The (sometimes ugly) truth about children’s books. Also the longest post I have ever written.
February 01, 2011

“I think,” I told my husband over dinner last night, “that I have encountered my first ethical dilemma with the blog.”  And then I told him what I am about to tell you.

As I learn, I change.  When I learn that a company whose products I consume engages in practices that I find distasteful, I boycott.  I write unhappy letters to the CEO and I talk freely about why I feel that continuing to purchase those products is unethical.  I vote with my wallet, so to speak.  This is how it goes.  Business or government, profit or non-profit, I DON’T CARE; there is no such thing as returning to blissful ignorance.  Knowledge is power, as the saying goes.  When I know an ugly truth, I try to do my part to make things right.

A few weeks ago, it came to my attention that a publisher of children’s books has made business decisions that I vehemently disagree with.  They are marketing non-book (and non-book-related) products directly to children.

Yesterday with one of the most awesome books of awesomness ever: Old MacDonald Had A Woodshop

I personally feel that absolutely nothing should be marketed to children; it is morally irresponsible.  Advertising to impressionable children undermines parental guidance, end of story.  I have heard the argument that it is a parent’s job to mitigate the influences the outside world, including advertisements, have on their children.  I disagree.  If there are two farmers side by side and one farmer’s goats escape and destroy the other farmer’s alfalfa fields, who’s at fault?  NOT THE FARMER GROWING ALFALFA.  The goat dude should have made sure his fence was stronger.  He owes alfalfa man a big fat apology…and probably a cheque.

Why is it, then, that parents are responsible for keeping the outside world away from their precious alfalfa fields?  It is impossible.  We don’t have television, but my daughter will still see billboards and listen to the radio with friends and play with kids at the playground who wear Dora the Explorer pants.  I cannot control this, no matter how hard I try.  My daughter will see those billboards and want to wear make-up, she will listen to the radio and want a pair of skinny jeans like some pop star, and she will see those pants and want a Dora shirt for her birthday one year.

I believe, quite fervently, that all children’s products should be marketed to the adults responsible for keeping those children healthy and well.

I can understand to some extent why this publisher has made the decision to use their child-centric catalog to market products unrelated to books.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.  If they want to provide much-needed books at pennies on the dollar to libraries and non-profit organizations that promote pediatric literacy, they need to make up that money somewhere else.  I would love to believe that by marketing jewelry and sugary food products to school-age children, this publisher is able to provide more books to children in need.

But then again…if they needed the ad revenue, couldn’t they have run advertisements for different items, items that do not encourage the hypersexualization of our children or that are not made with processed ingredients?  Couldn’t they have targeted parents instead of children?  Couldn’t they have run ads for things like organic food home-delivery services or windshield wipers – something of absolutely no interest to the kids?

Couldn’t they have been more selective about the companies with whom they did business?  Couldn’t they have picked companies whose products do not negatively affect the health and wellbeing of the children they want to sell books to?

So I’m faced with a choice.  I can continue to work with this company, knowing that they have a long history of helping children and encouraging literacy…or I can refuse to work with this company again.  What would I do if this publisher were a person, a friend of mine?  Would I end the friendship because they made one choice I disagreed with?  How about if that choice could harm children’s health?  Would I still allow that person in my home?  Would I still introduce them to other friends and sing their praises?

We all have to draw our lines somewhere.  Can I really continue supporting board books that I know likely contain BPA, then turn around and not support a publisher who markets to children?  Is it hypocritical of me to buy children’s books knowing that the production of that book – from the chemicals in the inks to the trees processed for paper to the fuel used to produce and transport the book – was not good for the environment, but still not buy books from one company because this one business practice is not good for children?  Is it fair of me to reject one publisher for this choice without ever making the effort to find out if other publishers also make business choices I disagree with?  Is it reasonable to stop doing business with a company who exploits their access to children when there are other companies I have not stopped doing business with that probably do the same (or worse) without my knowledge?  Does it make any sense to stop promoting their books online when I still own and love some of their books?

What matters most here?  Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill?

After Donald and I talked about it, we made our decision.  Next week, book reviews and giveaways will resume and I will pretend that none of this ever happened.  But this week?  This week it weighs heavy on my mind.  I hope we made the right decision, the ethical decision.

Sometimes it’s better to be an unfair, unreasonable hypocrite than a doormat.

What would you do?

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  1. By on February 01, 2011

    Yeah, sorry, I kinda think you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Businesses are in business to make money, bottom line. It’s part of life.

  2. By Jill on February 01, 2011

    Thank you for airing your dilemma, it contains so much food for thought.  I think that you should do whatever is right for you.  You’re obviously making your choice in a thoughtful, careful way.  But your post will make me think twice next time I’m in the bookstore - last time, I looked at a series of eco-friendly board books from a small publisher, but I skipped over them and went with two of my all-time favorite (but probably NOT eco-friendly) books (frankly, I just liked the writing a lot better).  Maybe I’ll make a different choice in the future.  More importantly, I’ll think more carefully about why I’m making that choice… Thanks again, Sarah.

  3. By on February 01, 2011

    I’m sure you’re aware, but the sad truth is that the vast majority of what we see, read, watch, whatever is controlled by 6 large and powerful companies.

    While as a parent of such a young child you are admirably trying to control the influences that come into your home, at some point I’m sure (or at least assuming) that you’ll want her to begin to read some of the classics - which might include books that have been bought up and bundled into packages at mergers and buy outs - but have true literary value non-the-less.

  4. By on February 01, 2011

    I agree w/all the posters. Especially #3. I mean, you can’t put your child in a bubble forever. This world is run by huge corporations out to make a buck, not eco-friendly mom & pop operations.  Plus, so what if your daughter wants a pair of Dora pants one day? It’s not the end of the world. I do see your point, but you seem to take it to the extreme. Just my opinion though!

  5. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    I do not think I communicated my point clearly.  I am not talking about the influences that come into my home.  If we buy books, we buy them secondhand, so I feel that - to the extent I can - I am ensuring that fewer resources are wasted and that I am not directly supporting a company I might disagree with.  I am talking about whether or not it’s ethical to encourage people to buy books from a company that markets directly to children.  Most parents I know do not like the amount of advertising directly to children that exists and especially do not like the sorts of products (sugary cereals, Barbie dolls, etc) that are marketed.  If I continue to support this company publicly, am I undermining other parents’ decisions for their households?

    As for my home, we have guidelines.  No television character endorsements, for example.  That’s a firm one.  No products from companies who have a history of running advertisements that debase women by placing them, say, in cages (I spent a year researching this for a media course at college, so it’s just totally random that I even know about this lol).  Things like that.  Those are personal choices, but what she sees out and about is something that we don’t try to control.  I don’t hover around making sure she doesn’t see a kid wearing Dora pants.  She will see that, and because the character is cleverly displayed where that child is a walking advertisement to my child, my child will want it.  Not the end of the world.  I’m not going to try to control that.  I just won’t budge on the Dora pants in our home - we don’t watch television, so I don’t want her marketing something we don’t believe in to other children - but she can love them on that other kid all she wants.

    But the personal choices are one thing.  What I’m talking about here is whether or not it’s irresponsible of me to support that publisher’s books on my website, knowing that I am contributing to something I disagree with and knowing that I am encouraging other people to buy into something they might disagree with too.  If you were moderating this website and you felt that a company was making a morally questionable move, would you advertise it on your site?  Because whether I like it or not, when I write about a book, I’m essentially providing free advertising.  The idea behind the book reviews is to encourage parents to read by showing them all sorts of books they might not have seen otherwise and putting some of those books into their homes - is that more important than the integrity issue?

    I know that when I buy a ten-cent secondhand copy of this publisher’s book at the library castoff sale, I am not making or breaking their business.  I know that I am still indirectly supporting what I find distasteful.  But when I encourage other people to buy those books - and many do - is it ethical?  Is it hypocritical?  (After all, I turn down opportunities all the time for companies who provide plastic toys, television programs, household cleaners, etc - dozens each week.  Is it fair of me to make an exception for books just because I believe in reading to kids?)  What’s most important here?  Does it even matter?  Am I thinking too much about it?

    Alicia - Yeah, I know.  Lol, I remember seeing this SNL spoof about it once.  It’s horrifying.  It’s also why we make such an effort to support mom and pops, to divorce ourselves from most media (i.e. television), and to keep tabs on several news sources.  I think that’s why I like the Internet so much in its Wild West days - we had a chance to take back the press.  Even today, to some extent anybody writing online becomes a media source.  (Took me awhile, but here’s the PDF link from the New Internationalist that I’ve seen before.  And you know, now that I look more closely, I’m partnered with a few of those publishing houses listed too.  So maybe this is all just dumbness on my part: )

    Tieraney - I probably am =)  I thought I might be.  I just thought it might be a good idea to open it up to the public.  If readers don’t mind and feel that they can sort it out for themselves and the demand is still there, I might find a way to work with the publisher that makes me comfortable.  If they do mind and they do feel that it’s morally on the fence, then it only reinforces my desire to nip this relationship in the bud.

  6. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    I just thought of another hypocritical parallel.  I didn’t boycott when they sold that pedophile book.  I waited to see what would happen, complained vehemently to their customer service department, and when the book was pulled, I went about my life as usual.  I waited instead of jumping to boycott because I wondered if it was unfair to punish them.  They were, after all, endorsing freedom of speech even if they were doing so by publishing an awful book that could easily contribute to the violation of children.  I wondered if it was unfair to hate something I didn’t fully understand (the publishing arrangement, not the kid love stuff).  Ultimately I decided that public welfare mattered most to me, more in this one case than freedom of speech, so I decided to boycott them IF they did not pull the book within a certain time frame.  They did.  Then I decided not to boycott them because in doing so they had rectified what I viewed as a grave mistake.

    Maybe not granting the benefit of the doubt in what is arguably a much lesser infringement against child welfare in this case is hypocritical.

    It’s hard to tell.  Not watching television, not listening to the radio, etc, makes me a little over the top about advertising to kids, I think.  It makes the ads stand out so much more.

  7. By Liz on February 01, 2011

    I think you need to let your conscience be your guide.

    If it feels wrong to you, then it is wrong. For *you*.

    Having said that, unless you move out into the wilderness and never make another purchase, you will always buy something tied to some sort of evil. It’s a sad reality.

  8. By Carlyn on February 01, 2011

    There are worse things than books that could be advertised to children, like barbies, i HATE barbies. but when Arianna is bigger, and she sees something about a book, and she wants it? i am ALL for that. They have to learn at some point, about advertisment, and the difference between a good, smart purchase, vs. the opposite. may as well teach them young.

  9. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Carlyn - They’re advertising food products, toys, and jewelry, not just books.  I don’t mind the advertisement of books nearly the same way that I mind the advertisement of sugary foods.

  10. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Liz - It is a sad truth =(  Donald and I were saying that last night.  We’d have to be cavemen to give Charlotte the life we’d love for her to have - but then we’d all probably die of some sort of monkey cave disease lol.  Lose lose.

  11. By on February 01, 2011

    I’m not sure which publisher you’re referring to, but I will say that we have bought a number of the books that you have reviewed on here.

    Me, All Alone, At the end of the world - one of my newest favorite children’s books!
    Alternative ABC’s - and you didn’t even review it, I just saw it in a picture and thought it looked adorable!
    Leo’s Tree
    Little Hoot - and we ended up buying the whole “little ___” set just because…

    and a few others.

    I know that only one of these books were immediately available in the book store we shop at. Each of the others had to be special ordered and each one the sales woman told me she thought looked darling and as the head of the children’s department she’d look into getting it on hand (whether she ever did or was just blowing smoke up my ass, I don’t know - I never checked). I agreed to purchasing these books solely off of your review as I didn’t have the option to read them myself in store.

    That being said, I am only one of your readers. I enjoy your reviews, but really, that’s not the main reason I come to your page - I enjoy reading your thoughts on the world as it applies to your family whether I agree or disagree with the topic.

    So, as someone who usually skims through your book reviews and I’ve already bought a handful, you’re obviously making an impact on the publisher’s business. How many of your readers come here specifically to hear about new books? and buy all of the ones you suggest? As I said above and you seem to agree - it’s nearly impossible to not support, in one way or another, the companies you disagree with.

    However, if the biggest question you have is whether you’re doing an injustice to your readers by supporting a company that you disagree with, then I think by just asking the question you already know the answer.

    Perhaps a way to make sure you’re doing what you feel is best for your readers is to add a ‘business practices’ portion to your review - or some sort of disclosure that their practices may be questionable to families who don’t support advertising to children? That’s just a thought. I’m not sure what type of agreement you have with these publishers and whether disagreeing with their policy will sever your relationship anyway - but if they’re admirable, they won’t mind you vocalizing whether you find something irksome about their practices to make it easier for your readers to make an educated decision about their purchases.

  12. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Alicia - That’s a brilliant idea!  I’ll have to keep that in mind.  That might be a win-win for everyone.

    I think you’re right - most people don’t read here for book reviews.  It’s like a sideshow lol.

    Also, hey how do you like the rest of the “Little” series?  I keep meaning to check them out!

    Ahhh, and Leo’s Tree.  I love that book… =)  Good picks!

  13. By erin on February 01, 2011

    I’m not sure what to do or how I would feel if I were in your shoes, and maybe (as often happens) I will end up working it out for myself as I write this (likely long) comment.  I do think that we do not live in a vacuum, as much as we would like to, and so we have to make choices accordingly, often between the lesser of two evils.  For example, we do not often buy processed foods, but I just ADORE Kraft processed American cheese on a liverwurst sandwich.  (On white bread.  Slathered with mayo.  And mustard.  I know it’s the equivalent of my entire caloric intake for the rest of my life, or at least my entire fat consumption for the rest of my life, but DAMN it is so. good.)  Kraft Foods is a subsidiary of Altria, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes.  Do I boycott Kraft Foods, or not?  Some people would say that is an easy choice to make - yes, boycott them - but to me it is such a minor thing.

    Your example of a friend who made a choice you do not agree with is similar - you have to take things in context.  Did that friend purchase a Dora shirt for her daughter?  Or did that friend beat her daughter for not washing her hands properly?  The rule at our house is (generally) no branded merchandise… but we watch Sesame Street and my daughter LOVES Elmo, so we do have some Sesame Street toys (and I don’t mind supporting Sesame Workshop as opposed to, say, Disney).  But… we didn’t choose to breastfeed as long as you did. Then again, I don’t beat my kid or anything.  Does that mean we can’t be friends because I make different choices for my family than you do? 

    I think in that situation (and in your publisher situation) you have to look at everything in context.  We have a television (two!) in our home because my husband loves sports and cannot imagine life without watching baseball and football on tv.  But we love each other, we love our daughter, and we try to make the best choices possible to give each other and our child the best life possible according to what we feel works best for our family - and those are the values that you and I value in each other and that give us things in common (oh, and that our kiddos are pretty much the cutest kiddos on the planet) and things that we admire and respect about each other so that we can be friends.

    So you just have to decide, is this a deal-breaker or not?

  14. By erin on February 01, 2011

    PS, here’s a thought too that could be paralleled to the publisher thing: my mother does not believe in Barbies.  She believes they are poor role models for children, especially young impressionable girls, and she did not want that for her daughters.  Nor did she want us to be coveting everything Barbie, or dealing with the tantrum because we couldn’t wear our Barbie shoes, or whatever.  She felt the same way about video games too.  So the rule was not that Barbies or video games were not allowed in the house - the rule was, you had to buy them with your own money.  It was perfectly fine if someone else gave them to us as a gift, but she (and my father) were not going to spend their hard-earned money on crap like Barbies.  As a consequence I only had 2 and they were not a very big deal in and of themselves.  Honestly, the most fun I had with my Barbies was sewing clothes and such for them (and my mom DID buy a couple patterns for Barbie clothes) and making cardboard houses for them.  The way I see it, my mom recognized that she could not prevent that “evil” from infiltrating her children’s lives, but she could set limits on it and encourage healthy behaviors in the context of that “evil” (saving money, working toward a goal, creative expression, etc).

  15. By on February 01, 2011

    My only advice to you is to pick your battles.  You can’t possibly fight every battle!  So you have to choose.  Which battles are most important to you?  Where do you stand the greatest chance of making a difference in the world?  If by picking one battle, are you wasting time and energy that could be more productively spent on something else?  Personally, I see why you are upset, but this isn’t a battle that I would pick.  But that’s just me ...

    BUT, I think this idea is GREAT (found in the post just above):
    “Perhaps a way to make sure you’re doing what you feel is best for your readers is to add a ‘business practices’ portion to your review - or some sort of disclosure that their practices may be questionable to families who don’t support advertising to children? That’s just a thought. I’m not sure what type of agreement you have with these publishers and whether disagreeing with their policy will sever your relationship anyway - but if they’re admirable, they won’t mind you vocalizing whether you find something irksome about their practices to make it easier for your readers to make an educated decision about their purchases.“

    Also, referring to your comment above, do you actually manage to buy ALL of your beautiful children’s books second-hand?  Wow, you are so lucky!!  Good for you!  I look for second-hand books, but it’s really hard for me to find high-quality books that are used.  Sometimes ... occasionally ... if I’m lucky ....  I also have some ‘used’ books that are left-over from my own childhood.  But when I first got them, they were purchased new!  I have to admit, though, that for me the great lure of used books is that they are so much cheaper! 

    But by buying new books, you know, one is not just supporting a (potentially evil) publishing company.  One is supporting the authors and illustrators of these marvelous books, too.  I’m sure their cut is very small, compared to the overall price you-the-consumer pay, but when a book is purchased as-used, the artists/writers get nothing at all from the sale.  So that’s just another way to look at it!  If we want artists/writers to be able to continue to create new works, they will need financial support (most of them), and that (mostly) will come from sales.  Unless the NEA can fund them all!

    Personally, when I buy a book (used/new, doesn’t matter), what’s most important to me is the quality of the book.  That is, do I find the writing to be appealing, well done?  Do the illustrations rise to the level of art, in my opinion?  Does it inspire me or fire my imagination (or my child’s imagination)?  That’s what counts.  For very small children/babies, who are going to chew on the books, I will care about whether they contain BPA or are made of eco-friendly/safe/non-toxic materials, but for older kids and adults who are hopefully beyond eating the books, it’s the literary/artistic/imaginative/informational content that I weigh in my decision to purchase.

  16. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Erin - So the question is: what would your mother do if Mattel’s rival wanted to advertise on her blog?  The rival isn’t Barbie, but it’s the same sort of doll.  She disagrees with the premise.  But then again, she’s all about blogging about alternatives to Barbie.  Does she go through with it and write about this alternative, knowing that she disagrees with it?  Or does she say no, no way, it’s the idea, not the specific doll?

  17. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Ellie - I guess the reason I’m curious is because I pick my battles at home with the help of my husband, but I’ve never felt like I have to assess a battle online before.

    As for books: almost all, but not quite all, of our books are purchased secondhand.  Some books are provided new by publishers and some are bought new with gift cards and some come as gifts from friends, but most are found at library sales and the like.  We’ve been very lucky.  There’s also a woman who works locally whose entire business is tracking down used books in good condition - she finds them for under a buck and passes them on.  And I have friends with whom we casually trade.  For example, we love this book called Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm.  We found a second copy of it, in good condition, in a give basket on someone’s lawn on our walk the other day.  So we took it in and will give it to a friend.  We’ve received about 1/3 of our books that way - friends find them at yard sales or whatever, already have a copy, and pass them along to us.

    Without a gift card, I generally refuse to buy children’s books new - I like the feeling of history, the thumbed pages and the little pencil-ins “Alex was here” etc.  I also like the discounted price and the feeling that I’m not singlehandedly jolting the planet off its axis.

    AS A GENERAL RULE, it seems to me through comments and e-mails here that most people think it’s not a big deal and that a few people like the idea of disclosure.  I think that might be a reasonable compromise.

  18. By on February 01, 2011

    In general the “little” series is three books with the same story line, but a different topic. Little Hoot wants to go to bed, but isn’t allowed, so he has to stay awake and then is allowed to go to bed. Little Pea wants to eat his greens, but isn’t allowed so he has to eat candy and then he can have his spinach.. Little Oink… you get the picture. But I still think they’re cute.

    Amy Krouse Rosenthall also wrote a book called “Spoon” that I think is adorable and you might like! Not sure if you have it, but it’s worth checking out! Jude loves it (my husband though… he’s getting a little tired of reading it.)

  19. By erin on February 01, 2011

    I don’t know, which is why I understand your dilemma.  It’s the role model in general, not the specific doll… but I don’t know.  I guess it would depend possibly on the business practices then, of the company.  I really like the “business practices disclosure” idea, btw.  Alicia should win an award or something for that. :)

  20. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    I like Alicia’s idea too.  The only hitch is that I might need to learn about the other publishers to make it all even?  I can tell you right now that that is pretty much not going to happen.  I want to be responsible and ethical, but I also like the peace of reading books.  I don’t like the idea that there is evil or money-grabbing behind beautiful words, SIGH.

    A reader named Helen suggested via e-mail that another alternative would be to discuss the books as usual and start speaking out about various parent-and-child-centric company practices that change the way we consume products.  We boycott Nestle, for example, and alot of companies linked on both sides of the fence to GMOs.  She thought talking about why we view things the way we do might counteract making an exception for books.

    More food for thought, I suppose.

  21. By Sheila on February 01, 2011

    Yes, I agree ... If you really want to encourage people to read the books, while not supporting their business practices, post a disclaimer stating what you disagree with about the company.  Then others can make their own choice.  Perhaps by buying the books directly, instead of from catalogs filled with advertisements, we can show the publisher that we want just the books, not the other stuff.  Who knows.

    In any event, a reputable publisher is unlikely to mind you stating your exact views!  That is, after all, what they want reviewers for.

  22. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Sheila - That’s a great way of looking at it!  I love the idea that buying directly is evidence that parents want the books, not the other stuff.  I hadn’t even thought of it that way!

    Yeah I think my mind’s made up =)

  23. By on February 01, 2011

    Sorry, I"m a bit confused ...  What do you mean by “buying directly”?  I guess I’ve never seen a book catalog before, so that’s part of my problem in understanding you.  I just buy books from bookstores (brick and mortar and/or online).  There’s never any catalog involved.  I just pick my books and buy them.  Does that count as buying directly?  Or to buy “directly”, do you mean buying directly from the publisher? 

    Also, while on the topic, don’t you have some concerns about Amazon?  I don’t mean because they sell child-pornography books (I’ve never even heard of the book you mentioned, which, thank goodness, Amazon no longer sells), but because they are “taking over the world”.  That is, they are a mega-company behemoth, which very few can compete with.  In my area, there are NO independent book sellers anymore, besides a few used booksellers.  Barnes & Noble (& Borders) are the brick & mortar equivalent of Amazon, in my mind.  I’d like to boycott Amazon, mainly because I don’t want every other small business that sells books to go out of business, but it’s often hard to find a particular book anywhere except on Amazon!  At least, on the plus side, they do sometimes link to smaller independent booksellers, though of course, by doing this, I’m sure that they are cutting into those smaller booksellers’ profits.  Oh well.  If I can support a small/medium business, I do.  If I can’t, I accept and move on!  That’s life, I suppose.

    You are so lucky to have some good children’s book sellers near you.  Nothing like that anywhere near me!  Like you, though, we do exchange books with friends, and I love that! 

    But I guess I’m a little different from you in that while I appreciate and enjoy used books, I also love to have the pristine special brand-new book on occasion.  Mostly, I prefer to support second-hand goods because I’m a bit anti-consumerism, too, but books are my exception (& guilty pleasure).  And I don’t think too many authors/illustrators are getting rich off of their books, so I like to support them, in the small way I can, which isn’t much, I know.

    Maybe if I knew more about publishing, I’d be thoroughly disgusted.  However, for now, I don’t know much, so I live in blissful ignorance.  Which is also to say that I can totally understand why you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time turning up all the dirty laundry of the other publishers you mention on your blog! 

    On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t be too much work.  You could make up a short list of questions on business practices that you could have each publisher answer for you.  Just 2-3 questions, such as:
    Do you advertise directly to children? 
    Do you use book marketing to sell other non-book-related merchandise and spin-uff gear? 
    Do you support child and adult literacy programs and if so, how?
    Those could be your questions.  And if you find out more stuff that you don’t (or do) like about a company, you could mention it on your blog, but I don’t think you’re under any obligation to do a thorough investigation of each and every company.

  24. By Sarah Christensen on February 01, 2011

    Ellie - That’s a really tough question because I waffle back and forth on the answer.

    The truth of the matter is that I try to avoid megas like Amazon most of the time in favor of smaller, local businesses that have more agreeable business practices such as being green, becoming native fauna or flora sanctuaries, or giving back to our community through employee service.  For books, if I purchase online I prefer Better World Books over Amazon and if I purchase in-person, I prefer used book stores and independents.  Sometimes the indie shop is an hour away, so I plan my visit to coincide with shop events.  There’s a bookshop, for example, that we visited about six months back.  We went when they were having a ‘green rush’ which means that green non-profits (i.e. beach clean groups, child and nature groups, etc.) set up info tables in their parking lot.  We made some great connections, attended a puppet show and a story-time, and bought a couple endangered species cookie cutters handmade by a local artisan.

    Of course, other times I buy my dog’s food at PetSmart and my organic apples at Trader Joe’s and for a long time I bought hair conditioner from a company that I knew was targeted for a boycott because of animal testing.  We boycott Nestle, too.  It affected alot of our product consumption when we first began to boycott Nestle, but now we’ve adjusted and it’s not a big deal.  Still, I make exceptions.  Over the weekend, someone served me Abuelita hot cocoa.  I don’t like the ingredients and I don’t like the company, but I don’t want to offend anyone.  My daughter also has some secondhand Gerber shirts.  Oh well.  They make good painting shirts!

    What does it really matter that I bought cookie cutters locally if a few rabbits died so that I could have tangle-free hair?  It sounds great when I only mention the one, though, lol.  But no matter how often I try to give my business to local mom and pops, I still make exceptions.

    The reason I link to Amazon specifically on my website is that they list all of the books (or at least all of them thus far) that I discuss here.  Other book shops like Barnes & Noble and Better World Books do not.  Most people also recognize the Amazon brand name, which makes it easy.  They see the link and know exactly what to expect, may even already have an account prepared.  I include IndieBound links in an effort to counteract this.  I want to give people the option of finding a local provider.  I thought about linking directly to publishers every time - and I have given them that option - but not every publisher sells their books through their website directly.

    Honestly, though, for every one person that clicks on the IndieBound link, twenty people click the Amazon link.  It’s just the way it is.  I’m increasingly anti-consumerism and anti-big-business, but I also don’t have the time or the energy to find independent providers for every book I mention.

    Last but not least, what I meant by directly was straight from the publisher instead through the catalog geared toward children.  When a publisher sees that the demand is for online purchases and not for catalog purchases, in theory they might change their practices.  The problem I have with this publisher isn’t that they have advertising in catalogs, it’s that they hand out catalogs to children and THOSE catalogs have advertisements that are not book-related.  And I could even ignore that, but they’re advertising unhealthy foods and toy items like cosmetics that are often (albeit not always) associated with sexuality.  I have a problem with all marketing to children, but especially marketing that undermines their health (like sugary foods), encourages gender stereotypes (like jewelry for girls and trucks for boys), and lays the foundation for a child to assess self-worth based on cosmetics and physical appearance (like make-up).  They’d probably just move the adverts, but you never know.  They might change which companies are IN their adverts to begin with too.

  25. By Courtney L @ Bundle of Wonder on February 01, 2011

      I don’t have anything new to add to the discussion on your question for it seems like you’ve made up your mind and all that I had to say has already been said!  LOL.  I did want to thank you for sharing the Better World Books as an alternative to Amazon.  I will definitely be buying my books from there in the future!

  26. By Tracy Roberts on February 01, 2011

    Absolutely one of the best posts you have EVER written!  And it was not funny at all. ;)
    Work with another company would be my decision, but I respect yours. 
    And I hear ya on the freakin dora pants!
    Love you friend!

  27. By Jennifer on February 01, 2011


    You made a decision.  There is never any way to know if it is actually the “right” decision, but it is made, and that is good.

    It is refreshing to know that someone else struggles with the issue of “where to draw the line” so to speak.  I have come to the conclusion that the only way to make a firm line, is to live on a farm where I pot my own dishes, grow my own food, and make my own clothes.  The problems with that is that I don’t know how to pot, farm or sew.

    So hang in there, and I say: “ though it is weighing heavy on you this week, feel good that you continue to question.“  For whatever it is worth.


  28. By on February 01, 2011


    First of all, I think this is one of those ‘the journey is far more important than the outcome or goal’ type of things.  In my opinion, it is so very important to take the time (and brain space) to think about these kinds of things - to always question why you are doing something a certain way, if it can be done better, more ethically, etc ... I think the humility required to look objectively at ones choices is inspiring ... Your final decision, is to me, far less important (although interesting, none the less!).  Not sure if that made sense, but basically in case it didn’t - I think you are awesome.

    Second.  I am surprised no one else mentioned this.  Or maybe they did and I didn’t see it.  But um, the solution to your dilemma seems pretty obvious to me.  Sarah, you need to start writing/ illustrating/ publishing your own children’s books!  I’m serious.  I don’t even have a kid, and I would buy your books.  Just sayin ...

  29. By on February 02, 2011

    But you’ve illustrated this thoughtful post with a picture of your daughter wearing a Baby Gap sweater!??

    This is from 2007,  you will say. Things have improved. They are always promoting themselves as working towards more ethical practices (or, at least, a more ethical image).
    So why this report from just last August?

    I appreciate your sense of outrage at publishers advertising sugar to toddlers. Sure, it makes your job as a parent harder but you still get to control what your daughter eats.
    I don’t think Dora pants are bad because they have a cute (and educational) cartoon on ‘em. They are bad if they are made by another child working in slavery.
    [I don’t know which companies make Dora pants]

    So, yes, I agree with you in principle, but I also agree with the reader who said: pick your battles carefully.

  30. By Sarah Christensen on February 02, 2011

    Mary - All of Charlotte’s clothes come secondhand or as gifts and in rare circumstances we supplement with an item from a secondhand shop.

    As I mentioned before, with her clothing I only fight some battles.  I don’t allow television characters because we don’t watch television - it makes no sense for me to endorse a character I’ve never seen and probably never will see in action.  I made one exception - Charlotte was handed down a Sleeping Beauty nightgown.  It has been washed so many times that you can no longer see Sleeping Beauty, I just happen to remember what it looked like four years ago when I saw it the first time around.  I know there was a Sleeping Beauty there once upon a time, but I still put the gown in her dress-up box, right next to a kimono and a bumblebee outfit, because I don’t mind her playing dress-up in it without the character attached.

    A battle I haven’t picked, though, would be Gerber.  Gerber is owned by Nestle.  We boycott Nestle.  I will not allow the purchase of any Gerber items for our household, but we are handed down a lot of little white Gerber t-shirts.  I donate all the characters and the clothes that we won’t use that come secondhand, but I do not donate Gerber shirts because I know that we can use them.  We use them all the time.  I don’t like Nestle, but I don’t like wasting something even more.  I wouldn’t buy a Gerber shirt secondhand to supplement Charlotte’s wardrobe with my own money, but I won’t turn it down now that it’s here.

    The same applies to Gap.  We don’t shop at Gap or its various name brands, ever, under any circumstances and we try to stay up-to-date on companies that have or continue to use sweatshops or child labor so that we can boycott them as well.  But the sweatshirt came secondhand and although I wouldn’t pick it out of a bin on my own, I won’t waste the resources.  I will donate (waste) the resources on television characters, so maybe it’s an unfair double standard, but the battle I have picked is licensed characters.  I don’t like that they are targeted directly to children (whereas the clothing lines are generally targeted to adults, especially at toddler ages), and I don’t like the way that a licensed character to some extent limits the creativity of a child (whereas a generic robot can be acted out in any way, a Buzz Lightyear will generally only be acted out as a Buzz Lightyear, at least by children who know who Buzz Lightyear is, and since my child interacts with those children, their behavior will inform her own behavior), and I really don’t like the way that television programs are used to indoctrinate young minds.  More than anything, I just plain dislike television and most of the effects it has had on our children and our population.  I don’t want to advertise that in any way.

    So that’s the battle I picked with clothing.  Accept what I can live with, even if I don’t like it, and donate what I cannot.

  31. By Marisa on February 03, 2011

    Yeah, sorry, I think you are making a mountain out of mole hill.  There just really, truly isn’t any way to completely keep your kids from every advertisement.

    Sesame Street is a good example (I worked there in NYC as an intern one summer).  They are great and have a wonderful program going but they have to make their money somewhere to pay the huge research department, music directors, actors, etc.  Unfortunately, nothing is free, not even Sesame Street.  :-) 

    I do wish you luck as your little one gets older!  It gets a bit more tough.

  32. By Sarah Christensen on February 03, 2011

    Marisa - Don’t apologize!  It’s the different opinions that make it a conversation worth having, and besides, I’m far from perfect.  I make mountains out of molehills all the time - just ask Donald!

    As it were, though, I was not talking about my choices or my kid.  I know it isn’t possible to keep adverts away from my child and I don’t try.  We make some lifestyle choices (i.e. no television, shopping at farmer’s markets, etc) that to some extent limit advertising exposure but that’s just a happy bonus.  I’m asking about it from a blogging perspective - what is and is not the ethical choice.  In my personal life, I make one set of decisions.  When I blog, I make another.  My question is this: if I feel that what a company engages in is unethical, should I stop doing blog-business with them?  My personal convictions aside, is it fair to provide free advertising to a company whose business practices are sometimes (albeit not always) questionable?  Where do you draw the line?  Where I draw the line in my everyday personal life is entirely separate from where I draw the line on my website.

    The situation is non-ideal, so which matters more?  Upholding a personal ideal and extending a personal lifestyle choice to my website?  Or upholding a different personal ideal and featuring quality children’s books regardless of what publishers do behind the scene?

    I think the Sesame Street example is great, and I mentioned in the post that from that standpoint I completely understand.  This publisher does a lot of good in the pediatric literacy world.  But they can’t do that good without funds, and money doesn’t grow on trees, so they have to get that money from somewhere.  They happen to distribute book catalogs, so naturally it follows that those catalogs would be an excellent place to sell advertising.  I totally understand that.  But understanding that does not mean that I agree with or endorse the way they put that into practice.  I disagree with: a) the decision to market directly to children, in catalogs distributed to children, b) the products being marketed, c) the way that the products are being marketed - i.e. contests wherein the highest earning class receives a party hosted by a processed food corporation, d) the location of this marketing being at public schools, and e) the decision to exploit exclusive contracts with school districts.  There were many ways they could have made money through selling advertising that I and some of the other enraged parents may have found more acceptable: a) marketing to parents - after all, the parents are the ones buying the books and after the kids get them at school, they bring them home to Mom and Dad, b) book-related age-appropriate products for children (no mascara marketed to kindergarten girls) or products like cleaning supplies or farm delivery services that adults use and young children often do not, c) parties hosted by food companies known for producing healthy organics, etc., and d) advertising local community products or services that help strengthen individual communities near these schools as compared to corporations that have no vested interest in any specific school outside of profit margin.

    Money doesn’t just happen along, of course.  But there are tasteful alternatives to the choices this publisher made that could have been equally lucrative and might have better supported the health and wellbeing of children and their communities.

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