The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

I have such a strange complicated relationship with HCA. It is very difficult to separate my attitudes and knowledge about him from his work. This is another thing I could write about at great length, but I’ll try keep it brief.

So let’s start with the easy things. There is no Bechdel pass in this book, in part because none of the characters have names, but also because really, every conversation is about the duckling himself, more or less. There is also no real diversity to talk of. This is definitely a very European story.

So let’s talk about the story. We all know it right? Duckling doesn’t fit with his family, is obviously different, goes through many trials and tribulations, even almost dies of cold and abandonment, and then ultimately discovers his true place, and his true beauty.

It’s not a terrible lesson, and I certainly think it’s a useful moral tale for children, both for kids who feel different themselves, and for kids who don’t, because it is a great lesson in empathy.

But it is a VERY moral tale. And this is a theme with Anderson. He was very fond of his moral tales, and this one in particular is extremely autobiographical – he absolutely saw himself as this underappreciated ugly duckling who would eventually “show everyone”. And he did, I guess. I mean many of his stories are now a standard part of the fairytale canon.

That being said, as far as fairytales go, this one is probably one of the least dodgy ones. A lot of fairytales have a lot of things in them that to the modern audience feel very unsavoury, when you start to think about them. This is a simple rags to riches kind of deal. The duckling finds the place he belongs, discovers his true self, and all is well.

You could definitely do worse. 🙂

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Madeline and the Gypsies – 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:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

This is probably my least favourite of the Madeline books, just because of all the “gypsy” stereotypes. I realise it’s a product of its time and all that, but I think the whole “gypsy” concept is still so problematic, that I found myself wanting to have a long conversation with C about why it’s not really an okay term to use any more, and why a lot of the ideas in the book are actually pretty prejudiced.

I mean, the “gypsies” help Madeline and Pepito at first, but then it veers into the whole ‘kidnapping of children’ thing, and that’s such a deep seated and problematic trope that it made me wince a bit.

The book still passes the Bechdel (though only just and it’s a bit of a grey area) because of conversations between Madeline and Ms Clavel, but I haven’t given it the diversity point because, although there are characters of colour, they are there pretty much only to serve as a plot device – and one entrenched mostly in stereotype and prejudice.

I mean, the story has the characteristic rapidity of pace and odd meanderiness that is typical of these books, and it is quite fun to read, butI can’t really get past all the “gypsy” racism stuff. Maybe skip this one. Unless you want to use it as a talking point.

Everybody Loves Bacon – Kelly DiPucchio/Eric Wight

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: 2 out of 10.

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

I can’t say much ‘worthy’ about this book, apart from the fact that it is a lot of fun. There is no Bechdel pass and no notable diversity (but since all the characters are different kinds of food, that’s a bit of a red herring).

It is great fun though. Bacon becomes very popular, and it goes to his head. He forgets all his old friends, gets way to involved in his own fame and popularity – “Who needs friends when you have fans?” he asks. And then… he gets eaten. Because, well, of course.

There’s no redemption, and I suppose if there’s a message it’s something like, if you treat your friends crappily, you deserve to get eaten. 😉

The story is a bit thin, to be honest, but it’s still pretty funny, and C obviously thought it was great. I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a classic of literature – it’s not particularly clever, or even really particularly well written (though I did enjoy the nod to ukuleles), but it is pretty fun, and rather amusing.

It wouldn’t have been my choice of the options he had, but this feature is called “Christopher’s Choice” for a reason, and at the end of the day, kids like what they like. Certainly, it won’t do any harm. 😉

Also, I mean, bacon is delicious. So there’s that.

The Night Before Christmas – Clement C. Moore

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

So, I have a total weakness for Christmas, and all things Christmassy, and a bit of a soft spot for this poem. There are many, many picture book versions of this floating around in the world, and the one we read isn’t even the one I’m linking to above, but most of the ones I saw follow roughly the same illustrative gist.

Unsurprisingly, there is no Bechdel pass and not a person of colour to be seen. This isn’t really surprising given the poem’s origins. And there may well be versions of it that at least show people of colour, but the one we got was pretty ordinary, predictable fare.

So it scores pretty low, but you know, there’s something very timeless and charming about this piece of writing, and it is a classic for a reason. It is one of the more iconic bits of poetry in the Western canon, and it actually mostly stands up pretty well to the passing years.

C loved it – but C, like his mother, loves all things Christmas related, so this isn’t really much of a surprise. He was most put out that there was no sign of Rudolph, and I had to explain that this particular story was from before Rudolph joined the team. Ahem. When your five year old doesn’t realise the story is fiction… 😉

It’s still great though, after all these years. If you’re the sort of person who loves Christmas, well, you probably already are familiar with it, but if not, you should pick it up. Solid stuff.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! – Mo Willems

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

Neither of us thought this one was quite as wonderful as the first one, but it is still pretty awesome. This time, the pigeon is trying to avoid going to sleep, and using all those classic kid techniques to achieve his goal of staying up late, while clearly getting more and more tired.

Like the first book, the pigeon holds one half of a conversation that he’s having with the reader. C got way more into it this time, I think probably because the format was familiar. “No! No! Go to sleep!” It was cute. 🙂

Alas, the only human in this book is a white dude, so it gets absolutely no points in the diversity sweepstakes, but it is still a pretty nifty book, dealing with a situation that is probably fairly universal to any parent of a small rambunctious child with a case of FOMO.

I love the interactivity. This will come as no surprise to any regular reader. I am a huge fan of books that require the reader to engage, and this one does so very well. The pigeon is naughty but likable, and when he eventually does go to sleep it is still protesting his “not tired” status, much like my kid does.

We both enjoyed reading it. Good stuff.

 

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This is another one of those “very beloved toy goes missing” stories. I’m not entirely sure why it’s a “cautionary tale”, unless it’s cautionary to parents along the lines of “don’t bloody lose the important toy, ya dingbat”.

It’s pretty adorable. Trixie’s failed attempts to communicate the problem to her dad will be familiar to any parent of a small human. As will the bawling and bonelessness. It’s a neat little story, with its roots firmly in real life parenting.

No Bechdel pass, though, alas. And I’ve given it the diversity point, for having at least a couple of people of colour in the background, but once again the main story is about a nuclear white family. I also find myself slightly annoyed at the implications involved in Trixie’s dad having NO IDEA what her problem is, whereas her mother knows right the hell away. *sigh* This again? Really?

But apart from those minor gripes, it is a pretty cute little tale. Personally, I was not as taken with this as I was with Willems’ Pigeon book, but it’s okay. Certainly worth a read.

 

 

The Eight Famous 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: 2 out of 10.

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

In many ways this book is really just more of the same. Engines doing foolish things because they are silly or selfish or conceited and then learning the errors of their ways. Topham Hat being all patriarchal and whatnot. Meh.

Once again there’s not a female character or a person of colour to be seen – this despite this book containing four complete stories. It’s all white boys all the way.

The only thing I really have to say for it is that in the last story of the book (and the one from which it takes its title), it gets quite meta in fun ways, with the Fat Controller talking about how the children of England read books about the engines but don’t believe they’re real so he takes some on a tour to meet the “children of England”. I have a real weakness for this kind of fourth wall breaking meta stuff, and so I gave it a point for that.

But honestly, overall, this is a pretty weak offering in a series that I am still unconvinced deserves its hype. Skip it.