Window – Jeannie Baker

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I do have a love for picture books that have no written text. There is something about the way you engage with them – especially when reading them with small children that is quite unique and very enjoyable. Studying the images, looking for clues, reading the story by interpreting what you’re seeing – I feel like all of that is good exercise for children, and also means constructing the story in a more active, somehow less linear way. It’s fun.

It does however make passing the Bechdel more or less impossible, though this book is seen through the eyes of a boy anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have passed. The images show exactly two people who are obviously people of colour in the whole book, so while I did give it this point, it is still a fairly white-washed world we are being presented.

Nevertheless, it’s a neat book. It has a pretty clear agenda to do with appreciating how much impact we humans have on our environments. There is a clear ideological standpoint here to do with urbanisation and the destruction of wild areas and how that’s bad. I don’t disagree, but I’ve never been a fan of force-feeding ideology, even ones I agree with.

Still, the book is very cleverly constructed – each double spread looks out of the same window of the same house as a boy grows from babyhood to adulthood and moves out. We see the landscape outside of the window change, moving from bush to town. The boy’s interests change as he grows, until eventually on the last spread we see his new, adult window in what we must assume is his new house, as he holds his own new baby in his arms, and looks out, once again, at native bush.

The message is there and clear (to me, anyway), but C didn’t really get the environmental thing from it. He was interested in the things that stayed the same. He wanted to find the boy’s aging cat in each image. He went looking for cool things to look at, and words to read on the walls and the boy’s birthday cards. (This is probably because knowing how to read is still novel and exciting to him. 🙂 )

There is something cool about that kind of discovery, and while I found the message a bit unsubtle (I like ideology to be subtle), I still think it’s a book worth looking for. There is a lot going on there, and it is quite effective.

In – Nikki McClure

Christopher’s Choice: Each week, C gets four or five books out of the library, and picks one as his favourite, and I review it. This is this week’s choice.

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I was really glad he picked this book, because I wanted to recommend it to you! I really loved it.

This is a ridiculously simple book – the illustrations are bold and simple, the text is similarly bold and simple. And the concept is the most basic of “there and back again” stories.

The protagonist only wants to be “in”. He hides in baskets, puts things in other things, and stays in, in, in. But then it starts to rain, and he wants to be ‘in’ the rain. He ends up out, and wanting to stay out. He meets some owls. He gets wet and cold. And then he goes back home to be ‘in’ his nice warm house, in his nice warm bed.

There is a fold out page, so it ticks my interactive box, and even, at the end, a key for all the owls, so you can learn the different kinds of owls.

No dialogue really, so no Bechdel, and there’s only the one character, so it doesn’t get points for diversity.

I think the thing this book does so well is really capture the all encompassing nature of attention of children. If you’ve spent any time around small kids you’ll know how often their big feelings or wants pretty much fill their entire beings. This little boy, when he wants to be ‘in’, it is ALL HE WANTS. It is all encompassing. Similarly, when this switched to wanting to be ‘out’, and later back to ‘in’ again, it has a real sense of that absolute, all-encompassing need that small children seem to feel. The bold illustrations and the simple text emphasises this.

This book doesn’t score particularly high on our metric, but I loved it (and so did C, obviously). Well worth checking out.

Amazing Grace – Mary Hoffman/Caroline Birch

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

This book is exactly the sort of thing this blog was designed to highlight, and it ticks (almost) all the boxes for me. We have a flying Bechdel pass – with Grace, her mother and her Nana all having conversations about Grace and what she wants, as well as at least one named other child in her class (Natalie).

We have a protagonist who is a spirited black girl who sure as hell isn’t going to let people tell her she can’t do something because shes black OR because she’s a girl, and in addition, we have a classroom of children in all the wonderful shades of the human race.

The book is very clearly about these facts – Grace wants to play Peter Pan in the school play and is told variously that she can’t because she’s a girl, and because she’s black. Her Nana takes her to see a ballet of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is danced by a black woman. There is a clear message here that you can be whatever you want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

As you will know if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, the stories I love most are the ones where these things just exist in the world and it’s not the point of the story. Gay people have ordinary lives. People of colour are not “inspirational” or “overcoming of odds”, they are ordinary people with ordinary lives (which do sometimes inspire and overcome odds, but you know, I hope, what I mean). I want ‘diversity’ normalised.

That being said, these stories are important for kids, because the world is not there yet, and a black girl who wants to play Peter Pan will still, even today twenty-five years after this book was published, probably get push-back about it. And stories give children ammo for those moments.

But my favourite thing about this book was the moment when we were reading about how much Grace loves stories, all stories, how she acts things out, pretends to be the characters, and my white, Kiwi son turned to me and said, “Mommy, she’s just like me. I love doing those things too.”

Mommy. She’s just like me.

Guess I’m doing this parenting thing right. 🙂

Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

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

This is a pretty simple, straightforward Christmas book, with everything you’d expect a Christmas book to have. Presents, Santa, food, family. It has the lot.

No Bechdel pass, and one diversity point only because there is mention of Alfie’s family’s neighbours the “Santos” family. Which is a pretty low bar, but hey, even that low bar is so seldom met.

I do like that Alfie gives everyone presents – that despite the story still subscribing to the whole Father Christmas thing, the giving of gifts is still a feature. I got slightly frowny when Alfie got a scooter and Annie Rose got a fairy-princess outfit, because oh sigh the gender stuff, but in general it’s a pretty nifty little story.

There’s definitely nothing subversive happening here, but a family having a good family Christmas together is never a bad thing. I know a lot of people have jaded attitudes about Christmas, but my own childhood Christmases were always full of family and love and joy, so it does nothing but make me smile.

Also, bonus points for the great uncle from Australia, and the nod to the fact that in the Southern hemisphere Christmas is a summer thing. Hell yeah it is. 😉

Love You Forever – Robert Munsch

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I’ve read a lot of controversy about this book – some people think it’s way too sad for children, some people think it’s horrendously sappy, some people absolutely love it. It was never really a staple of my own childhood, so I don’t have that particular nostalgic connection to it, and if it moves me, it does so more as a mother myself than I think it would have as a child.

I was worried my rather sensitive kid would find it horribly sad, but actually, it turns out he’s fairly philosophical about death and the whole circle of life thing. We did end up having a  conversation that went something like this:

“Mommy, when you get very old, you will die, right?”
“Yes, baby. At some stage I will die.”
“And I will miss you very much.”
“I know, baby.”
“But you’ll be old and I’ll be a grownup, so I’ll miss you, but it will be okay.”

That’s one old soul my kid is carrying around with him. ❤

As far as Bechdel and diversity go, this book gets nothing. No one has names, and everyone is white.

I’ll be honest, some of it makes me a bit uncomfortable. Not so much the death and circle of life stuff, and I definitely appreciate the “I love you always, no matter how much of a ratbag you are”, because that’s something C and I talk about a lot. But the thing where the Mom gets up in the middle of the night and takes a bus to her grown up child’s house, sneaks in and kisses him on the cheek while he’s sleeping? Yeah, um, that’s taking it too far. That’s some weird dysfunctional shit, yo. Cut the apron strings lady. You don’t need to violate your adult child’s boundaries to prove you love him.

I’m not completely on board with this book. I love the sentiment that a parent’s love lives on through generations, and I certainly love the concept that a parent should love their child always no matter how much they piss you off, and I certainly, as a parent myself, relate to  that concept.

I’m also a fan of not shying away from hard topics with kids. They have to live in the world, and I think sometimes children need stories that address the hard stuff in the world.

But this book feels a bit heavy-handed to me. I know it is very beloved by a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s going to stay in our rotation.

Mr. Happy – Roger Hargreaves

More in the Series – Mr Men/Little Miss
“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

There are no “Misses” in this book, so no Bechdel pass, and no diversity score really either.

This is a lot better than Mr Tickle. I mean, at least there’s no overt and awful consent violations in this one.

Mr Happy finds a door in a tree, inside of which he discovers Mr Miserable, who is just like him except not happy. He takes him home with him to happy land, and over time Mr Miserable learns to smile and be happy.

I’m in two minds about this. The first is that, you know, it’s not a terrible notion that sometimes sad people just need some love and attention and friendship to learn to be happy. What Mr Happy does is, when looked at this way, a kindness – he simply provides friendship and a good environment, and that’s enough to turn everything around for Mr Miserable. I’d be on board with this.

Except for the very last page in the book, which says: “And that’s really the end of the story except to say that if you ever feel as miserable as Mr Miserable used to you know exactly what to do, don’t you? Just turn your mouth up at the corners. Go on!”

And, well, you know, I’m not really convinced that we should be teaching kids to hide their real feelings and pretend to be happy. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” approach, but also sometimes you need to actually address the thing that’s causing the distress instead of just suppress it and pretending everything is fine.

I’m probably being hyper-critical, because I’ve been paying more attention to these books after the Mr Tickle debacle, and I’m finding that they really are ideologically woefully out of date. I know they’re a major staple of the kiddielit canon, but I think perhaps if you’re reading them to your children, you may want to make sure you accompany them with some conversation.

C loves them, and this one was definitely a better story – it didn’t leave me with the same sense of ick that the last one did. But I am not sold. Not entirely.

Patron Requests Open!

I am now, finally, opening up the option for patrons to put in requests for reviews of particular books. Got something you think I’d really enjoy? Got a favourite book that ticks all the boxes we have here? A good kids’ book that shows a viewpoint different to the usual ones? Let me know.

You do have to be a patron to make use of this feature. You can become a patron on Patreon for $1 a week. The money goes towards tracking down the books I can’t get through the library, and don’t already own. 

It also, relatedly, probably needs to be a book I can get hold of. I am happy to add it to my list of books I haven’t got my hands on yet, which means I’ll get to it eventually, but if it is one I have (or you have, if you’re local and willing to lend it to me), or can get through the library, my response time will be way faster.

Thanks again to those of you who are already patrons. Every bit helps me keep this thing going. Big love.

Pancakes for Findus – Sven Nordqvist

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

No Bechdel pass here – no female characters at all apart from a couple of village women in the pictures none of whom are even mentioned in the text, and there really isn’t any diversity either.

I’ve given it two discretionary points though. The first is because this definitely has that sense of being a European folktale, and while my diversity points are more for things like people of colour, or LGBTQ characters, and so forth, I think there is definitely something to be said for a slightly different European approach. The original book is in Swedish, and honestly I am not even sure how freely available the English translation is, or if it’s in our library here only because we’re lucky enough to live in the hometown of Gecko Press. (And yeah, I’m going to do a little plug here – you should follow that link, they do awesome work.) But it’s always a good thing, in my not-so-humble opinion, to expose kids to stories from all over the world. Read widely, is my philosophy.

The second one is because of the illustrations. This is one of those books that is absolutely made by the illustrations. We got several pages in before we realised how much we’d been missing, and just how many secret neat little easter eggs are in the pictures of this book. At which point we went back to the beginning and started again, looking closer this time. And that, in itself, is a valuable thing – hey we missed stuff because we weren’t paying attention, let’s go back and look again. What a life lesson, right?

The story is a relatively simple one in the tradition of “The House that Jack Built”. In order to make the birthday pancakes, they have to complete a series of tasks, each one dominoing into the next. It would be fun and entertaining simply as is. But when you combine that with the complexity of the illustrations, and all the little extra visuals stories going on there, it really does become an awesome reading experience.

So despite its low scores when it comes to diversity and so forth, I’d still highly recommend this book. It’s a treasure. I may actually have to buy a copy for us.

Pigsty – Mark Teague

Christopher’s Choice: Each week, C gets four or five books out of the library, and picks one as his favourite, and I review it. This is this week’s choice.

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

Honestly, I was a bit surprised he picked this one. When I asked him why he liked it, his reply was simply, “Pigs are funny”. So there you go. Five year old criteria. 😉

This is a simple tale of why you should tidy your room, basically. Wendell doesn’t want to tidy his room, and his mother’s response is basically that if he wants to live in a pigsty that’s his business. This takes a literal turn when two pigs move in. Over time as the room gets grosser and more dirty, more pigs arrive until eventually Wendell can’t stand it any more, and goes to his mother for help. To her credit, she just says that his room is his responsibility. So he enlists the pigs, and they clean it up and the pigs move out.

Yay, kid morality tale. No Bechdel pass – the only woman is his mother. No diversity. And one very obvious “message”. I mean, you know, I’m not averse to my kid digging a story about why you should tidy your room, though it doesn’t seem to have made him more inclined to do so. It is, I guess, a nice relateable dilemma – wanting to live in a clean space but not wanting to make it be that way.

I did like the responsibility thing. We have a lot of that in our household – things he is responsible for. I like that the Mom stood her ground on that. Teaching kids responsibility for themselves is always awesome. So I did give it a point for that.

It was cute. It wasn’t my favourite of the week, but it was okay. And apparently pigs are funny. So there’s that. 😉

A New Feature – Christopher’s choice

I’m introducing a new feature here at the Jellybean. Every week we go to the library and I pick up a pile of books for this blog. But C also picks four or five books out of the general collection that he wants to read. He’s fairly non-discriminatory. There are a lot of pirates and dinosaurs involved, but sometimes it seems like he just reaches out and pulls any five books of the shelf.

In any case, over the course of the week, as we read the books for this, we also work our way through the ones he has chosen.  I have discovered some really wonderful books as a result of my son’s scattershot approach. So I have decided to introduce a weekly(ish) feature where I review one book from that pile – the one he decides is his favourite for that week. I’ll hold it up to the same standards as all the others, but of course it will be guaranteed at least one point, by virtue of being the one C has chosen. First one incoming shortly. 🙂