Tattoos in Picture Books by Crystal Brunelle
When I read Bob Graham’s book, April and Esme: Tooth Fairies, I was charmed. It’s an adorable story about two young fairies going out to collect their first tooth. The lovely story was not the only thing that I noticed though. The illustrations caught my attention. The mother of the young tooth fairies has a tattoo on her arm. It was 2011 and I was seeing a tattoo in a picture book for the very first time.
When I was young, tattoos were something associated with criminals, rebels and otherwise rough people. As a child, I never would have expected a fairy to have a tattoo. I also wouldn’t have anticipated seeing a parent in a story with any ink. This was despite the fact that many parents in our country did have tattoos. The only tattooed character I had experienced was Popeye in my weekend cartoons even though several people in my life had tattoos.
The moment I saw the tattoo on the page was the moment when I realized tattoos had been missing from children’s literature. It may or may not have been a conscious omission, but I’m glad that there are more and more children’s books that include tattoos to reflect what we see in our lives. More and more people, especially young people, are getting inked and that means more children have adults in their lives with tattoos. Bob Graham is an author who has included tattoos in several of his books, but they are incidental to the story. His characters are everyday types of people and they are seen in a very realistic way. Sometimes a tummy is peeking out of a crop top or the pants on a repairman are sagging in the back revealing a bit of his backside. The tattoos are just one more way of showing people the way we may normally see them in daily life.
When I read Colby Sharp’s great review about Tell Me a Tattoo Story by Alison McGhee, I was especially excited to get my hands on it. This wonderful book shows family love and caring. The child asks to hear the stories behind all of the tattoos his father has chosen. Every image has significance and the father takes the time to explain them.
Books are a way of connecting with others. We bond over the shared stories. Those moments together are great ways to communicate with each other and strengthen relationships. Tell Me a Tattoo Story is a book that could easily help caregivers who have tattoos begin a tattoo story ritual, too. It can also be a peaceful bedtime story for any family.
When I read aloud Last Stop on Market Street to classes at school, there were multiple children who pointed out the man on the bus with tattoos. Most of those who spoke up commented about a family member who also has multiple tattoos. Like me, they may have never noticed the lack of tattoos in the books they read, but once they saw tattoos, they definitely appreciated the inclusion.
Ever since that first reading of April and Esme I’ve kept my eye out for more books that show inked characters. Another great one is My Dad Used to Be So Cool by Keith Negley. This is a humorous take on how children see their parents. In it, illustrations show flashbacks to when the dad was in a band and did “cool” things. The illustrations also show the present with the dad doing household chores and playing with his child in a “cool” way. The book highlights the relationship between father and child in an endearing and humorous manner.
Our lives probably won’t change radically because there are more tattoos in children’s books now, but I’m happy to find them and share them especially with families where tattoos are enjoyed and celebrated.
Here’s a list of some books that feature tattooed characters:
April and Esme: Tooth Fairies by Bob Graham
A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña/illustrated by Christian Robinson
“Let’s Get a Pup!” said Kate by Bob Graham
My Dad Used to Be So Cool by Keith Negley
Sardines of Love by Zuriñe Aguirre
Tell Me a Tattoo Story by Alison McGhee/illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
The Trouble with Dogs by Bob Graham
Do you know of others? If so, please add them in the comments.
Crystal Brunelle teaches in the library at Northern Hills Elementary School in Wisconsin. She is the co-founder of richincolor.com and blogs there as well as on her personal blog readingtl.blogspot.com. You may also find her on Twitter as @librarygrl2.