Pat the Bunny – Dorothy Kunhardt

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: Nope
Variety of characters: Nope.
Good story: Yes for both me and kid. 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 for being good for visually impaired kids.

Pat the Bunny is possibly the first “touch and feel” book. Published in 1940, it has a little too much of the “nuclear white family” thing going on – mummy, daddy, brother and sister (Paul and Judy) – but the interactivity was fairly revolutionary for its time.

There is no conversation, which makes it impossible for it to pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t really do it even in spirit. “Judy” and Mummy don’t interact at all. I suppose it’s kind of cool that the interactions are Dad and daughter and Mum and son, but even those are kept firmly in prescribed gender roles. Judy feels Daddy’s (oh so manly) scratchy face, and Paul plays with Mummy’s (I assume wedding) ring.

The family in the book are about as WASPy as they come. They smell flowers, play peek-a-boo and read books about bunnies (hah! I see what you did there with the metatext, Dorothy). That being said, the “touch and feel” concept is one which is great for visually impaired kids, letting them interact with books on other sensory levels. (Perhaps obviously, it’s good for all kids of this age.) This was probably the first book that had that aspect, so I’m going to give it one discretionary point for that.

Is it enjoyable? Hell yes. C still loves it and he’s almost 5. Kids do tend to enjoy books they can interact with, and I’ve read many of them, and this one is actually, despite its age, still one of the better ones. It engages all the senses (the flowers even have a scent – not of flowers, but hey, at least they tried) and the text is really simple and straightforward. It’s fun for him and kinda of fun for me – also QUICK which is a benefit when you’re a busy single Mom. 😉 So it gets the 2 enjoyment points.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly damaging about this one – it’s perfectly fine. But it’s definitely a very white middle class book. It’s a product of its time, of course, but the very white nuclear family thing isn’t going to challenge any status quos. (Can you pluralise status quo? Tough – I just did.) It’s a cool example of its kind, and in a world where touch and feel books are everywhere now, it gets credit for being ahead of the curve on that. Certainly, read it to your kids. But you’ll need to go elsewhere for some variety of life. 😉

What do you think? Is it a staple in your household? What’s your (or your kid(s)’) favourite Touch and Feel book?

The Little Engine That Could – Watty Piper

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

Bechdel: Nope
Variety of characters: 1 feminism point.
Good story: Yes for both me and kid. 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 for positive ideological messages (Perseverance is good!).

The Little Engine That Could is often cited as a great feminist children’s book simply because said engine is female in the story. Which, I guess, is fairly progressive for a book published in 1930. I have some qualms about this assessment, though. After all, the people being benefited by said engine are explicitly children, and the delivery is of good food and toys, so you could argue that this falls neatly into the “hearth” side of things, and therefore the feminine role is applicable. But, I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt, simply because the genders of the characters seem (to me at least) to be fairly random, and because, let’s face it, there are almost no other fictional female trains. So I’m going to give it a feminist point. That’s 1.

But Bechdel? Nope. The first train is female, the Little Engine is female, but they never converse directly with each other.

Non-token range of characters? Nah, I’m not giving it this one. Yes, it has female characters that are not tokenly girls, but it already got the feminist point up there, and apart from that? Nothing. (It’s tricky with toys, of course, but nevertheless.)

Enjoyment value? Well, I do have a train obsessed child, so he has a bias, but the truth is, I have read this story many, many, many MANY manymany times, and it’s still fun to read. C loves it, and I don’t want to cry brokenly when he brings it to me. (Just wait till we get to Thomas.)  It has a good kidbook story structure, with the repetitive interactions, and the neat little linguistic catchphrases (who doesn’t know about “I think I can, I think I can”?), and even has actual healthy food included in the “good food to eat”. We both love it. Full points for enjoyment. That’s 2, for a total so far of 3.

And I’m going to give it a couple more for general ideological niftiness. I mean, it was published in 1930, so there is obviously some of that “All American Dream” thing going on – work hard, pay your dues, you’ll succeed. But I think it’s not hard to make it a story about perseverance, about giving it a go, trying even though you’re not sure if you can do it, and continuing to try when you don’t succeed right away. All of that is stuff I want my kid to learn. So, here, Little Engine, have 2 more points, for a total of 5.

Not bad for the first (and therefore earliest in this section) book of the list. Totally a reasonable book for the liberally inclined parent to read to kids, I’d say.

What do you think? Have I been too harsh? Not harsh enough? Do you know of better picture books for 0-3 year olds that talk about perseverance? Tell me about them in comments.