Morris’s Disappearing Bag – Rosemary Wells

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

This is a pretty neat little story. Morris has two named sisters, but there isn’t any dialogue in the book that could be considered just between them, so it is still not a Bechdel pass. I have given it one variety point just because it has some good gender stuff going on – girls who like science AND beauty.

It is Christmas, and Morris and his three siblings each get gifts. When Victor got a hockey outfit and Rose got a beauty kit, my heart sank a little, but then I turned the page and on the very next page, Morris’s other sister Betty got a chemistry kit! And Morris got a bear. The three older kids then proceed to all share their toys, including Victor taking a turn at the beauty kit. And this is all presented as if it is absolutely no big deal. Reader, my feminist heart was warmed. Betty even wears a bow in her hair and dungarees. It’s like girls can wear whatever they want and be as girly or not as they want or something!

However, the older kids all think that Morris is too small to play with their things, and none of them want to play with his bear. He feels understandable left out, until he finds one more parcel, which contains a disappearing bag. It’s so amazing that all his siblings want to play with it, and it allows Morris to play with their things in turn. It is a neat little tale about including everyone.

I think my favourite thing about this book is that it really isn’t clear whether the disappearing bag is real or not, and whether his siblings are playing along with his imaginary game or not. I love things like this in kids books, just because to kids their imaginary games can be so real. It’s nifty.

So a combination of a really great story with some very satisfying approaches to gender and that false boys/girls things dichotomy. Recommended!

 

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Burglar Bill – Janet and Allan Ahlberg

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

I have to admit I have a bit of a soft spot for this book. There’s something about these criminal characters who actually aren’t that bad that I sort of like.

Having said that though, by the metrics of this project, it doesn’t do too well. There is only one female character so there can be no Bechdel pass, and the world of Burglar Bill is pretty whitewashed. On top of that, there’s the fact that although Burglar Betty obviously is quite feisty what with her life of crime and all, there’s a definite implication that she has only engaged in said life of crime because she’s a “widow-lady”. She also fits very neatly into prescribed gender roles with the whole wife and mother thing.

However, the fact that Bill does as well as he does when he discovers he’s accidentally absconded with a baby is heartening. There is way too much “men have no idea what to do with a baby” stuff floating around in the world, but Bill manages quite well.

Nevertheless, the story ends with them realising the error of their ways, getting married, Bill becomes a baker, and they become a nice upstanding family. Which, you know, is good, especially since their change of heart is borne out of empathy – Bill realises when he is burgled that being burgled is actually kind of crappy.

So there’s a nice message there about changing your ways and being a better person when you realise you’re maybe not being such a great person. But they do embrace a very “normal” life, and part of me balks at that a little.

Having said all that, like I said at the start, I have a real soft spot for this book. It is written wonderfully, is really quite fun to read and the illustrations are pretty great.

So despite its low score, it may be worth a read anyway.

Father Christmas – Raymond Briggs

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

This is a strange little book. I’ve encountered Briggs before (Fungus the Bogeyman, and The Snowman, both of which will show up later in this list), but I had never read this one. C also didn’t quite know what to make of it, since Briggs’ Father Christmas is a crotchety old grump who would definitely rather be on a sunny summer island somewhere than trawling through the snow delivering presents.

It doesn’t pass the Bechdel, since the only character who talks to FC is a milkman out very early on his rounds as FC is finishing up. It also doesn’t have any sign of any people of colour.

It’s an interesting book to read with a child though because most of the story happens in the pictures. I am a very text based person, so this is always a bit of a challenge for me, and one which I kind of enjoy, because it does make the whole experience a little more interactive and active. C and I chatted about the pictures and what was happening in them, and I read the bits of text that were there. I think challenging these norms of what makes “a story” with children is really important. So that aspect I really enjoyed.

I don’t know how I feel about this Father Christmas though. I am unashamedly a Christmas person – I love it. And at the end C said to me thoughtfully, “I don’t think Father Christmas is really this grumpy.” I kind of have to agree, kid. 😉

And there is something kind of sad about this lonely grumpy old man who does this thankless task every year he doesn’t even seem to enjoy. I dunno that I can really get on board with that.

It does raise interesting questions about taking people for granted, though, which was kind of interesting to talk about with C.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I want to like it, because I enjoy what Briggs’ does with picture books, and I like his aesthetic, but I’m not sure. What do you think?

Dogger – Shirley Hughes

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

I’ve mentioned before that C has a Kitty that is a much beloved toy. We’ve lost Kitty once, and eventually found him again, and as a result there are now two Kitties floating around. I think this is a relatively familiar experience for many small humans and their parents, and Dogger tells the story really well.

It just squeezes a Bechdel pass because Bella (the protagonist’s sister) asks Mum for an ice-cream. In a longer book, I probably wouldn’t count this, but given this is a picture book with minimal text, I’m going to. There are a couple of kids of colour in the illustrations of the school fair, so I’ve given it one point for that. I always feel like that is such a low bar, but given how few of the books we’ve looked at do even this much, I’m giving it that point. None of them actually interact with the main characters in a meaningful way, however.

C and I both enjoyed the story. I’m not going to lie, I may have got a bit teary when Bella gave up her big teddy so her little brother could get his Dogger back. There’s a lot in this book about simple sibling kindness, and that’s something I always enjoy. Teaching kids kindness is always a good thing.

It’s a neat little book about something to which a lot of children and their parents will relate, and it’s  told with warmth and kindness and empathy. Good stuff.

A Pocket for Corduroy – Don Freeman

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

I thoroughly enjoyed the first Corduroy book, and this one is just as great. It very nearly passed the Bechdel, but I decided that “Lisa’s mother” didn’t count as a named character. (I would have accepted “Mom”, but framing women only in relation to their mothering is also a touch problematic in general, so I’m not giving it the point.)

There are, however, two major female characters, and they do have a conversation about something that’s not a male character. I mean, it’s laundry, so there’s still some gendered stuff going on there. But nevertheless. Almost passed the Bechdel, but not quite.

However when it comes to variety of characters, this book does well. Lisa and her mother are black, and the laundry owner is Hispanic. I almost gave it a point for having solid female characters, but to be honest, they’re still being portrayed in very gendered ways (nurturing, laundry, etc) so I recanted.

The story itself is really nicely told. Corduroy has that naivete and adventurousness that he had in the first book. I enjoyed his interaction with the artist, and the idea that inspiration can be anywhere. The friendship between Lisa and Corduroy remains tangible in this book.

C and I both enjoyed the story. C related to having a beloved toy that gets lost, because he has his Kitty, and that has happened on occasion. Relatable, charming, a great story.

Recommended.

Gordon the Big 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 points
Good story:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

This is the 8th book in the series, and we still don’t have a female engine. This one at least does have two female named characters, if Annie and Clarabel can be counted as two distinct characters (which is arguable, since they function pretty much as a single entity), but since their only “dialogue” is fretting over Thomas’ behaviour, they still fail the Bechdel.

As with the other books, there is no diversity at all – all the human characters (with the exception of the Queen) are white men, and the engines pretty much present that way too.

Ideologically, it’s on the same rocky ground that the previous books are on. Gordon is snobby and conceited and gets his come-uppance for his snobby behaviour, ending up in disgrace. The other engines relish in his misfortune until they have some of their own, and then they all learn their lesson (which is still something like “do what you’re told and be useful”) and as a result they get to meet the Queen.

This is a theme that comes up over and over in these books – that obedience is rewarded and disobedience punished. And while I get where that’s coming from, there’s something about it that I find somewhat distasteful. I mean, sure, Gordon is totally being a snob and thinking that certain kinds of hard work are not good enough for him, and that’s a bad attitude, but it isn’t really that that is being punished so much as something like “you didn’t do what you were told”.

And there is, of course, a timing thing here – this book was published in the 50s, and that was a different time. But I still feel like I need to tell my kid that just because someone is in a position of authority, that doesn’t mean they are always right or even that they should always be blindly obeyed. Which is really what I feel these books are pushing.

In any case, even C got a bit bored while we were reading this one. He gave it a thumbs up, but when we got to the last story he wanted to stop. We picked it up a bit later, and finished it. But nevertheless.

I’m not a fan, and this is, by now, no secret. But even by the standards of the series, this one is a little worse than usual.

 

 

The Church Mouse – Graham Oakley

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I liked this book a lot more than I expected to. I was expecting a relatively twee British cat and mouse tale, but what I got was something witty and funny and really pretty marvellous.

Unfortunately it still fails all the metrics – no named female characters at all, let alone ones who speak, and not a person of colour in sight.

The story is not particularly original – the mice make a deal with the parson that they will help out in the church in exchange for being allowed to live there safely. The congregation find out and get rather upset about it. The mice foil a church burglary where the burglar was going to steal some much beloved candlesticks. The people see the error of their ways, everyone becomes friends and they all live happily ever after.

The thing that makes this book so enjoyable is that it pulls off something only the very best children’s picture books do – it engages the child (mine was entranced) while being peppered with enough jokes and nods to the adult reader that it’s also fun to read. I am particularly fond of the schoolmouse who is always trying to be clever, because let’s face it, we all know that guy. 😉

The jokes are delivered in a totally straight-faced narrative voice, so that I kept having to stop to chuckle, and C would say, “What’s funny, Mommy?” and I’d realise how hard it would be to explain to a five year old why it was funny that some people only come to church to check that the candlesticks are still there, and we’d move on.

Despite its low score, I’d still recommend it. It is a remarkably well-written little tale, and if you like dry subtle humour and your kids like animal tales, it will probably become a favourite.