We Help Grandma

A children’s book I used to love now just ticks me off.

The Country Bunny’s children were remarkably adept at household chores.

Long before I had a family of my own, I loved The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. This 1939 children’s classic, written by DuBose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack, is now regarded as a feminist and anti-racist statement. I was a child before either of these were a concept, however. I’m sure I just liked the pictures.

The book tells the story of Cottontail, who is a small, fast brown rabbit who aspires to be an Easter Bunny. She applies, only to be scorned by the elite big white Easter bunnies, who tell her to “go back to the country and eat a carrot.”
One of my helpers, vacuuming.
She goes home and, “by and by she had a husband and then one day, much to her surprise there were twenty-one Cottontail babies to take care of.” (Her husband is noticeably absent in the baby bunnies’ lives.)
She teaches them to do all the gardening and housework, thereby freeing herself to pursue the brass ring of Easter Bunny-dom once more. Then, she goes back to the big city where she surprises Grandfather with her speed, gained by mothering. She aces the test and becomes one of the greatest Easter Bunnies of all time.
We Help Mommy featured kids working with their mother. It was much more realistic.
It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized how dismissive this book is of the work of mothering. It perpetuates the lie of my youth, that women can have it all. We can choose anything, but—like all mortals—are limited by time and energy.
Any mother can tell you that it’s more difficult to teach a kid to do chores than to do them yourself. Still, kids can do tasks and they can be managed. What they can’t do is run their lives unsupervised. Raising good children requires a high level of skill and talent, but also a lot of hard work.
More realistic were We Help Mommy and We Help Daddy, illustrated by Rochester, NY’s own Eloise Wilkin. First published in 1959 and 1962 respectively, they feature little Bobby and Martha helping their parents with various household chores. Kids love to help, but as Wilkin’s books make clear, they’re not able to do jobs without help.
Little Bobby and Martha also had a daddy, and he too was engaged in his kids’ life.
This was the Golden Age of Little Golden Books, and Wilkin was their queen. Born in Rochester, she moved to New York City as a child, returning to attend the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology). In 1944, she signed a contract to produce three Golden Books per year. She illustrated 47 of these books over her long career.
I have two little helpers here this week. They’re my grandchildren. They’re reducing my productivity to zero, but I don’t mind. I’ve had a busy summer and this is my reward.
Parents (and grandparents) know that we give chores to babies not to clear our schedules, but to keep the kids busy while we do the dishes ourselves. Chores never hurt anyone, but it’s ridiculous to think that kids could manage a household themselves. Feminist and anti-racist the Country Bunny might be, but I’m never buying a copy for any grandchild of mine.

Your favorite artist you can’t remember

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
If you were raised in the United States, the odds are overwhelming that you had at least one Little Golden Book while growing up. These books were introduced in 1942 as a joint project of Simon & Shuster and Western Publishing. The idea was to do big runs of color pages so the books could be sold cheaply. They premiered with a cover price of a quarter, which rose to 29¢ in 1962. That was cheap enough for nearly everyone, which made them ubiquitous, and extremely important. With more than two billion sold, they have been “baby’s first book” for many American children.
Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
Eloise Margaret Burns Wilkin has been called “the soul of Little Golden Books.” Born in 1904 in Rochester, Wilkin moved downstate at age 2. She returned to Rochester to attend the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, now known as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). This school has a long tradition of excellence in art instruction.
After earning an Art and Illustration degree in 1923, Wilkin opened a studio with her friend Joan Esley in Rochester. Struggling to find work, the pair moved to New York City. A week later, Wilkin was hired to illustrate The Shining Hours by Mary Meek Atkeson.
Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
In 1930, Wilkin put her career on hold to marry. She, her husband and their four kids lived in Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her house there made cameo appearances in many of her books.
In 1944, Wilkin signed an exclusive contract with Simon & Shuster. This required her to illustrate three Little Golden Books each year. She had it all—wife, mother, career.
Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
In an interview with RIT’s University News, Wilkin’s son Sidney recollected his mother working long, long days as she approached her deadline. “We would run in and out of the house by her studio and she would stop us, show us something and ask if we liked it.”
In 1974, Wilkin revised "My Little Golden Book about God" to reflect our multicultural reality

In 1974, Wilkin revised “My Little Golden Book about God” to reflect our multicultural reality
Eloise Wilkin will never be remembered as a great artist, but her warm, beautifully-rendered pencil drawings had a profound influence on generations of American children. If you pored over books as a child, she probably had a hand in shaping your visual aesthetic.
Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.

Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
Wilkin illustrated more than 110 books, including 50 Little Golden Books. She died of cancer in Brighton, New York at the age of 83.