the resurgence of comics and geek pop culture over the 2000s-on, it opened the doors for everyone to access and embrace their childhood while also popularizing geek culture with a renewed perspective. It’s everywhere now. Which is super cool. Sure, the backlash of this is that everyone and their mother still think Millennials are in high school, but, I mean, OK?
Now, where am I going with all of this? I’ll tell you.
Bringing this all back to introducing my kiddo to the things I love, the things I never “outgrew” in spite of what I was taught by my parents and grandparents: The normalization and resurgence of geek culture has opened up so many doors to introduce kids as young as toddlers to the stories we all know and love. Parents can make connections with their young children through things that they love that are engaging for the developing brain or just purely for entertainment. There are new generations of parents now who give ZERO ducks about being big ol’ nerds, and for those “cool kids” who did, thanks to big productions like Marvel Cinematic Universe, have turned to the dark side. It’s a new kind of authenticity set for children today– like what you like, you can be a responsible adult and do adult things and still want to sit with a bowl of cereal and watch Saturday morning cartoons (and truly enjoy them).
Kids tend to take interest in things that they see their parents excited about. They may have no clue why everyone is squeeing with glee, but they are, and young kids decide that, whatever it is, must be good. Add in some vibrant colors, cutesy pictures, and ta-da! Kids start to learn how to recognize characters and story plots. Now, I hear people saying: “But, Bri, comics and pop culture were always accessible to kids!” And, yes, it’s true, but also, have you SEEN how much stuff is geared towards pre-readers nowadays??? I mentioned MCU impacting the global population, but the popularization of other literary stories, the internet, video streaming platforms, and resurgence of small book and comic book shops have also increased access and a huge demand to onboard brand new babes to the Masters of the Universe. Board books covering everything from numbers and letters starring droids and the Justice League, to simplified and caricatured stories about the characters and the classic plots we know and love that are readable in under 5-minutes; to Rocket Racoon stuffies and full-on Gotham City Duplo sets; to Spiderman applesauce packs and Justice League shaped macaroni…. KIDS HAVE IT SO GOOD NOW (thanks capitalism?). All of these new treasures complete with what draws the eyes of young kids and infants– smooth and bold linework, bright colors, and big-headed, big-eyed characters. No longer are the days of needing to hunt down and custom make items to show off our nerdy love through our children, I can swing by my local grocery store and snag an Iron Man mask for funzies in the toy aisle (true story, I am staring at the mask now. THANKS, HAGGEN GROCERY!).
So, how did I introduce these things to Asher? How should parents introduce geekdom to their kids? There really isn’t a right answer besides knowing your own child. What scares them, what makes them laugh, what makes them curious, what attracts them. Asher has always loved animals and so, starting with books that told stories of friendly monsters and D&D creatures… unicorns, dragons, etc., while interspersing Old MacDonald and typical kid stuff so he can relate to his peers in daycare, opened the doors for him to build associations. Kids learn a lot about the world through association. If an adult reacts negatively towards something, the child takes the perspective that whatever it is, it’s bad; if an adult laughs and talks excitedly, the child perceives it as good. If the child reads about how amazing unicorns are, and then sees She-Ra riding Swift Wind, then She-Ra is also amazing! When Asher heard mama shout “BOO YAH!” when feeling incredibly successful at beating a level of Mario Galaxy, and then finds my Cyborg action figure I use at my practice, which also has a button that, when pushed, yells: “BOO YAH!” Then Cyborg is cool! Then he sees “Teen Titans Go!” that stars Cyborg as well as the other Titans, he learns to recognize them and that then leads him to find books at the comic book store. Where, at the comic book store, he learns to recognize other characters and read all about them too. And, before you know it, he has his own full opinion and interest– my work is done aside from remembering which character is the favorite of the week. Meet your kiddo where they are at in their interests, introduce them to related content within the level of their understanding, and let them explore. Leave all the doors open.
Kids will explore wherever they can. If they stumble into things that may be “too much” or could turn them off to something they love because it’s “scary,” acknowledge and validate that sometimes comics are scary, but there is always an alternative if the kiddo is still determined to pursue an interest. An example: Asher and I went to Free Comic Book Day at our local store, The Comics Place. The folks at The Comics Place did a great job organizing the kids’ books from the adults, and boy, we got a super awesome haul. But then, I decided I wanted to take this picture:
My choice here led to the mix-up of my books and Asher’s. Me, being completely distractible, forgot to re-sort. And so, Asher, who loves the Hulk, when requesting a comic book before bed, finds this gem:
As we start reading before bed and I am a couple pages in, suddenly there are creatures coming up from the depths, blood, and destruction. PERFECT FOR A THREE YEAR OLD. So, how did I redirect? Marvel’s kids’ books to the rescue………………………………………
“Night Night, Groot” by Brendan Deneen is a bedtime book for young kids that follows Baby Groot as he is falling asleep with Gamora reading a book to him when suddenly Rocket bursts into the room and tells Groot it’s time to save the world! While the story itself is calming and prepping your little one for bed, the art on the pages are action packed as Groot and Rocket zip through space to save the world, with all the Avengers making appearances throughout the pages. Remember how I went on a weird tangent about associations? This book is fantastic as that it is very-opposite-of-scary-in-the-other-Hulk-story, has bright colors, and dynamic character design, it included not only the Hulk, but Red Hulk AND She-Hulk! Asher moved onto other Marvel characters through this book and picked out Avengers he, himself, wanted to read more about– and, through building associations and having free reign to explore comics, also now schools his dad that “THAT’S NOT HULK DADDY, THAT RED HULK. RED HULK IS NOT GREEN, SEE, THEY ARE DIFFERENT! CMON.” And so forth. Anywho, back to the book– we love this book as a family because not only does it click with Asher and springboard him into other super heroes, and did so at a very early age, it is quite entertaining for the parents to read. I have yet to get tired of this book and we read it probably once a week or so since Asher was born.
While on the subject of brief book reviews, here are a few other gems we have found to be fun:
“Don’t Let the Penguin Drive the Batmobile!” A MAD spoof of the classic “Don’t Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus!” by Mo Willems, this take by Jacob Lambert and Tom Richmond engages the reader in a call and response as the Penguin tries to… reassure that he is more than qualified to take care of the Batmobile. This book is great for kids when they reach an age where they understand call and response. Asher loved this book when he was younger, but it did take a LOT of effort on my part to create the response so he could follow the comic layout styled pages. At age three, Asher is finally getting that the Penguin is talking to him and yells mercilessly “NO WAY, DUDE!” Does Asher know who the Penguin is? No, not yet. But, does he know the Batmobile and Batman? You betcha, and he knows that only Batman can touch his beloved ride.
Did you know that Little Golden Books produces stories beyond the classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes your grandmother kept in her house to entertain the grandkids with? I SURE DIDN’T, BUT OH DID I LEARN. Not only does Little Golden Books continue to produce aged stories with backwards messages that probably should go out of print, but also stories about current popular trends, including most of our favorite heroes! The nice thing about these stories is that you get a variety of reading levels between pre-readers and the first grade, and plots can be as simple as Wonder Woman looking for her invisible plane, or as complex as the retelling of the plot from the film adaption of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” These books, for your young reader, are best suited for when your kiddo has context for the characters. Asher enjoyed the pictures, but it wasn’t until our regular trips to the comic book store, The Comics Place, who exactly these characters are and why he should be invested in them. These books rarely offer background stories to develop connections with the characters, so be prepared to be peppered with questions such as “WHO’S THAT, MAMA?!” and “WHY DID THEY DO THAT?!” and “ARE THEY MAD?!” on repeat as you go through various side quests.
DC produced a series of board books “My First Book Of…” for your very early readers. Less caricature and more clean lines and simple backgrounds, these books are designed to showcase very specific topics such as superpowers, super women (three book series), villains, super men, friendship, and other deep topics that can be presented in simple concepts your two year old will get. Very quick reads and very short text, these books have surprisingly hung around our home even though Asher has very much outgrown them. It’s hard to let go of your heroes!
Remember how I mentioned earlier about ABC’s and 123’s with droids? Well, that’s because there isn’t a franchise Disney hasn’t exploited yet! Introducing: “Stars Wars ABC-3PO” written by Calliope Glass and Caitlin Kennedy, illustrated by Katie Cook. This book has loads of poems for each letter of the alphabet. Some of the poems are based on characters, some on Star Wars lore. This book is adorable– checks the boxes for clean lines, big heads, and big eyes. However, for your little, some poems may be a bit too long and if they have zero context for Star Wars, may not be as enjoyable for them as it is for the parent. It is not a bad way to introduce your kiddo to the world of Star Wars, but it does pain me so as it will be a handful of years before Asher will get this joke:
“A bounty hunter with a jet pack to boot.
Where did Boba Fett find such a suit?
Tougher than nails,
He never, ever fails…
Unless there’s a sarlacc.
My kiddo has become an encyclopedia nerd. He loves facts, especially when they are well designed, full of pictures, and the information is delivered very concisely. I believe we have three dinosaur/prehistoric encyclopedias? One or two about rainforest animals? A lot or encyclopedias for a three year old. Once a kiddo is old enough and enjoys sharing fun facts with others (or correcting their dad who is not of the comic-nerd variety), it’s not a bad type of book to get into. Generally with encyclopedias, they can last for a long time as the information is useful not only as a child, but for adults too! Following reading “Night Night, Groot,” Asher was determined to learn about every Avenger, which leads to the whole Marvel Universe and all of the characters, which is sometimes frustrating for my child as, although his mother knows a lot, she doesn’t know EVERYTHING (sorry, kid). And then, one fateful evening, we found “Marvel Absolutely Everything You Need to Know.” BINGO. We love this book for bedtime factoids, for questions about characters and worlds that may be outside my scope, to answer parental debates regarding who would win in an arm wrestle– Winter Soldier or Vision, ALL THE ANSWERS. This book is S T U N N I N G. Absolutely beautiful. Large hardcover, Hulk’s eye is foil and reflects light… and then, on the inside, the layouts for each character are single or double paged, depending on who we are talking about and how much backstory/facts they have, and are organized in a way that let’s a three year old point at a paragraph, ask “what’s that?” and a quick summary of whatever the fact is, is easily shared in a way that everyone can understand. This is also how Asher learned about all the incarnations of Hulk and Spiderman, and other facts that he lords over his parents who don’t have much room for retention.
Quick side note, because of the Marvel encyclopedia, when Asher stumbled onto “Spidey and His Amazing Friends,” my heart swelled with joy when he squealed “GHOST-SPIDER GWEN!”
I think the best way to round out my impromptu book report is to finish with “Wee Beasties: Pretend Time” and “Wee Beasties: Bedtime.” Written by Andi Smith, and illustrated by Heather Hitchman and Marina Neira, respectively. These two books are the result of two successful Kickstarters and cover the creatures of the Dungeons and Dragons world. With little D&D Easter eggs hidden about the pages (find the d20, magical items, mimics, etc.), each story covers what different creatures do to pretend to be a campaign party, and when they get ready to go to bed. Every creature in both books has a little poem, some of the rhymes are a bit odd, but if your kiddo loves cute creatures as much as mine does, it is something easily looked past as they learn about what a ranger or bard is, and why is it funny that no one really likes the harpy’s bedtime song.
There are many more books I could add, but at this point, I think I would be boring people to tears. To tie a nice little bow around where I started with this post and where I ended up: the cultural shift back into play, the popularization of nerd and geek pop culture, and people deciding that life is too short to not have fun and love what they love, have really opened the doors to connecting our kids to interests earlier in their life. It models for our kids to see adults embracing their loves unabashedly, and, in my mind, is really setting the world up for a bright future as more and more, kids are becoming free of past perspectives and rigidities set by their predecessors.
Greg Hatcher once told me when I was in my late teens (at least, as close to verbatim as I can remember): “Bri, I used to get the shit kicked out of me when people found out I loved comics and drawing when I was your age. We had to hide it, all of it. To see the world embrace it now, to see the jocks with Captain America’s shield on their shirt, it makes all of it worth it. To see that it’s OK to love these things now is so cool. Being a nerd isn’t a bad thing.”
I think I will leave it there. Until the next time! 🙂