The Moon and Farmer McPhee – Margaret Mahy/David Elliot

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

As a kiddielit geek living in NZ you’d be hard pressed to find a combo that gives me as much joy as Mahy/Elliot. And I was pretty pleased that the book lived up to my expectations.

It’s a story about finding the small joys in life. Farmer McPhee sort of plods through his days, doing what needs to be done, but never “frisking”. He works too hard, and his life has not enough joy in it. So the animals on his farm resolve to do something about this – to get him to notice the moon and beauty and mystery. They have a big late at night frolic in the moonlight and wake him up. He is, of course, grumpy as hell about it, and resists their suggestions that he embrace the frisk. But eventually the moon wins him over and life is full of joy and dancing. Huzzah!

As far as our metrics go, there’s nothing here – there is one human character and he is very much a white dude. So it gets no points for Bechdel or any kind of diversity.

It’s a great book though. Apart from just being an awesome story, it has pages with holes for peeping into and folded pages that allow you to open doors and look through things. I love these kind of interactive touches.

And I love the basic ideology that life is more than work, that you have to stop on occasion and dance beneath the full moon. 😉

C obviously loved this book, since he picked it as his favourite (and with no hesitation at all). I suspect a lot of that had to do with the barn doors that open and so forth – he shares my love for these things – but some had to do with it just being an awesome story. 🙂

Read it. It’s neat.

The Secret Lives of Princesses – Philippe Lechermeier/Rebecca Dautremer

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

I adore this book. It is a book that requires time though, because there is a lot to it. We read it over several sittings – poring over the gorgeous illustrations and making sure we didn’t miss any of the extra text bits.

It is basically a guide to princesses – and not only the usual airy fairy ones. This book has princesses from all over the world with all sorts of passions and personalities. There’s no homogeneous Disney thing going on here – it is a way more complex and quirky world.

It can’t pass the Bechdel, because it is structured as a guidebook, and therefore has no dialogue – but it definitely passes the spirit of the Bechdel. These are no sexy lamps in someone else’s story, these princesses are all at the very centre of their universes.

This would be a great book for a little girl who has bought into the princess thing but hankers for a bit more substance. There is a huge selection here – princesses of all temperaments and kinds. And clearly multi-cultural too, which is awesome.

And even when you set all that aside, this book is utterly beautiful and totally whimsical. It’s a pleasure to work through. C liked it, although I think a lot of it went over his head. (It’s listed in the 3+ section, but I’d say it would probably be better for 7+ year olds. There’s some pretty complex stuff in here.) It’s definitely not a single-sitting book. It’s more the kind of book you buy and look at over and over again.

Gorgeous. Wonderful. Highly recommended.

Alfie Lends a Hand – 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: 5 out of 10.

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

These books really are just lovely. In this one, Alfie goes to a birthday party for his friend Bernard. I like how Bernard is portrayed as naughty, and it’s not dismissed or hand-waved away as “boys will be boys” but at the same time he’s not a total monster. It’s nice to see the nuance of behaviour in kids in a book for kids.

Also the children at Bernard’s party are actually pretty representative of multiple cultures, which is awesome to see. In this one there is a child called Min who actually gets quite a lot of airtime, so it’s not even only the token “faces in the crowd” thing. Minor step up from the truly low bar we have set.

I’ve given it the Bechdel pass because Min and Bernard’s Mum have a couple of conversations that, although a direct result of Bernard’s actions, are not actually about him. I know that calling Bernard’s Mum named is a stretch, but I spend a lot of time around children who refer to me only as “Christopher’s Mum”, so I know that that is pretty much how kids see the parents of their peers. I’m counting it. 🙂

The story is about being brave, and about being kind. Alfie is afraid to go to the party alone and takes his security blanket with him, but when Min needs a friend, he sets the blanket aside because he needs both hands to help her. It’s a cool little moral analogy to do with doing the scary thing to help someone who is more scared than you are.

These books really do have some great ideologies under their really quite relatable stories. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them.

C liked it too – though he was a bit judgy about Bernard’s behaviour. But it was a good story, with some neat messages that were not too overt. Good stuff.

Madlenka – Peter Sis

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

This is, at its very heart, a story about the diversity of New York City. So of course it gets points for having people of colour, people from multiple cultures, and more than one instance of named female characters talking to each other.

Madlenka is a little girl who lives in a big building in NYC. Her tooth becomes loose, so she goes to “tell everyone”. This includes a huge range of people from all around the world. Each page is a celebration of a different background. The illustrations are ornate and complex and very very beautiful. The book has hidey holes for peeking through into other people’s worlds, and turnign the page reveals that world in great detail.

Madlenka treats all these people as friends – she has no sign of prejudice or weirdness about it. You can tell that all of the people she goes to talk to are people she has relationships with, people she considers friends. Her community is international.

It’s a really great story. At its heart it is just about a girl and her people, but there is so much richness in the illustrations that it becomes a real celebration of how interacting with people from other backgrounds and cultures can be a completely enriching thing for a child.

On top of that C loved it, wanting to stop and pore over every page, examining details, finding things in each picture. And, in case it’s not obvious, I loved it too. 🙂

Wonderful wonderful stuff.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus – Mo Willems

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This book is absolutely wonderful. Kids love to say “no”, I have discovered, and this book gives them the perfect excuse to do so. You are told, at the start, not to let the pigeon drive the bus. And then the pigeon proceeds to try to convince you otherwise, and you are compelled to refuse throughout!

It is so much fun, guys. 🙂 C and I had a ball, working our way through it, him saying no to the pigeon at every turn. I particularly like that the pigeon uses the exact sorts of negotiating tactics that 5 yr olds tend to use. 😉 There’s something cool and empowering about putting a kid in that position.

Of course, the only characters are the pigeon and the bus driver, so it gets no points for Bechdel or diversity, but I would still recommend this book. It is very cleverly constructed, and the more I think about it, the more I think it is doing something really quite subversive – putting a child on the other side of the authority line to where they usually are.

Such a simple concept, but so much fun to read. Plus it gets points for being interactive, which you know I always love.

Definitely get your hands on this one.

Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This is a really cute story about a boy and a penguin he befriends. The penguin shows up on his doorstep and he assumes its lost, and goes on a quest to help it find its way home, eventually rowing it all the way to the South Pole. But the penguin is not that pleased when they get there, and it transpires that the penguin wasn’t lost, it wasn’t lonely, and just wanted a friend.

It’s a very simple concept – the building of friendship, the fact that they become friends over the course of the quest to help the penguin find his way.

There’s no Bechdel pass – there’s no real dialogue, and the boy and the (genderless) penguin are really the only characters. Similarly you can’t really have diversity with only one human. (There is one other, on one page, also white.) So, metrics wise, there’s not much here.

But it is a lovely story, and I always enjoy a good buddy story (which is what this is really at heart). It’s about finding your friends, and how that can be unexpected. The illustrations are gorgeously bold and striking. The text is simple. Good stuff.

Tap the Magic Tree – Christie Matheson

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

 

There’s no real way to score this one, since the only “character” is the magic tree. It’s a really fun book though. It’s one of those interactive books where each page has an instruction that has an effect on the tree in question. Tapping it makes the leaves grow, rubbing the trunk makes it begin to flower, and so forth.

It takes you through a full seasonal cycle, green leaves transforming into blossoms, transforming into apples, then the leaves go red and fall off and the snow comes.

There is a squirrel and a little bird family, but this book kind of sits completely outside of what we’re doing here. It’s very simple, awesomely interactive, fun to read together.

So I don’t have a lot to say about it really. I still prefer Henri Tullet’s “Press Here”, but this is pretty cute.

C obviously loved it, because he picked it as his favourite (and it was a good week – there were at least three books seriously in the running), and as you probably know by now, I have a real love for interactive books.

So yeah, check it out. 🙂

Olivia – Ian Falconer

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

Olivia is a pretty cute book about a rambunctious little pig-girl. She has boundless energy which results in her frequently wearing people out (most notably her mother). I’ve given it the Bechdel, even though “Mummy” isn’t a real name, because it kind of is in kid-world. All the characters are pigs though, so there is no real way to measure diversity.

It’s neat though. Olivia is a fiery little girl who gets into mischief, paints on walls when she shouldn’t, makes truly epic sandcastles, and obviously has quite an imagination. There’s quite a lot to her, given how simple the book is, which is pretty cool.

And it has that “you’re a ratbag but I love you” thing going on between her and her Mummy, which is one of my favourite things. The relationships between Olivia and her parents, and her little brother Ian feel really genuine and believable, which is always nice. In real life even the best families sometimes get sick and tired of each other, but there is always that underlying love. And that’s the important thing.

The illustrations are fairly sparce (lots of white space!) and simple, but they still manage to complement the text, and add to the story.

It’s a cute book. Worth a read.

Percy the Small Engine – Rev. W. Awdry

More in the Series – 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.

Unsurprisingly, this book has no Bechdel pass, and no diversity whatsoever. Annie and Clarabel make an appearance, but they don’t get even the inane dialogue they usually get.

Still, in some ways this is the perfect “Railway Series” book – it’s pretty much all about engines playing tricks on each other, or getting jealous of new outsiders (in the from, this time, of Harold the helicopter. Percy is one of the better characters, in that he’s cheeky and mischievous but not quite as obnoxious about it as, say, James or Gordon. At base, he’s pretty good-humoured, and so the stories in this book reflect that.

But really that’s the best I can say about it. Mostly, it’s just more of the same. Sometimes the engines are good, and Topham Hat shows up to pat them on their metaphorical heads for their obedience; sometimes they are bad and don’t do as they’re told without complaining, and he shows up to scold and punish. Yawn. Next please?

I realise that the appeal is mostly just trains, but man I wish these had better actual stories. My kid still adores them though. So there must be something there. It just utterly eludes me.

Madeline in London – 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: 2 out of 10.

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

I think this is one of the weaker Madeline books, personally. Maybe it was just that it was so soon after ‘The Gruffalo” but some of the rhymes in this one felt a bit forced to me. (I actually put it down to translation initially, but then I googled Bemelmans, and it turns out he was writing in English, so we can’t blame it on that.)

Madeline’s little friend Pepito moves to London so the girls and Miss Clavel go to visit him. There’s a lot of the usual London stuff – Royal guards and palaces and whatnot. There is no Bechdel pass (despite there being two named female characters, they never actually have a dialogue in this book), and the only person of colour in the whole book is one of the cooks at the Pepito’s parents’ embassy, and I balk at giving it a point for diversity when the only POC is a servant.

The story leaves something to be desired too. Madeline and her friends buy Pepito a horse for his birthday, adopting it from the home for retired horses. There is a joke about making glue, because of course, and the horse is taken off to Pepito’s house. It escaped, shenanigans ensue, they bring him back where he eats Pepito’s mother’s flowers and is summarily banned from staying. So the girls put him on a plane and take him back to Paris with them. Like you do. (I also remember what an enormous fuss was made about them having a dog, so it seems rather unwise for them to upgrade to a horse – especially one they allow to sleep INSIDE the house.

It just feels a bit less coherent than the other books, and not quite as good. It’s still pretty fun to read though, and C gave it a thumbs up, but if you’re going to read Madeline books, this may not be the place to start.