Brain Pickings

Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau: Cultural Stereotypes Subverted in a Subtle Celebration of Diversity

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A sweet reminder that however different the hats we wear may be, we are united by a common thread of goodwill.

The loveliest children’s books have a way of distilling the complexities of our most universal emotions into simple, symbolic stories that invite us to restore our faith in the human spirit. Such is the gift of Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (public library), written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts — the story of an unusual day in the otherwise routine life of “the world’s finest hatmaker,” who spends her days crafting exquisite one-of-a-kind hats for “the hatless but hopeful” that show up at her atelier. Ordinarily, once the bustle of her busy day is done, Madame Chapeau returns to her quarters and dines alone, with only her dog and her cat to keep company.

One night a year, on her birthday, she takes out her most elegant dress and chooses a special birthday bonnet, then walks to the town’s finest restaurant to dine alone in her festive outfit.

But on this particular birthday stroll, something unexpected happens — Madame Chateau trips and feels her birthday bonnet fly off as a crow snatches it mid-air. (Sound familiar?) Outraged and devastated, she runs through the town chasing after the crow as various townspeople — a chef, a mime, a cowboy, a police officer — try to console her by offering their respective hats.

None of them will do — Madame Chapeau yearns for her singular birthday bonnet. Meanwhile, a quiet little girl, the daughter of one of Madame Chapeau’s clients, witnesses the commotion with equal parts curiosity and compassion.

Resigned to the bonnet’s fate, the disheartened hatmaker feels like retreating home to despair in private — but she suddenly remembers that her restaurant reservation awaits, with a birthday cake already ordered. Reluctantly, she sits at her fancy table with a sigh, holding back tears.

Just then, the little girl politely approaches and presents her with a colorfully quirky knit cap that she herself had crafted with her tiny little-girl hands.

The girl held a brightly knit cap in her hand,
with thin purple stripes and a wide orange band.
Its earflaps were yellow. Its pom-pom was green.
A freakier headpiece has never been seen.

“It looks rather odd,” said the Lady Chapeau.
“This hat has no baubles. No beads. And no bow!
It’s stretchy… it’s cozy… it’s easy to squish.
It’s knitted with love and your best birthday wish!”

“How wonderfully perfect! The right hat for me!
A true birthday bonnet, I’m sure you’ll agree!”

And, just like that, the day is saved by a sweet and simple gesture of generosity. The townspeople join Madame Chapeau and her new little friend in a joyous birthday celebration, feasting on chocolate cake and dancing into the night — a grand finale made all the merrier by Roberts’s vibrant vintage-inspired illustrations and Beaty’s Dr. Seussean verses.

But there is something else that makes this gem so magical — a subtle yet enormously empowering subversion of limiting cultural stereotypes.

Because the golden age of modern children’s books took place in the middle of the twentieth century, on the cusp of the civil rights movement and decades before the second wave of feminism, it is unsurprising that the genre, even today, is burdened by the cultural baggage of inequality — only 31 percent of contemporary children’s books feature female heroines, many of which purvey limiting gender expectations, and of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 only 93 featured people of color.

And yet here is a book about an independent middle-aged woman who defies the still-prevalent stigma against singletons and is financially self-sufficient by her own creative labor, who is white and services a wealthy black client, and who is helped into the dénouement of her challenge not by a patronizing Prince Charming but by a little black girl dressed in preppy plaid. There is, too, the many-hatted citizenry of wildly diverse backgrounds and callings, joined together in a common cause of goodwill.

More than a mere treat of storytelling and illustration, Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau offers a subtle but profound deconditioning of our most toxic cultural tropes. There are no stereotypes in this charming book, only the diversity of human experience in its real dimensions.

Illustrations courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers; photographs my own

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