I skipped yesterday – or I took a day off yesterday, whichever way I want to see it. Because when I sat down to gather my notes and thoughts on Labels for Laibel, I remembered that my notes included reminders to read up on some theory and scholarship on various aspects of picture books in order to write this chapter. I spent a good few hours chasing down the sources I had bookmarked, skimming the abstracts, and planning to read more fully later, after dinner, or maybe before class today.
And then I remembered that the point of writing these posts is to force myself to just write up my thoughts, and leave the secondary sources for later. I can add them in later.
So this post is based on a close reading of the text, and I’m very likely missing some key points about picture books here – but I’ll get to that later, I’ll add that in later. Meanwhile, here are some preliminary observations.
Note: Follow-up post here.
Labels for Laibel is, as many comment on Twitter whenever I tweet about the book, a classic. It was published in 1990, in the second year of Hachai Publishing’s existence. Hachai publishes only children’s books, as opposed to the other publishers who mainly publish books for adults, with children’s books making up only a small segment of their catalogs. Unlike the other major haredi publishers, which are unaffiliated with any particular sect, Hachai is affiliated with Lubavitch. It was founded and is still run by Lubavitcher hasidim (but Lubavitch / Chabad hasidism is very different from most other hasidic sects, and actually aligns far more with haredi ideology than with Satmar or Bobov or Belz etc). The children’s books published by Hachai are used widely in haredi schools and homes, and many of the earliest titles have never gone out of print from 1989 until today.
The author of Labels for Laibel, Dina Rosenfeld, is now also an editor at Hachai. In her Goodreads bio, she writes that “As a preschool Hebrew teacher, she simply could not find age-appropriate, full color picture books for her 4-year-old students and decided to create children’s stories of her own.” Of course, age-appropriate, full-color picture books did exist for 4-year-olds – but Rosenfeld is thinking specifically of an audience of haredi preschoolers. The books that Rosenfeld wrote – beginning with The Very Best Place for a Penny and A Tree Full of Mitzvos – were not just full-color and age-appropriate, they were also imbued with Jewish values of tzedakah and mitzvos.
I found it interesting that, unlike other haredi picture books like the ones from the Artscroll Middos Series (which I may post about later), Labels for Laibel does not include any Biblical or Talmudic phrases at the end. The Artscroll Middos Books all end with a verse from Torah or Gemara to encapsulate the lesson meant to be learned by the end of the book – midvar sheker tirchak (distance yourself from untruths), or v’ahavta le-rai’acha kamocha (love your friend as yourself). One of Hachai’s most popular books, Messes of Dresses, ends with the verse from Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), aizehu ashir, ha-same’ach be-chelko (who is rich, one who is happy with his lot). But Labels for Laibel ends simply with the line “sharing is something all people must do,” with no reference to Jewish texts.
The book follows two brothers, Yossi and Laibel. It is the first in a series where the pattern remains the same: Yossi is the brother with good and pure instincts, and Laibel is the brother who falls easily into temptation. In Yossi and Laibel Hot on the Trail, Laibel is lazy while Yossi wants to help others, and in Yossi and Laibel On the Ball, Laibel is judgmental while Yossi accepts everyone for who they are. But in the first book, Yossi falls prey to Laibel’s bad influence: Laibel refuses to share and decides to label all his belongings so everyone would know not to touch his stuff, and Yossi follows his example. When the mother and father follow suit and label all the stuff in the kitchen and driveway, denying the boys dinner and play space, the two brothers learn their lesson that “sharing is something all people must do.”
The lesson about sharing is one that can be found in many many mainstream picture books. After all, picture books are often used to teach children about social interactions. But the way the lesson appears in mainstream books differs slightly from the way it’s presented in Labels for Laibel.
This may be due in part to the fact that in most haredi picture books teaching character, the lesson is not actually about social interactions: the lessons, as I mentioned, are often presented via verses from Torah and Talmud. The format imparts the idea that these lessons are not about learning to get along well with others, but about being good Jews and following the lessons of the Torah.
So while most mainstream picture books about sharing take place in a setting where adults are peripheral figures – places like school, the playground, or on play dates – Labels for Laibel takes place in a family home. While mainstream picture books have the children learning to share because they miss their friends or discover that playing alone is no fun, Yossi and Laibel learn to share because their parents mimic their selfish behavior and deny them food and care.
In some ways, the role of the parents in this book is similar to the role of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in the books of that name: Extending normal childlike behavior to absurdity in an effort to make the child regret that behavior. After all, it is normal for children to stake claims of ownership and to refuse to share. But it is not normal for adults – who have grown past the inability to understand social interactions – to refuse to share basic necessities like food.
At the end of the book, the illustrations (by the legendary illustrator of haredi children’s texts as well as comics, Norman Nodel) show the parents peeking around the doorway of the boys’ bedroom as the brothers look at each other with wide smiles and their arms around each other’s shoulders, a wastebasket overflowing with discarded labels in the corner.
The parents have not preached about the benefits of sharing or the drawbacks of greediness (though, sidenote: I found it amusing that this Jewish Book Council review from 2011 calls the book “preachy” when in fact, it’s no more preachy than any other book trying to teach children about social interactions). The children have learned the lesson on their own.
And yet, there’s something disturbing about that lesson being taught when the children are denied basic food and care. After all, it is very different when children claim “their albums with pictures, their albums with stamps, the microscope, mirror, and two football lamps” (16), and when parents claim basic necessities like food and dishes. A child screaming “it’s mine, no one can touch it!” is learning boundaries and personal possession. A mother saying “Every night I share all of the food, but somehow, tonight I’m just not in the mood!” (22) is… child abuse, let’s face it.
The father’s denial of the car and driveway, and of “my clothes, my reclining chair, slippers, and new garden hose, my briefcase, shoe polish, my tools and umbrella” (27) has less of an impact on the children’s well-being. That points to the gendered roles of the parents which the books solidifies – the mother’s realm, her labeled belongings, are in the kitchen, while the father’s realm and labeled belongings are outside the home, in the toolbox, and in personal comfort.
Regardless of the gendered difference of impact on the children’s immediate well-being, the book (unintentionally) equates a child’s unwillingness to share chips, soda, books, etc., with a parent’s unwillingness to care for their children.
If you ask any haredi reader – myself included before I started doing a deep analysis of the book – that’s not the lesson at all. The lesson is about sharing! Seeing child abuse in a cute fun story is sick! So people might say.
And yet, there is value in noticing the forlorn looks on the brothers’ faces as they follow their mother, who carries her used dishes to the kitchen with a satisfied smile on her face.
If Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s remedies are reminiscent of “bad trips” (Horn), the parents’ manipulation in Labels for Laibel is certainly emotionally abusive. Rather than allowing the children to learn their lessons on their own – as with books like Llama Llama Time to Share or The Squirrels Who Squabbled – this book requires a manufactured situation, one which takes all normal social interactions to their extreme.
And the parents never explain to the boys that their selfishness was a ploy, that the boys’ welfare was never at risk – though the reader gets to see that from the parents’ beaming smiles on the last page of the book.
I’m not prepared yet to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions that will make it into my dissertation beyond these initial musings. I need to brush up, do some more reading of my notes and of additional sources on picture books, character education, psychology, etc. So this is it for now…