Natalie Portman gives Aesop an update with new children’s book

If I had to choose one image to represent the phrase “having it all,” it would be a simple snapshot of Natalie Portman, best known as an actress but also a climate activist, vegan lifestyle evangelist, literary influencer, promoter of those social justice causes already widely accepted in Hollywood, sports entrepreneur, and alleged disrupter of marriages within the Jewish intelligentsia.

With the announcement of her first children’s book, “Natalie Portman’s Fables,” which will debut on October 20, Portman can add a new line to her resume — maybe.

A collection of “gender-safe” stories, Portman’s contribution to the canon of folklore responds to the tendency, within children’s literature, to focus on the lives and feelings of male characters. In a letter on the book’s website, Portman said she was inspired by the wildly different books with which well-intentioned friends greeted the births of her son and daughter. While her son received charming stories about male caterpillars and male numbers that talk, her daughter was inundated with the newer crop of consciousness raising boardbooks, in which “literal feminist babies” learn to persist nevertheless. Both categories had merit, but it seemed like there was nothing in between.

As the child of a woman who re-gendered entire children’s books with a ballpoint pen, I am only too happy to welcome books with wider and kinder conceptions of gender into the world. Portman points out rightly storytelling begins with empathy, and if stories revolve around boys, “the idea is reinforced in both boys and girls that they must be primarily conscious of male feelings.” Plus, not every story about girls has to involve succeeding against terrible odds! Sometimes, the easiest way to plant the seeds of feminism in children of all genders is by shelving the manifestos and seeking out stories of girls with ordinary, interesting, inner lives.

The only problem, based on the preview Amazon offers of “Natalie Portman’s Fables,” is that gender-free stories are unlikely to win over the masses if they arrive in vehicles as tepid as these.

Portman chose to retell some of the most oft-repeated nursery tales — think “The Tortoise and the Hare” — forcing her to make some truly bizarre innovations in order to distinguish them from previous iterations. The hare, for example sabotages the tortoise by unleashing a cloud of bunny scented flatulence which smells, in case you were wondering, “like when carrots come out of a poo.” What?!

The rhyming couplets that comprise “The Tortoise and the Hare” read like they were written by someone who is convinced that poetry is only valid if it rhymes and also cannot think of any rhymes. “Unleaded,” a reference to the hare’s speed and a wink at the bored adults who will unhappy read this to their proto-feminist progeny, rhymes with a wobbly description of the tortoise as “weak-headed.”

There is a moral in the fable that is the publication of this book: that writing stories for children that are entertaining and original and contain enough grown-up gags to keep parents sane while reading them aloud for the millionth time is impressive work, to which not everyone is equally suited. There’s a reason that “Goodnight Moon” has spawned untold memes and spinoffs, and it’s that Margaret Wise Brown was extremely talented in this one specific arena. We are not all her, and we don’t have to be.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

Natalie Portman gives Aesop an update with kids’ book

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