Corduroy – Don Freeman

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

I really liked this book. Not one I was previously familiar with, but I enjoyed it.

Corduroy is a bear in a department store. A little girl wants to buy him but her mother says no, because he has a missing button. So after the store closes he goes looking for his button. He has various bear-like “stuck in a shop at night” adventures before a security guard finds him and returns him to his spot, still buttonless. Luckily though, the little girl, Lisa, comes back the next day and uses her savings to buy him and take him home.

The book doesn’t get the Bechdel pass, since Lisa and Corduroy are the only named characters, but it does get points for diversity  – Lisa and her mother are black. I really hate that this is even notable, to tell you the truth. But I do like that it’s totally a non-issue in the book. This isn’t a book about a “black girl”, it’s about the beginning of a friendship between a girl and her bear. The girl just happens to be black. Yay, Don Freeman!

The story is charming. C really enjoyed it too. There is a repeated refrain where Corduroy in his adventures says things like, “I think I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain”, which in this case is about riding an escalator. It ends with him saying, after Lisa has taken him home, “I know I’ve always wanted a home” and “I’ve always wanted a friend”. (Cue all the “awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww”.)

It’s a lovely little tale about finding the place you belong and people who love you “the way you are”, and frankly in this crazy world, we can never have too much of that. Ideologically it’s very simple, and that’s the basic theme really. Corduroy goes looking for his button, to make him ‘good enough’, and then is accepted the way he is. Lisa sews a new button on him, but makes a point of telling him she likes him as he is, but she thinks he will be more comfortable if she fixes his clothes.

Good stuff. I’m glad I found this book. It really is quite lovely. Recommended.

What do people do all day? – Richard Scarry

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

I remember this book (or one much like it – Scarry was incredibly prolific after all) from my own childhood. And C loved it for the same reasons I did. We spent way more time looking at everything going on in the pictures and talking about that than in actually reading the text of the book.

It is definitely dated, ideologically. I believe some of them have been brought up to date, but if this was one of those, it definitely isn’t clear. The different kinds of work the people are doing fall clearly into gender lines. Women are mostly “Mummies” and where they have ‘real’ jobs, they are things like dressmaking and working in shops or beauty parlours. Family units are pretty “typical” – one mother, one father, and some kids, nicely gender defined with ribbons or braces.

And even when we move away from gender issues, the only thing resembling diversity is “Wild Bill Hiccup and his Buffalomobile”. Wild Bill is about as ikky a stereotype of a Native American you could concoct, and is pretty much straight up racist. (He doesn’t follow rules, is careless, causes accidents, is basically a ‘savage’. Gross.)

I mean, the book has some charm – C and I were both quite taken by the bugdozer – and there is some merit in the style of illustration, where the longer you look, the more you find, but ideologically it’s on pretty dodgy ground. Also, honestly, the “things” these people do all day are fairly dated too – the world isn’t what it was in the 60s, and the kinds of jobs people do are quite different. Some of it is the same, of course, but I can’t help feeling this is a work culture that is of a bygone era. C is probably unlikely to grow up to “become” any of these things. In fact, he’ll probably be something that doesn’t even exist today.

So I have mixed feelings. I have a bit of a soft spot for Scarry from my own childhood, but I can’t help but wonder whether the dated nature of the book has made it fairly irrelevant to modern kids. It was fun to read together, but the experiences in the book are fairly far removed from C’s own.

Madeline’s Rescue – Ludwig Bemelmans

More in the Series – Madeline
“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: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

I can’t get over how badly mistitled this book is. Madeline falls in the Seine and is rescued by a dog, who then becomes part of the family in “the old house in Paris”. But the bulk of the story is about the dog – her adoption, how the children fight over her attention, how the trustees in the school kick her out and how they all go looking for her afterwards to bring her back. The book is named for the rescue, but the rescue is over by the fifth spread, and most of the story focusses on the dog.

Apart from that little quibble, though, the book is as charming as the other Madeline books. I am definitely a fan of these stories. It passes Bechdel as Madeline and Miss Clavel have dialogue between them. There’s no real diversity at all, apart from the fact that the bulk of the characters (including the dog) are female.

I guess there’s a little bit of ideological stuff going on about how the trustees are wrong about the dog, and how their distaste for her seems to be snobbery. Their spokesman (Lord Cucuface!!) says she should leave because: “it’s a perfect disgrace for young ladies to embrace this creature of uncertain race”. Which, to me, reads like a breeding thing – in other words, Lord Cucuface (oh my, that name) is just being a big snob.

I am amused by how after they leave the girls and Miss Clavel go in search of Genevieve (the dog) and there is no question that Miss Clavel is on their side. She cannot stand up to The Money, but she has no qualms subverting their orders along with the children. I’m not sure what they’re going to do the following year when they have not one dog, but a whole pack – given that in the end Genevieve has puppies. But I suppose that’s next year’s problem. 😉

 

Toby – 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: 2 out of 10.

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

Well this one still has no Bechdel pass, but at least now we have two female characters who have names AND dialogue, albeit not with each other. Which is pretty progressive for this series.

Snark aside, Toby is one of the better Railway Series stories in my opinion. Toby is a tram who is getting less and less use and is rescued by the Fat Controller for his railway. Toby is one of the better characters – way less whiny, childish and arrogant than the Gordons and Jameses of the series. Toby is a genuinely good hearted character who works hard and stays cheerful.

The Mrs Kyndley plotline is pretty solid too – in that old “one good turn deserves another” trope. Mrs Kyndley saves the trains from crashing into an avalanche and in return they send her on holiday to get better. I mean, her role in the story is right there in the name, really – she’s the kindly old woman who helps them. So it’s not subtle, exactly, but at least the underlying ideologies of this one are a bit more palatable than some of the others in the series.

Definitely my favourite so far in this series. Which isn’t saying much, admittedly, but if you must fall down the “Thomas” rabbithole, this is one of the better options.

 

 

 

My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes – Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

This book is frikkin’ adorable, and I’m not just saying that because of my affection for things made in New Zealand. It doesn’t pass Bechdel, given there is no dialogue at all, and nobody has names, but there is a fair amount of diversity in the listed cats, and two of them appear to be female gendered, one of which is the cat from Greece who joined the police, so I’ve given it that point.

Apart from that though,it’s just a very simple board book, in the story form of the “add one more each time” variety. C loved it, as he caught on pretty early in the game, and could actually read it with me. (Part of this is cos he’s learning to read, which is crazy exciting for both of us, by the way!)

The pictures are cute, the rhymes are neat, and there’s that lovely thing going on with “my cat” where you love your own thing even if it’s simple because it is your own. All these cats doing all sorts of cool things, but my cat likes to hide in boxes. And that makes it special. Cos it’s mine. I’ve noticed a lot of kids’ books have this idea, and I think really at base what that’s about is telling children that they’re loved. As a friend of mine used to say, “Every parent thinks their child is the most special, and every parent is right.” 🙂

It’s a lovely notion (of, of course, not always as accurate as we’d like), and this book does it deftly and charmingly.

I can’t really fault it. It does what it sets out to do with great aplomb. Recommended.

Eloise at Christmastime – Kay Thompson

More in the Series – Eloise
“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: 4 out of 10.

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

So far this is my favourite Eloise book. It passes Bechdel, again on the technicality of taking “Nanny” as a name. This one has no real diversity to speak of; there aren’t even the hints that existed in the other books.

But I found Eloise a lot less spoilt and annoying in this one. Perhaps it’s just that I have a soft spot for Christmas, and I can’t help but feel for this poor little girl, growing up in a hotel, whose mother does nothing but call from the Mediterranean. “We talked for an hour and charged it like we did last Christmas Eve.” This mother needs a parenting lesson, stat. *frown*

But despite this, Eloise is irrepressible, and runs around gifting things to everyone in the hotel. There are bits of song wandering along the bottom of the page, and I like the illustrative devices in this one that show her imaginary jaunts and dreams.

The book, like the others, is fun to read, as the language trips along at an astonishing pace, Eloise’s characteristic made up words and bits of adult speech keeping it more charming than I would expect. I’ve given it one ideological point, just because there is something about this little girl that nails that Christmas spirit thing, and you get a very real sense that she is quite beloved (if in a somewhat exasperated tone sometimes) by the adults who work in this hotel.

Otherwise, there’s not much I can say about this one I didn’t say about the others. There is of course the underlying classist stuff – she is growing up in a world where everyone is her servant, and Nanny is kind, but not really parenting her effectively. I suppose the whole point is that “poor little rich girl” trope, but it’s hard to ignore. Still. It’s fun to read.

No Roses for Harry! – Gene Zion

More in the Series – Harry
“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 point.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

This Harry book scores lower that the original, mostly because in the original book, the general illustrations suggested that there were some people in Harry’s town who weren’t middle class white folk, but in this one, that diversity is gone. There’s no Bechdel pass, everyone is nicely ensconsed in their pre-ordained gender roles and there’s not a person of colour to be seen.

The story is okay. Harry is given a gift he doesn’t much like, and manages to ‘lose’ it to a bird. When granny who knitted him said gift comes to visit Harry feels very bad about ‘losing’ the present, but they find out that the bird has turned it into a nest which is much more appreciated, and Harry gets a new sweater in a pattern more to his taste.

I have mixed feelings about this. C and I had a conversation about gifts and how sometimes you might get something you don’t like that much, but how the correct response to that is rather to appreciate the effort and love in the gift that be a dick and ‘lose’ it. C seemed very adamantly on the side of being polite, which pleases me.

I dunno. It was okay, I guess. I am certainly not sold on these books. There just really isn’t that much going on, and in a world where there are a plethora of cute “from the point of view of the dog” books, I don’t think they really measure up. C liked it, and it was okay – I don’t have anything too horrid to say about it, but I was underwhelmed.

It’s no Hairy Maclary, that’s for sure.

Best Friends for Frances – Russel 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 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 point.

This is the only Frances book we actually own, but it has been read to death, and I love it on so many levels. This one is a story about friendship and about gender and is handled with Hoban’s characteristic deft and humour.

It passes the Bechdel swimmingly since a big chunk of it is about the conversation and budding sister-friendship between Gloria and Frances. There’s a very clear message in the story about not being stupid about boys only games. When Frances made her “No Boys” retaliation sign for her and Gloria’s picnic, my kid got quite indignant. “I know he was bad cos he didn’t let her play with them, but no boys is still bad, Mommy!” We had quite a long conversation about consequences of being mean, and how if you exclude people it’s a bit cheeky to get upset if they exclude you back, but how he was right cos it’s not really a good response, albeit understandable. Honestly, I am not sure how much of it he got, but I think these are important conversations, and the book gets massive points for opening them up for us.

I also love the fact that after everyone makes peace, Albert assumes that he’s now Frances’ boyfriend’, and Frances’ response is that she’s not sure she’s going to let him be. There is something subtle here happening to do with assumptions about male-female friendship, and the fact that there’s no reason people can’t be platonic friends. It’s a touch heteronormative, but hey, we can’t have everything, and since much of this book is challenging standard assumptions about gender,. it’s not that surprising.

And on top of all this, despite the fact that there is some quite intense stuff going on in this tale it’s still totally entertaining. Frances and the people in her world have remarkably well thought out personalities for characters in a children’s book. It’s utterly delightful.

By far my favourite Frances book (though I think there’s one more to go with which I am unfamiliar), and highly recommended.

 

 

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? – Bill Martin Jr/Eric Carle

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

There’s not a lot to this one, really. So frankly, it’s pretty amazing it scores so highly. There is no dialogue really, so it can’t pass Bechdel. At its base it’s a very simple colours and animals book. And it wouldn’t score that highly, except on the second to last page there is a page of children. And these children include a multitude of shades and cultures.

And really, it’s that simple – one illustration that doesn’t assume that every child who looks at the book will be white. Nice job Eric. 🙂 (Also, I’d like to point out that with that one illustration, this book shot to the mid-range on our metric. We’re not exactly setting a high bar here, folks.)

There really isn’t much plot. The book s very simple and very pretty.I am a big fan of Carle’s illustrative style, and of course that’s entirely subjective, but it’s a great book to read with my just-learning-to-read son. It would be great with younger kids too – colours and animals, what’s not to love, right?

There’s not a great deal more I can say. We enjoyed reading it. It’s very pretty. It has pictures of children of all colours. It’s a win really. 🙂 Recommended.

 

Babar’s Travels – Jean de Brunhoff

More in the Series – Babar
“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 point.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

Oh Babar. You almost had me until the savage cannibals. Seriously. *facepalm*

I remember reading a thing during my MA about how incredibly colonial these books were, and reading them now I can totally see the point. There is something profoundly colonial about Babar as a character, and the ‘travels’ he goes on.

There is definitely no Bechdel pass – Celeste is the only female character – and in fact, even “the Old Lady” who is very beloved by Babar is never named.

The portrayal of the ‘savage cannibals’ is pretty extremely racist, in a cringe-worthy almost caricaturish way. Of course it is a product of its time, and I get that, but it did result in me having to have a conversation with my five year old about how innaccurate it was and why portraying people like this is really not okay.

And then there’s the whole war with the rhinos thing. They go to war over what amounts to a child’s prank. I mean it’s a bad prank, to be sure, and I certainly don’t think Arthur should have gotten away with tying firecrackers to someone’s tail, but a whole war is a bit excessive. This story arch feels like the worst kind of over the top colonial jingoism. It’s laughable, like children playing at soldiers, and I could almost believe it’s meant to be a bit satirical, except that I really think it’s not.

Even the women pitching in as nurses thing feels vaguely jingoistic, and the fact that the book was published in 1935 kind of lends weight to my impression that we’re not meant to read this as satire. I think we’re honestly supposed to see Babar as some sort of war hero. Which… well, you know, his great plan is to paint faces on the elephants butts and scare the rhinos away. Which works. I don’t buy it.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the first book, and I’m even less sold on this one. C gave it a thumbs up, but you know, he’s five and it does have some cool pictures, and there’s that butt-gag. I was disappointed.