Troublesome Engines – 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 points
Good story: 1 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

I’m afraid these books really aren’t getting any better. There is still not a single character to be seen who doesn’t present as a very white, very British male character. Not a female engine in sight.

As I think I have mentioned in the past, I’ve been exposed to more Thomas than I’d like, and I’ve never found the stories particularly inspiring. This book at least had some relatively entertaining hijinks involving a circus elephant, but for the most part it’s just more of the same – engines behaving like spoiled kids and the “Fat Controller” handling it with a very patriarchal iron fist.

This book brings the introduction of Percy who is brought in to resolve what amounts to a labour dispute that boils down to the Tender engines thinking they’re too good for grunt work.

There’s quite a bit of pretty interesting subtext in these books about this sort of thing. When the engines “go on strike” it’s almost always because they’re being snobby, or thinking some kind of hard work is beneath them. It’s pretty much always portrayed as either laziness or silliness. In this case, they get their way, as the Controller goes off and gets a new Tank engine to do this work that they’re “too good for”, but there is definitely some weird classist subtle ideological stuff going on here about ‘lazy’ workers and how striking is just sulking cos you’re not getting your way. Not cool. Rev. Awdry.

C, of course, loved it like he loves all things Thomas. It is a bit flummoxing to me how totally into these books kids are – it has to just be the trains thing, I reckon, cos the pots are pretty flimsy. But there’s definitely something successful happening here.

What do you think? Do you think the Thomas books get any better as they go, or are you, like me, just not a fan?

Eloise – Kay Thompson

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This is really a pretty interesting book, and honestly I am quite torn on it. So let’s start with the easy stuff.

It passes Bechdel because Eloise talks to her Nanny (who she just calls “Nanny”, which makes the ‘named character’ criteria a bit dodgy, but I gave it the point anyway). There is really no diversity in the book. There is one image of Eloise crashing an event at the hotel that seems to have Indian people at it, but given that the caption suggests that it is a Halloween event it could just be white people pretending, which, ick, and that’s a discussion I am not going to have here right now.

I’ve given it my point for being an enjoyable story because Eloise is definitely fun to read out loud. She has a very clear voice and there are a number of things in the book that are sly humorous nods to the adult reader. Some of the language she uses as a six year old narrator is obviously stuff she has simply overheard adults saying. It’s kind of cute and funny.

But man, she’s awful. She is spoiled and obnoxious, she runs wild in this hotel in which she lives. Her parents are clearly very wealthy and totally absent. The people who have been left in charge of her seem to be completely unable to handle her at all. This is a kid who is not being parented at all. And while she is engaging and fun to read, I found myself frustrated and irritated by her shenanigans. Even my five year old said, “Wow, mommy, she’s really naughty”.

The thing is, I don’t really object to naughty kids in literature – Calvin is a great favourite of mine. I loved Ramona. But Eloise isn’t just naughty she’s… obnoxious. And I found myself really not liking her as a character, fun though the book is to read. She has an imagination which is nice, but mostly it just feels like I’m reading the tale of an emotionally neglected kid running wild. And while that could be interesting, it almost reads as if there’s absolutely no problem with this.

Is this ideologically problematic? You know, I don’t know. There’s definitely a place for stories about neglect and about horrible unreliable characters, and about naughty kids. But something about the way this one is executed bothers me. I can’t quite place my finger on why. The book, like I’ve said, is entertaining to read, and C thought it was funny. But I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it.

What do you think? Are you familiar with Eloise? What’s your take on this?


A Birthday for Francis – 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: 2 points

I am sure by now none of you are surprised that I love the Frances books. On a scale of Frances books, this one isn’t really at the top of my list, but I still think there’s a lot happening here that is awesome.

First of all, Bechdel pass! Woo! Female protagonist who isn’t a stereotype! Double-woo! But apart from these nice little tickboxes, there is a lot going on in this book which is just great.

I love Frances’ parents. Seriously. Fictional parents get a bad rap a lot of the time. They’re neglectful or evil or stupid in a truly astonishing number of kids’ books. Mostly because that’s what the story needs to push it forward, it has to be said, but it still always makes me happy when kids’ books show parents being awesome. (Neil Gaiman is, in my opinion, remarkably good at writing very real, loving, fallible parents, for the record, but we will no doubt get to him at some stage later in this process.)

Frances’ parents manage to successfully navigate their rather willful daughter with humour and affection and effectiveness. They don’t let her get away with hijacking Gloria’s birthday, while at the same time addressing her feelings of envy about it.

This book is very much about getting over your own negative feelings about something for the sake of someone else that you love (in that special kind of love-hate way only siblings really get 😉 ). This is no small feat for anyone, let alone a small person, and it’s neat to see a book handle it so well. At no point does it suggest that Frances is wrong for how she feels – but at the same time the story nudges her towards a better way.

I think the thing these books do so well – and it’s particularly clear in this one – is that they totally nail the emotional complexity of being a small person trying to navigate big feelings. The book addresses this with gentle humour and compassion, which of course is the best way to handle it in kids too.

C and I had a really cool conversation about how sometimes it’s hard when you give someone a really good present you’d like for yourself and you have to remember that it’s about the other person. He said he thought Frances was naughty for eating the bubblegum she bought for Gloria, but at least she was nice in the end. Then he told me he wants a baby sister, and that’s a whole new kettle of worms. 😉

Still, we both enjoyed the book, and I think there’s a lot of great ideology going on here. The next Frances book is my all time favourite, so I’ll stop there. 😉

What do you think? What books do you know of that help kids deal with the complexity of navigating their big feelings?



Moomin, Mymble and Little My – Tove Jansson

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

This is a very difficult book to hang on this framework we’ve built, because it doesn’t really fit into anything. Which, of course, me being me, I absolutely love. It technically passes the Bechdel, since Mymble and Little My are both female characters as are a number of the strange beings they encounter on their journey, and there is enough dialogue, such as it is, that I’m giving it that point.

It’s hard to talk about diversity in a book made entirely of totally fantastical creatures, so while it doesn’t get that point, it’s not exactly not diverse either, if you see what I mean. It’s entirely open to interpretation.

And this, at the end of the day, is the joy of this book. It is entirely interactive. Each rhyming page ends with the refrain, “And what do you think happened then?”, inviting the reader to come up with their own ideas. (Though in fairness, C mostly said, “I don’t know! Turn the page!” but even so.) There is even  a page where the reader is invited to participate in the making of the book: “The fillyjonk when she has calmed herself – try and draw her for yourself. Tove.” This is accompanied by a blank box in which you can draw your own fillyjonk. C was deprived of this because this is a library book – but it’s still nifty! Each page has little holes in it that hint at what’s on the next page. The whole thing is an exercise in interactivity, in drawing the reader into the story process. And by now we all know how much I love interactivity.

I love the nonsense aspect too. It’s great fun, meandering through this totally fantastical world filled with weird and wonderful creatures. It was wonderful to read out loud, and C and I both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Definitely recommended.

What do you think? Are you a fan of the Moomin world? What’s your favourite nonsense story for kids?



Orlando, the Marmalade Cat: A Trip Abroad by Kathleen Hale

More in the Series – Orlando
“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: 2 out of 10.

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

This, for me at least, was a much more enjoyable book than the first Orlando book. Somehow he was a lot less obnoxious and condescending, though that may be because he left his ‘wife’ Grace at home for the entirety of this adventure.

Grace is the only named female character, and she gets no dialogue at all, so it’s a pretty sound Bechdel fail. The characters are all definitely very white, although, I suppose, at least this book has some French people in it for variety. There are almost no women though, and the female characters that exist are pretty much just there for the sake of the male characters. This is most notable in the French Cafe Concert scene, where the women serve no purpose beyond fawning on our intrepid hero.

Ideologically it’s a bit iffy too. He takes his ‘kittens’ off on holiday to give his ‘wife’ a rest, but then abandons them with his human ‘Master’ while he gallavants off to France. It’s portrayed as an accident – like he totally didn’t intend to end up on a ship crossing the channel – but there’s definitely a bit of that old school “don’t trust a man with the children” thing going on, which, frankly, is pretty damned insulting to all the awesome dads out there.

There are a lot of French stereotypes too. It’s all eating snails and drinking wine and parties. There’s a definite sense of the “charming strange foreigners” that smells a bit of British imperialism, but I suppose that’s to be expected of a book of its time.

Having said all that, it was generally a lot more entertaining than the first book, if you ignore all the ideological dodginess. Orlando is a bit of a ponce, but he is rather devil-may-care and entertaining for all that. There is something a bit 20s rogue about him, if you know what I mean. Which has its charm, and is a lot less annoying when he’s not talking to Grace like she’s a child (especially given what a man-child he proves himself to be in this book).

C seemed to enjoy it, although even at five he spotted the continuity error (why, if he didn’t mean to be on the boat, did he have his luggage with him, luggage he definitely doesn’t have in the earlier scenes?). He was engrossed though, and fascinated by the snippets of French scattered through the book.

So, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my recommended list, but it was definitely a step up from the first book.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Orlando?



The Little House – Virginia Lee Burton

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

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

This is a very strange little book. But before I address that, let’s get the scoring out of the way. The only named character is The Little House herself (portrayed as female), so no Bechdel pass here. There is a human woman (the great grand-daughter of the House’s original family), but she only talks to her husband in the book, and we are never told her name. So I don’t think it passes even the spirit of the thing (given how often picture book characters are unnamed).

The characters are all pretty standard fare – definitely no variation here. The humans in the illustrations are all white and conform nicely to prescribed gender roles, as far as I can tell. Even in the later part of the book, when there are rather large crowds of people, they are all shades of orange and pink. Apparently the city that surrounds the Little House has not a single person of colour in it.

So much for that. Let’s take a look at the ideologies. And this is where it gets complicated for me. There’s definitely a sense of nostalgia in this book for the proverbial ‘simpler time’ when we all lived with apple orchards in our backyards, which of  course had swing-sets and 2.4 children and a puppy in them. And while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m also a bit averse to the notion that just cos something is old and in the past it is automatically better. Which is pretty much the whole point of this book.

In short, the Little House is built in a nice country landscape, but over the years the distant city encroaches. Luckily for her, the great-great granddaughter of the House’s original family randomly happens upon her and recognises her, and then has her picked up in her entirety and moved back to the country where she belongs. And that’s pretty much the plot.

There is a bit of that “careful what you wish for” stuff going on, since the House expresses curiosity about what it would be like to live in the city, but mostly it’s a big exercise in nostalgia. Which I know some people are into, and if you are one of those people, you may like it, but I didn’t very much.

It is a very pretty book, all my complaints aside. The illustrations really are quite charming, and C gave it a thumbs up, so it gets one point for that. But honestly? I think there are way better books out there.

What do you think? Are you a fan of this sort of nostalgia? Have you read this one, and if so what did you think?



Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This is another one of those profoundly American books, with the kind of nostalgia for old machinery and that inevitable “hard work wins in the end” message. I’m always a bit torn by these ones – on the one hand, I’m not convinced that things actually were ‘better in the old days’ and the nostalgia about steam engines and old timey gadgets kind of passes me by a bit. But I can’t really fault encouraging kids to work hard and believe in themselves either.

In brief, Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel Mary becomes obsolete because there is better faster stronger machinery out there so they go find one last gig, which they use to prove that she’s still got it. Then in the end, once she’s proved herself, she is repurposed as a boiler, and Mike becomes a janitor and everyone lives happily ever after. Which is a mixed ending at best.

Having said all that, kids sure do dig stories about machines, and C liked it well enough. It is pretty well written, and fairly fun to read out loud, and the pictures are kinda neat, if a little dated. (Unsurprising given it was published in 1939.) Also given when it was published, there’s nothing too archaic about the ideologies. It’s not a bad little book. It didn’t blow me away, but I’d have no real issue putting it in the rotation.

I’ve spoken about my ambivalence about the “work hard to succeed, up by your bootstraps” thing before. I think in essence it’s not a terrible thing to teach kids, but I also think that it is a little outdated in the modern world where things just don’t really work that way any more, and being innovative and creative is arguably at least as important as just being a solid hard worker.

Still, not a bad little book.

What do you think? Are you familiar with Mike and his Mary? Are you susceptible to the whole steam nostalgia thing? What’s your favourite ‘sentient machinery’ story?