Bread and Jam 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: 6 out of 10.

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

It is no secret by now that I love the Frances books. Frances is an awesome little heroine, and her parents are surprisingly humorous and competent for a kids’ book. (It is constantly astonishing to me how many parents in children’s books have to be totally useless to let the story progress! But that’s a discussion for a different time.)

This book is no exception. Frances becomes very attached to eating bread and jam to the exclusion of all else. Her parents try to convince her that trying new things is good, to no avail. Her friend Albert, who loves food, is cheerfully supportive of her bread and jam devotion.

But then her rather smart parents pull a classic reverse psychology trick and start giving her only bread and jam, removing all choice. While her baby sister gets to have a poached egg for breakfast, like their parents, Frances gets bread and jam. She gets bread and jam in her lunchbox. She gets bread and jam for her afternoon snack. Then at dinner everyone else gets spaghetti and meatballs, and Frances gets bread and jam, and it all gets too much for her and she gives in and declares that maybe she should try things to find out if she likes them after all.

Getting kids to try new things is a pretty well-known parental quest, and this book handles it with aplomb and humour. As the parent of a fussy eater, it was a great pleasure to me when C’s response was, “She has to try it, doesn’t she, Mommy?”. Yes, my darling, and I’ll remind you of that at dinner time. 😉

Frances’ family is pretty quintessentially British, but having a young female protagonist with Frances’ humour and intelligence and creativity is a pleasure. Again, this is not a ‘book for girls’ it is simply a book with a girl in it, if you see my distinction. It’s pretty great that the series continues to live up to the promise of the early books.

Good stuff.

What do you think? Fan of Frances? Do you know of other books that deal with the problems of fussy eaters well?

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

I was totally convinced this one would pass the Bechdel, but it turns out it technically doesn’t. The two major protagonists (Madeline and Miss Clavel) are both female, and in fact there is only one other named character – the doctor. But, in fact, Miss Clavel and Madeline never actually direct words at each other. It kind of passes the spirit of the Bechdel, though, if not the letter.

The Madeline books are very well loved, and with good reason. Madeline is a fierce, brave little girl, with ingenuity, smarts and courage. This particular book doesn’t show that as well as some of the others, but even so, we catch glimpses of her feisty spirit and imaginative brain.

The lyrical quality of the book makes it a joy to read. The illustrations are not entirely to my personal taste, but there is something timeless about them. And I’ll be honest, the whole strict nun-run all girls boarding school thing is something my modern heart rebels at, but Miss Clavel is remarkably compassionate, and the girls seem pretty happy. The book embraces the childlikeness of being more impressed by the appendix scar than by the danger of the illness, it has humour and a twinkle with the idea that the other girls envy her scar so much they will fake appendicitis to get one.

Honestly, I love that this book portrays young girls, and especially Madeline herself, as childlike but still brave, feisty, smart, independent, and straight-forwardly, like that’s a normal thing.

Christopher loves the Madeline book we own (which is not this one, and which I’ll get to eventually with the “More in the Series” posts), and he loved this one too. He especially loved that bits of it were echoed from the book he knew (though I realise, in reality, it’s the other way around). Bemelmans has a real sense of what engages children, and at no point was C remotely distracted by the fact that the main character is a girl. This isn’t a “girls’ book” – it’s just a cool story about a kid with appendicitis.

Recommended!

What do you think? Are you a fan of Madeline? Who is your favourite fictional little girl?

Handa’s Hen – Eileen Browne

More in the Series – Handa
“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: 6 out of 10.

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

Remember Handa? This is the sequel, and it is just as delightful as the first. Handa is a young girl living in Kenya, and in this book she loses her hen and her friend Akeyo helps her to find it. This is coupled with a counting trope (first they find two fluttery butterflies, then three stripy mice, four little lizards and so forth).

ALL the characters in this book are female! Handa and her friend Akeyo, Handa’s grandmother, hell even the hen! This is really only notable because it pretty much never happens. So, yep, it passes the Bechdel. Not only that, but these two young AFRICAN girls show intelligence and ingenuity! YAY!

(Waits for the MRAs to start in – just don’t, okay? I’m not interested in engaging with you if you can’t see why this is relevant. 😛 )

The illustrations are gorgeous, and there is even a note in the front telling readers what the exact species of each of the animals they find before they find Mondi, the hen, and her ten new little chicks.

This book is great. It normalises Kenyan rural life, a big deal is not made about this or the fact that the characters are girls. The animals are all indigenous to Kenya, so its accurate.

Good stuff. More of this, please.

What do you think? What other books do you know of where all the characters are female and it’s not a big deal?

Little Toot – Hardie Gramatky

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

Christopher had encountered this story as an animated story on one of the Disney dvds we have, and I discovered reading the author bio on the book that Hardie Gramatky worked for Walt Disney. I’m not quite sure what the relationship between the book and the film was, but it’s kind of neat how similar the illustrations are – Gramatky may even have done the animation himself.

Either way, Little Toot is a very American story – the unlikely protagonist who becomes a hero when he realises the value of hard work and determination.

To get the scoring out of the way, there are no female characters in the book, and the closest thing to diversity is the old seadog tug Grandfather Toot, but basically the characters are all pretty, ahem, “default”.

That being said, I can never quite bring myself to fault the “hard work and determination” message, albeit one that I think these days is a touch inaccurate and skewed. But the good ol’ American dream is still a nice dream, even if reality is now so far removed from it as to be laughable. I suppose they call it a dream for a reason.

Toot is essentially the boat version of the Little Engine That Could, except that he gets to redeem himself by starting out as a wastrel tug who faffs about instead of working hard like his daddy. It’s only when he’s faced with a crisis that he gets his shit together, and proves himself worthy of the Toot name.

I’m being a bit cynical, of course. And I do want my kid to value hard work and determination, but I find myself with that vaguely uncomfortable feeling that the world in which this book was written in 1939 was a far cry from today’s world where things are a bit more complex than “work hard and everything will fall into place”.

Still, it’s a pretty nifty little story, and we did both enjoy it. There is something kind of dynamic and nostalgicly magical about the illustrations, and C loved it. Because, well, boats. You know?

What do you think? Are you familiar with Toot? How do you feel about the American dream trope in the modern world?

Spot Goes to School – Eric Hill

More in the Series – Spot
“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: 3 out of 10.

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

As you may have noticed by now, I am a big fan of interactive books for kids. The Spot books were one of the forerunners of this kind of “lift-the-flap” book. This one is pretty typical. I don’t personally think it is as charming as the original Spot book, but it’s cute enough, and given C has only recently started school, he was rather taken with the whole “school” aspect of it.

No Bechdel pass, since the only two named characters are Spot and his teacher Mrs Bear. Though Mrs Bear and the dog I assume is Spot’s mother do say good morning to each other, so it’s nearer to a pass than most of the books we’ve looked at so far.

The characters are all animals, but there is no explicit diversity or even so much as nods to any culture other than a pretty WASPy one.

All that being said, it’s a pretty entertaining little book – very successful at what it is: a simple lift the flap, boldly and simply illustrated kids picture book about a very relatable little puppy.

I don’t have that much more to say about it really. C definitely enjoyed it, and obviously related to Spot’s school experiences – it engendered conversation and comparison about his own school life. That sort of reliability goes a long way.

It’s not going to be challenging any status quos, but I’d still recommend it. Nifty little book.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Spot? Do you like interactive books as much as I do?

The Story of Ferdinand – Munro Leaf

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

Bechdel:  0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 3 points

I love Ferdinand. This soft-hearted, pacifist bull who just wants to sit around smelling flowers and minding his business. He is a bull after my own heart.

C loved it too, though admittedly his favourite part was when Ferdinand gets stung on the butt by a bee and goes rampaging around from the pain. Yay five year olds, huh?

The gist of the story is that Ferdinand is not like other bulls. While the other bulls are all about the fighting and the head butting, and they all want to be in the bullfights, Ferdinand just wants to mind his own business, and sit peacefully under a tree smelling the flowers.

But unfortunately, a stinging bee results in the men who come looking for the fiercest bull to think that Ferdinand is, in fact, the fiercest, and they cart him off to the bullfighting.

The story is an awesome testament to the power of pacifism, and, while it may be a bit naive, does show how refusing to engage with the fight can sometimes take the fight out of the opponent. (Alas, I fear that in real life if a bull refused to fight, it probably wouldn’t be taken back to its nice flowery spot under a tree, but that’s a different debate.) It is also ideologically supportive of the idea that it’s good to just be who you are, regardless of the ‘packaging’ in which you come. And that’s an idea I can get behind.

It also calls into question a lot of traditional concepts of masculinity, of which my feminist heart approves. I have long said that patriarchy is bad for men too, and as the mother of a rather gentle empathetic boychild, I love books that show that there are other ways of being a “man”. The bull is an obvious masculine symbol (and the whole Spanish bullfighting matador thing perhaps especially), and having that turned on its head by Ferdinand, who loves flowers and quiet, is a good thing.

I loved this book – the clear text, the simple but amazingly effective black and white line-drawings. Its questioning of the masculinity of bullfighting is pretty revolutionary for a book published in the mid 30s.

Good stuff.

What do you think? Do you love Ferdinand as much as I do? What other children’s books do you know that challenge traditional masculinity?

Elmer Again – David McKee

More in the Series – Elmer
“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: 3 out of 10.

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

I much preferred this book to the first Elmer book. It still has no female characters to speak of and the elephants are all still pretty Anglo-Saxon, but there was something about this one that I liked much more than the first.

I think perhaps it is because Elmer, as a character has settled into himself much more. He’s still a trickster, but there is less of a feeling that he’s being entertaining and amusing so that the other elephants like him, and is actually just being true to himself.

The story is set on “Elmer Day”, a day when the elephants all celebrate Elmer and his bright colours, which in itself is kind of nifty. (Maybe if we, as a world, celebrated difference, things would be a bit better around here.) He plays a trick on the elephants, convincing them that his colours have washed off.

I am not a fan of pranking, for the most part, because most pranks require someone to be hurt or embarrassed, but Elmer manages to be a prankster with no ‘victim’. His trick is good-natured, and the idea of the book (yay difference) is a lot more subtle in this one than in the first. It feels more like a story about an elephant (who happens to look different) than a story about An Elephant Who Is Different, if you see what I mean.

It’s a good one. I recommend it.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Elmer? What are your favourite elephant books? What are your favourite books about the value of difference?