The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

This is the first book in the 3+ section. We’ve sailed through the 0-3 section faster than I anticipated (mostly cos of the number of books I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet). And so, onwards!

It makes me kind of sad that this book doesn’t do better, but given there is one obviously female characters, and the rest are all animals, many of them nonsensical made up animals, it’s pretty much impossible for it to get most of the available points.

But in reality, this is a great story despite its low score. Lear was a master of nonsense verse, and the Quangle Wangle is one of his best bits of it. Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations are particularly charming in the version I have. C and I both loved reading it together. The language is simple but inventive. The rhyme is fun. It’s a neat little book to read.

Like most nonsense verse, there’s not much to it storywise – the Quangle Wangle has an enormous hat, a bunch of random animals both real and imaginary (I can’t be the only one with a deep love for the pobble who has no toes) come to live on and in the enormous hat, and music and frolicking ensues!

I can’t really give it points for ideology as a result, but nevertheless, there is much to be said for a bit of nonsense in life, and so I do recommend it.

What do you think of the Quangle Wangle? Do you have other favourite picture book versions of Lear’s poetry?

Handa’s Surprise – Eileen Browne

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 points.

FINALLY! A book with a protagonist who isn’t a white kid or an Anglicised animal!

Handa’s Surprise is about a little girl who takes a basket of fruit to her friend Akeyo. On the way the fruit gets stolen by a variety of animals, and eventually replaced with a pile of tangerines. Akeyo is pleasantly surprised because she loves tangerines, and in a play on the title, Handa is also surprised!

The book is set in Kenya, the animals are African animals, even the fruit is reminiscent of home for me. Guavas and mangos are stolen by ostriches and zebras. The blurb in the 1001 Books book is all about the ‘exotic’ animals and fruit, but for me it feels not exotic but comfortable and familiar. I grew up, not in Kenya, but in South Africa, and the fruits in Handa’s basket are the fruits I used to eat in my childhood garden. This thrill of familiarity must be minor compared to children who almost never see characters like themselves in books.

The best part is that despite the 1001 blurb, there’s nothing exotic or token about the story. It doesn’t feel like “a story about a black African kid”, it feels like a story about a little girl taking a surprise to her friend. It just happens to be a surprise made of the kind of fruit that grows in Kenya, and is filched by the animals indigenous to that place.

And on top of all that, it passes the Bechdel  with flying colours. In fact, the only named characters are girls, and the only dialogue is between them.

I love it. It was a total pleasure to read to my son, who thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt almost nostalgic to me despite the fact that I had never read it before. It’s a great little tale. Definitely recommended.

What do you think of Handa? Do you know of other awesome kids’ books set in Africa?

Owl Babies – Martin Waddell

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

Owl Babies is a way better “your mommy will always love you” tale than most of its kind. The three owl babies wake up to find their mommy gone, and proceed to express their nervousness about whether or not she’ll come back in a fairly realistic way. They make avowals of certainty that she will return, with mice! probably. Their actual uncertainty of this fact is left implied. When she returns, her response is essentially “Of course you knew I’d come back” like it isn’t even a real question. The effect is subtle but unmistakable- to her, there is absolutely no question.

Technically the book passes the Bechdel, because one of the owl babies is Sarah. All the characters are owls though, with Anglo-Saxon names, so no points for variety. I found it remarkably charming, personally, and C was pretty engaged. He kept stopping the story to discuss it. “Mommy, when you go away, I miss you, but I always know you’re coming back!”And then there was the moment when he said, “And if I get lost, when you find me, I’ll say ‘Mummy!'” (like the owl babies do), which gave me feels because he didn’t even question whether I’d find him.

Which really is the thing I loved about this book: the simplicity of the parent-child bond. The babies are definitely nervous and frightened, but there is no question really whether the mother owl will return. And when she does she acts as though the idea that she wouldn’t is just unthinkable (“What’s all the fuss?”). This is far more representative of the abiding love of a parent, in my opinion, than the creepy, controlling so-called ‘love’ in, say The Runaway Bunny.

What do you think of Owl Babies? Am I being too kind? What’s your favourite children’s book to deal with this theme of abiding parental love?

 

A Baby Sister for Frances – Russell Hoban

More in the Series – Frances
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 points.

I was fairly lukewarm about the first Frances book I reviewed on here, but, while this one scores only slightly higher, I enjoyed it a lot more than the first one. Where in the first one, Frances’ parents’ style of parenting felt far too indulgent to me, in this book it feels more like gentle reverse psychology than giving in to demands. And I have to love Frances’ spirit and fire.

It passes the Bechdel significantly more emphatically than the first book – Frances has a couple of much more in depth conversations with her mother. And it addresses the complicated feelings an older child may have about a new baby sibling with compassion and warmth. Frances is obviously a bit put out by her parents’ divided attention, but at the same time is pretty proud of her new role as big sister.

When she “runs away” (to under the dining room table), her parents have a really lovely conversation about her as if she wasn’t there about her important role in their new and changing family, and about how much they love the songs she makes up. I love how their appreciation and love for her is entirely connected with who she is and not just a simple lip-service to the parent-child bond.

There’s a lot going on in this book, given its audience. Hoban has a knack for addressing the complexities of the emotions going on, without making it too dense or even too saccharine. He doesn’t go for the simple answers, really, and retains a real sense of Frances as a character – no easy feat in a children’s book. Bedtime for Frances lacked, in my opinion, this nuance, but in this one, he has definitely hit his stride, and captured the complexity and warmth of real familial affection.

Good stuff.

 

What do you think? Do you agree that this is better than the first one? What’s your favourite Frances book? Do you know of other children’ books that manage to hit this kind of nuance?

Maisy Goes to Preschool – Lucy Cousins

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 points.

The Maisy books are almost as much of an institution as the Thomas books, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, are significantly better. This one (also called Maisy Goes to Playschool in some countries) is a great little introduction to Maisy and her world. The preschool experiences closely mirror what C, at least, has experienced, and he took great pleasure in talking about how “we do that at kindy too!”. Which is evidence for the fact that children love reading about the familiar almost as much as they love reading about the fantastic (and is also evidence, incidentally, for the value of this whole project – think about what it’s like for kids who hardly ever see lives or characters like their own in their books).

The book passes the Bechdel – Maisy and her friends chat about various things, including the fact that they should wash their hands after going to the bathroom. It’s reported speech rather than direct dialogue, but I’m still giving it the point, Bechdel passes being rare enough birds as it is. We could almost give it the “variety of characters” point, given the different animals in Maisy’s class, but I decided that would be a touch too generous.

Having said that, Maisy’s preschool teacher is male, which is enough of a slap in the face of the generally accepted status quo that it gave me a smile. While nothing particularly exciting or subversive happens in the plot of the story, there is a real sense of this being a positive and safe space for these ‘children’, and the kind of preschool I’d be happy to see my son at. Everybody does everything, there is no gender stupidity or exclusion of characters. It seems like a safe nurturing encouraging environment.

And, in general, I love Maisy as a female character in a children’s book. She drives toy cars, wears trousers, paints, plays music, holds hands with her friends… There is zero suggestion that her only options are pink sparkles and princesses, which, honestly, is a breath of fresh air.

Good stuff. Very good stuff. Highly recommended. I actually look forward to working my way through the rest of this series.

What do you think? Do you enjoy the Maisy books? Have you read them to your children? Which is your favourite?

James the Red Engine – Rev. W. Awdry

More in the Series – The Railway Series
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 point
Good story: 1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 point

Out of all the Railway characters, I think James is my least favourite. He is petulant and conceited, and has very few redeeming features. He’s stupidly proud of his red paint (being the only red train in the yards), and is a brat in a world where there’s something of an abundance of childish characters.

As I mentioned in my original Thomas posts, my child is a very avid fan of all things Sodor, so I have had years of getting closely acquainted with these stories. And in all that time, no other character has annoyed me more than James.

So let’s get the official stuff out of the way first. No female characters, so no Bechdel. No characters who are anything other than whitewashed British.

On top of that James’ petulance and brattiness straight up causes much “confusion and delay”. In theory it is supposed to make him “sadder and wiser”, but there isn’t much actual evidence for that in the later stories, in my not-so-humble opinion. Yes, he does an excellent job pulling the express later, but he has no compunction about being gloaty about it to Gordon (who, frankly, kind of deserves it).

The truth is, I find none of the characters or stories in this book terribly deserving of all the hype they get. But, as with all things Thomas, C sure does love it.So James the Red Engine gets that point. I won’t be giving him any others though.

What do you think? Am I still being too hard on these books? Who’s your least favourite denizen of Sodor?

 

Kipper – Mick Inkpen

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 point
Good story: 2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 point

This was my first experience of Kipper, and we both really quite enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get anywhere on our scale.

It’s a pretty standard “no place like home” kind of story. Kipper decides to clean out his basket, gets rid of the dirty half broken things therein, discovers that without them his basket isn’t comfortable, goes gallivanting about to see if any of the things that are comfortable for other animals (lily pads for frogs and nests of twigs for squirrels) will work for him, discovers they do not and ends up back in his comfy old basket with his old smelly blanket and bunny and chew-toy. It’s some classic “explore to find out there’s nothing quite like home” stuff, really.

There’s no dialogue except for Kipper’s, and no human (or explicitly female) characters, and very little in the way of status quo challenging ideas. Still, it’s a neat little tale, and while part of me (probably the part that is a nomad and has traveled very far from my home over the years) is always a bit skeptical of the message that the place you start is ultimately always the best place for you, being happy with who you are and where you belong is not awful either, I suppose. 😉

C and I enjoyed reading it, he loved the various animals. It was entertaining enough.

Not a high scorer though, and not earth-shattering by any means. This is a comfortable white bread book. Which I guess is sort of the point.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Kipper? Am I being too hard on it?

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen/Helen Oxenbury

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is one of my favourite picture books. And yet it scores really low, which is a bit sad. Because it really is quite great.

But there is no dialogue, so it can’t pass Bechdel, and the family in the book are very white and very status quo. Mom, Dad, three strapping kids – boy, girl, and baby. It’s about as typical a ‘nuclear family’ as you could ask for. There’s nothing particular revolutionary happening here.

Having said that, we read it a lot. C can almost recite the whole thing from memory. The book works via a very nifty repetitive format which is structured around onomatopoeic coloured double spreads as the family goes on an adventure – a bear hunt – through grass (swishy, swashy), water (splish, splosh), etc. The sound effect bits are great fun, and the refrain is memorable and charming. When they eventually find the bear it chases them all the way home, and they run upstairs, having locked the bear out, and dive into bed in a big cuddly pile of familial affection. It’s charming as hell, there’s no denying it.

And on the very last page after all the words are finished, is my favourite part. The bear heads home, alone and looking dejected, along a deserted beach, back to his cave. It’s the one moment of real subversion in the book – the suggestion that the “villain” of the piece is perhaps not a villain, is perhaps just a lonely bear. That maybe there’s something else going on here. That last image is the reason the book gets the one discretionary point – because it calls the very simple morality of the book’s story into question.

The family are very happily engrossed in their own version of the world, and as they pile laughing and frightened into a big bed together, for just a moment we see the world from the other side – the side of the bear itself. And it is a lonely, dejected world.

We don’t often get to see the “villain’s” side of the tale in these sorts of books. The greying of those lines is, well, kind of awesome. And raises a bunch of interesting questions to be talked through with your kids. (I always found it cool that C’s response was “aww poor bear” right from the start.)

Not a high scorer, but definitely recommended. A joy to read.

What do you think? Do you, like me, feel empathy for the bear? What other onomatopoeic books do you love?

Elmer – David McKee

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

I’ll admit, I’ve cheated slightly on the points for this one. I’ve given it the variety of characters point even though all the characters are animals. BUT I’m justifying it by saying that the whole point of Elmer is to teach tolerance for someone who doesn’t look like ‘everyone else’.

It’s a tricky one really though, because the whole patchwork elephant thing is fundamentally ‘othering’. Elmer is different because he’s not ‘elephant coloured’, assuming of course that there’s only one way to be correctly coloured if you’re an elephant. But, you know, it’s still good to accept and maybe even celebrate the ‘wrongly’ coloured elephant.

Don’t get me wrong, I think celebration of difference in a children’s book is an admirable thing, but there is something happening here that I think often happens in discourses about difference. It’s the reason I try to avoid the word “diversity” (which is no easy task, believe me) – it fundamentally assumes there is something to be diverse from, there is a norm and an other instead of simply a variety of ‘normals’.

I am probably horribly overthinking this. 🙂 I do that. Elmer is a charming book, with awesome illustrations, and what it is trying to do is ideologically good, I think. But it feels like a first step to me – liberalism 101, where we generously bestow our mark of approval on the ‘difference’ as if it is up to us.

I do not want ‘different’ kids (whatever kind of difference they feel they have) to think that to be accepted they have to be jolly and fun and make everyone laugh like Elmer does. I don’t want them to think their value lies in how well they can make their difference work for the herd in order to be ‘acceptable’. I want them to know their value is intrinsic. Not dependent.

And so, I give it a point for variety and a point for ideology, but I’d like to see more. This is a good first step. Step further.

It’s a great tale though. 🙂 And I love me some elephants. And its fun to read. So there is that. ;P

What do you think? Am I overthinking it? Am I setting the bar too high? Am I being too difficult to satisfy? Do you also think elephants are just supercool?

So why bother with all this?

I’ve had a commenter show up with (the almost inevitable) “What’s the point? Why should western literature have to be diverse? Do you expect reciprocity from other cultures?” argument. Apparently my “naive liberalism” offends them enough to make them call into question the entire project.

So for the sake of this commenter, and the inevitable other ones that will no doubt follow, here is why I think this kind of project is important. I’m going to say it once, and then I’m not to engage with it any more. I have more important things to do than fight with people who are wrong on the internet.

The thing I have begun to realise as I go through this list is that the really interesting thing about this may not be in the individual books. If you’ve been reading, you will have seen that there are books that have failed miserably by the metrics I have set up that I have gone on to recommend anyway. And there has been (at the time of my writing this) one which passed beautifully yet left me fairly unimpressed. This is definitely as much an art as a science, and not an easy thing to measure. Yet I think it’s an important exercise because of what it shows us across the board.

At the time of writing, I have only reviewed 21 books. Out of those, only 3 have passed the Bechdel, and at least one of those was on a technicality. Only 2 have had characters of colour in them. I am still waiting for my first queer character (though since I started with the 0-3 age-range, that’s not too surprising). I think what is going to become more and more interesting as I go is how badly our canon as a whole does in this regard. And that, really, is the point.

Talking about reciprocity is a nonsense. A white middle-class family can very, very easily read hundreds of books to their children without ever having to encounter a book that doesn’t show characters just like them. Not only that, they won’t have to go in search of such books. They won’t have to even think about it. In fact, if, like me, they prefer to expose their kids to other cultures, or even the idea that there are people in the world who look and act and think and pray differently to them, that becomes something they have to actively pursue.

So to ask whether other cultures are likely to reciprocate is to miss the point so thoroughly it is almost heart-breaking. A black family who wants to read books to their children containing characters just like them, or even stories from their own cultural heritage (whatever that may be) has to actively seek those books out, and perhaps even write them into existence. The books in public libraries, school libraries and book shops are still, overwhelmingly, mostly about white cis straight characters. This is changing, absolutely, as it should be, but there is still a massive skew. I don’t need Sleeping Beauty to be black, really (though I wouldn’t object), and I don’t need Japanese cultural stories to have white people in the illustrations, but what I do think should happen is that those two cultures should be equally represented in the canon. And that is not currently the case by any stretch of the imagination.

My hope for this blog is that it will give parents a reference point for picking out the books that do show the wondrous variety in human experience. Eventually, I hope to be able to provide alternatives to the established canon (represented, in this case, by the 1001 Books list from which I am working). I had to start somewhere, and it is a long-term project.

I am absolutely certain this is not the last time someone is going to pop up to ask me why children’s books should “have to” measure up to my metrics. The simple answer, of course, is that they don’t have to. The simple answer is that if you’re not interested in exposing your children to a variety of worldviews, or discussing these issues with them, then this project is not for you. Assuming you’re white (which, if you have this attitude, let’s face it, you probably are) all you have to do is ignore me and go to the library and pick any one of hundreds of books with characters just like you and never even think about it. That’s what us “naive liberals” call “privilege”. In the meantime, those of us who care about everyone having a voice, those of us who care about our children becoming empathetic towards all humans, not just the ones who look like us, those of us who are part of those underrepresented groups of people, will be over here, paying attention to the skew in the canon until we don’t need to any more.