Clarice Bean: Guess Who's Babysitting?
By Lauren Child
excellent = 4 stars; good = 3 stars;
fair = 2 stars, poor = 1 star
This entry in the Clarice Bean series, aimed at kids of perhaps 6-9 years, is the irreverent and amusing story of a family emergency that requires Clarice's Uncle Ted, a rough and tumble firefighter, to baby-sit the independent child and her siblings. The story includes two visits to the hospital, and in the brief look we get at each visit, a seemingly professional, autonomous female nurse helps guide the family through the minor trauma involved. No physicians appear. The book could be seen as a subtle reinforcement of regressive gender roles; even though the males in the story are generally silly or hapless, and Clarice's mother and the nurses must bail them out, it is still the men who hold the traditionally male jobs. Perhaps the women just wield behind-the-scenes influence, as in countless television sitcoms and commercials. Still, the book suggests that nursing is a job for serious problem-solvers, and that puts it far ahead of most children's books.
At the start of Guess Who's Babysitting, Clarice tells us about her Uncle Ted, a city firefighter who rescues people and picks her up in a firefighter's carry when they get together. Clarice's mom says, not altogether approvingly, that Clarice and Ted "get along like a house on fire." Early one morning, the family gets a phone call.
It turned out Mom's older brother, Uncle Ernie, slipped on a doughnut getting out of his squad car. He's a policeman in New York City so he's used to life's ups and downs. The nurse says could Mom get out there on the double because he's lying flat on his back with both legs in the air. Mom says, What's he doing eating doughnuts at this hour of the day? But of course she has to go.
Behind this text is a two-page illustration. One page shows the nurse standing, speaking on the phone and seemingly writing on Ernie's chart, as Ernie lies in bed in the background, while the other page shows Clarice's mom on the phone at her house. The nurse is dressed in scrubs; she has short hair and looks professional, though it's hard to read her facial expression.
Someone is going to have to baby-sit, because Dad is "going away, on Important Business," and there seems to be quite a group of kids and Granddad to be cared for. Clarice's mother checks all around, but no one she asks can help. Clarice suggests Uncle Ted, Mom's younger brother. Mom is reluctant, despite the fun Clarice and Ted have together, because she finds Ted to be a little out of control. But she ultimately has no choice. Mom gives Uncle Ted strict instructions and leaves.
Things go well for the first couple days, but then Clarice's younger brother Minal lets her guinea pig escape, which is a disaster. To relieve the worry, they all go play soccer, but Uncle Ted kicks the ball so hard it knocks Minal out--and they end up at the hospital.
We have to drive to the emergency room at 50 miles an hour at least! Minal is fine but they still give him an X-ray and a little carton of orange juice. Minal loves it because he can show off and lie under a blanket and whimper. I say he should have stitches but unfortunately the nurse doesn't agree.
Once again the nurse (a different one this time) is in the foreground and the patient is behind her. Again the nurse has a chart and short hair, but here she wears a kind of mid-length blue skirt. We see her looking downwards toward Clarice, who looks up, presumably trying to get her to give Minal stitches. The nurse looks professional, maybe a bit reproachful of Clarice for pushing the unnecessary stitches--Clarice does seem to inspire a certain exasperation.
When they all get home, Granddad has wandered off and must be found. Clarice remains worried about her guinea pig, but her neighbor finds him. However, the guinea pig escapes. Uncle Ted and the others give chase, but Minal again has trouble with his head, this time getting it stuck between the bars of a fence. Ted calls his fire fighter buddies. Mom returns and frees Minal herself with bubble bath she had in her bag from shopping, then tries to relax in the back yard with a cup of tea. But the whole fire department arrives and joins them, to Mom's annoyance. Police officer Ernie recovers, but swears off doughnuts. And Ted tells Clarice that babysitting is the hardest job he's ever done--even harder that firefighting.
In this book, males of all ages create a lovable chaos, which Mom and the female nurses must somehow manage. Mom in particular seems like the long-suffering, good-at-everything glue holding the family unit together. The males here may have Important jobs, but they do not seem to be especially useful, as they slip on doughnuts, kick soccer balls into kids' heads, set guinea pigs free, get stuck in fences, and wander off. The book is inventive, compelling, and relatively complex, with interlocking stories and characters. Little bursts of text and images appear all over each two-page spread, reflecting the disorder of the story.
The depictions of nursing are fleeting but revealing. The two nurses who appear do not directly display a lot of technical skill, though they do both have clipboards, and the latter one at least knows enough to decline Clarice's stitches idea. However, the book's portrayal of nursing autonomy is excellent, and far closer to portraying the reality of the care these two patients would receive than many similar books get. The vast majority of the interactions these patients and family members would have with hospital workers would in fact be with nurses, or at least, they would be if the hospitals had adequate nurse staffing. Here, the nurses appear to be the ones managing the patients' care, and the nurses seem to have professional demeanors and attire.
Given the pro-female (and arguably anti-male) themes in the book, it might have been expected for the author to feature female physicians at the hospital. That is the approach "feminist" media creators typically take. Author Lauren Child does not take it. Perhaps she wants to show that women, even when still performing traditional roles like those of mother and nurse, are still basically running the show; no profession is mentioned here for Clarice's mother.
In fact, one might argue that the book is regressive in suggesting that men still have all the traditionally "important" jobs and failing to directly question that. Women may be smarter and wiser, solving the problems men create, but the women here seem to remain trapped in traditionally female roles. Perhaps the book is subtly legitimizing traditional gender roles even while poking fun at the men, like a familiar Hollywood sitcom or daytime television commercial. And in linking the nurses indirectly with Mom, is the book suggesting that they are a kind of professional mother, playing a role in the health care sphere that is similar to the role of Clarice's mother at home? Or is the book simply trying to make sure readers understand the value of what has long been regarded as "women's work"? The book might have avoided or minimized these issues by including at least one female with a traditionally male job. Perhaps Clarice's mother could have been revealed to be a child psychologist or a donut company executive.
In any case, the book's portrayal of nursing, while limited, is better than most.
If you'd like to contact the author, please send emails in care of Publicity at Candlewick Press to Laura Rivas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed June 4, 2010
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.