For International Women’s Day, I saw a lot online about great books written by and for women. I’ve seen stories about how we need more books written by and for and about women. I saw one disturbing post about how if you remove books from a bookshelf with no women in it, you end up with like 5 books, or some other sad and pathetic number that shows, beyond a doubt, that our daughters are growing up bereft of literary female heroes.
That might be true. But nobody has mentioned Liza Lou.
Liza Lou is the title character in the book “Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp”created by Mercer Mayer, the prolific children’s author who made every child feel safer with his book “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet”. He also wrote the Little Critter series, and as a kid, I pored over those books, trying to find the grasshopper and spider on every page. (Also, I’m still not quite sure what kind of animal the Little Critter is. Maybe that’s the point?)
But out of all of Mercer Mayer’s characters, Liza Lou is my favorite.
In case you aren’t familiar with this book, let me sum up. Liza Lou lives with her mother near the Yeller Belly Swamp, a place full of witches, haunts, and devils. Her mother gives Liza Lou a variety of errands to run, and during each errand, Liza Lou is set upon by one of these evil creatures in the swamp. Each time, she is forced to out think and outwit the creature, and each time, she does. By the end of the book, the Yeller Belly Swamp is free of these terrors, all because of one little girl’s efforts.
As a child, I was fascinated by the artwork. Mayer brings to life the beauty of a Southern bayou with rich color and intricate scenery. Liza Lou is also African American, and her skin was rendered so softly and beautifully, I remember wondering what it would feel like to touch it. I also remember thinking that the artwork reminded me of the artwork in the Little Critter series (I had a dog eared copy of “Just For You”, a Little Critter book, that I read almost every night), and was thrilled to discover one day that my two favorite books were written and illustrated by the same author. The fact that I recognized the illustrator’s work made me feel very smart as a child.
I forgot about Liza Lou until my own daughter was born, and then I came across a site about Mercer Mayer that listed his books. I saw the name of the book, and thought maybe my daughter would like to read it. I ordered it on Amazon, and read it to her. She was about 5. Not until I re-read it as an adult to my daughter did I understand what an amazing piece of literature this little book is. A little girl, defeating monsters, with no help from a man (or her parents, for that matter)? A little girl, acting independently and fiercely and using her brain to solve problems? A little girl, given responsibility and trust from her mother to do hard things? A little girl, single handedly ridding a swamp of evil, all on her own?
It was a truly feminist text if I ever saw one. And I never knew it as a child. I just thought she was cool.
Imagine how thrilled I was when my own daughter grew to love Liza Lou as much as I did. She carried the book to bed and crunched the cover and bent some pages as she stuffed into her backpack, time and time again, to be read and shared at school. In third grade, she did a report on it as her favorite book. She tried to do it a report on it again in 4th grade, but was told it was too easy a book for a 4th grader. This is probably true, and in terms of reading difficulty, my daughter most likely needed to pick a harder book. But how sad to be told that she has outgrown the Yellow Belly Swamp.
I found Mercer Mayer on Facebook, and sent him a message about Liza Lou, and thanked him for writing such a strong character for me to grow up with in an enduring story that was good enough to be handed down to my daughter. He sent me a nice answer back, saying he was glad that another generation was enjoying Liza Lou.
So maybe we do need more literature about feminism and strong female characters and books written by and about and for women. But sometimes, if you look hard enough, you’ll find that there have been some authors who have been championing women all along.
What are you favorite books from childhood that have meant more to you as an adult? Which books have you passed down to your children?