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?

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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?