Alfie’s Feet – 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 points
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

The Alfie books are pretty great as a rule, but this one is a bit middling. It’s cute enough, I suppose, but I feel wasn’t quite as good as the rest of the series.

There isn’t a single word of dialogue in this book, and only one named female character (if you don’t count “Mum”), so it can’t pass the Bechdel.

As far as diversity goes, while Alfie’s immediate family is white as can be, at least his world is populated with people of many colours and kinds. One of the things I like about these books is that the images of crowds, even in stories like this one which is quite insular,  include a decent variety of people. It’s almost like that’s what the world is actually like or something!

Again I feel obligated to point out what a low bar this is, and yet so few children’s books seem to meet even this very low bar, that it’s worth noting.

The story is okay. C likes Alfie and his sister Annie Rose, so he enjoyed it. The basic gist is that Alfie likes to stomp in puddles, so his Mum buys him some bright yellow gumboots and then off he goes, stomp, splash, joy. It’s very very simple, but is the kind of thing that is pretty relatable to kids and their parents. Nothing super exciting going on here, but a cute relevant story nonetheless. Some of the other Alfie books I’ve reviewed have definitely been better, but it’s okay.

Stomp. Splash. 😉

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Hairy Maclary’s Bone – Lynley Dodd

More in the Series – Hairy Maclary
“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 points

I have a real love for the Hairy Maclary books. I wasn’t born a Kiwi, but I’ve lived here for, good god NINE YEARS now, and so I feel a certain amount of pride that these incredibly simple, deft books came out of NZ. They really master the art of being local while still being internationally relevant (I can’t imagine anyone not developing a fondness for Hairy Maclary and his compatriots.

There are no female characters at all in this book, as far as we can tell, anyway. There is also no real sign of diversity (unless you count diversity of dog breeds, which, no, not really). But the issue is a bit kind of adjacent given that all the major characters are animals, and the humans that do exist do so in a Schultzesque “legs and arms only” manner.

In this tale, Hairy Maclary receives a bone form the butcher and takes it home. He is followed by all the neighbourhood dogs who have a mind to “share” it with him, but as he goes he manages to lose them one by one by choosing a route home that proves too narrow, high, athletic and so on for each of them.

Like all these books, the rhyme is deft and simple. Lynley Dodd has a knack for making it look easy, which is the sign of a true linguistic artist. As someone who has read a lot of kids books where the rhymes have been forced to conform, twisted and shoved into place, Dodd’s nimble, elegant words are a pleasure.

C loves these books as much as I do. They are always fun to read (and reread!) and the protagonist is extremely lovable. Not high scorers by our metrics, but well worth the read anyway. 🙂

Babar the King – 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

I am afraid I really cannot give this book very much credit. Not only does it utterly fail the Bechdel, and smell quite strongly of some pretty old school colonialism, but it’s not even a well structured story!

The only female character who has a name is Celeste (Babar’s queen) who gets exactly two words of dialogue in the whole book. The other major female character is known simply as The Old Lady, and she exists basically to provide trite “wise” aphorisms and a plot point for Babar.

The gist of this story is that all Babar’s stuff from his travels arrives home, and he uses it to bribe the elephants to help him build a town (which he, like any good monarch, names after his almost-silent queen: Celesteville). There is much peace and prosperity, and then it is as if the author suddenly realised that a book needs some conflict, so out of the blue the Old Lady is bitten by a snake and Babar’s mentor Cornelius’ house gets burned down.

Fortunately the Old Lady has her wisdom aphorism app working, so she assures Babar (after a night’s recovery in hospital) that troubles are only there to make us appreciate what we have (or some similar nonsense), and they all go on happily and wiser. Or something.

C said he liked it, but I can’t help but think that’s because elephants, basically. I found the story disjointed, the overt colonial themes annoying, and just generally was not impressed.

Skip it.

Limelight Larry – Leigh Hodgkinson

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

This book does that metatextual thing for which I have such an enormous weakness. The gist of the story is that the book (the whole book!) is meant to be about Limelight Larry who, you may be able to tell from the name, is the sort of character who really wants all the attention to be on him. Gradually, however, other characters appear and get involved, making Larry more and more put out, until he gets rid of everyone by taking up the whole page himself with an enormous show of plumage! (Larry is a peacock, in case that isn’t clear from the above cover image.)  But then he discovers that things are not as much fun without other people, and the woods have gotten quite spooky so he calls them all back.

It’s a story about sharing the spotlight, and the value of playing nice with others and not trying to hog all the attention to yourself, which is a pretty great message. But the really fun thing about this book is that it is so metatextual about the fact that it is a book. Larry’s whole complaint is that the book is meant to be all about him – he even refers the other characters to the cover. On said cover, and even on the imprint page, Larry has crossed things out and annotated things to make it all about him. He has even edited the authors name to make the book BY Limelight Larry.

I love this stuff. I am a big fan of this kind of tricksy self-referential metatext, especially in kids’ books. It reminds children that stories are unreliable – that someone somewhere had to write them. That they can’t entirely be trusted, and I think this is an incredible thing for children to grasp. Tricksterism has no better venue than a children’s book, in my not so humble opinion, and this book is an awesome example of that.

By our metrics though, it doesn’t do well. While not all of the animals in the book are gendered, the ones that are definitely fall into the kind of “default male” character, and there is no hint of diversity. I mean the characters are all animals, so there’s that, but nevertheless. No points for any of that.

It’s a good message though – don’t be a selfish dumbass – and the metatextual aspect is great fun. And C picked it as his book of the week, so it obviously works at a five year old level too. 🙂 Good stuff. Recommended.

The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

This is obviously one of those classic stories “everyone” knows. It’s been retold and illustrated a million times and the version we got out from the library was different to the one linked above. Nevertheless, you all know the gist. Emperor is taken in by charlatan bullshitters pretending to be tailors who convince him and everyone else that their silk is so fine that it somehow manages to only be seen by worthy people.

Everyone is too afraid to admit they can’t see the not actually there at all fabric, for fear that they are the only ones who can’t, and so go along with the charade until a young child finally tells the truth.

The moral, like most of Anderson’s, is about as subtle as a battleaxe across the skull. If you don’t tell the truth for fear of looking like a dumbass, there’s a good chance it’ll come out and make you look like a dumbass. Also, innocence of childhood and all that jazz.

It seems a somewhat appropriate story at the moment – not believing the hype is a pretty important trait to have in this modern world. It fails on almost all our metrics though – every speaking character is a man, the illustrations in the version we had definitely only showed white people.

I do think that this story gives us a very useful analogy though, and it’s a great thing for kids to learn – the often con artists succeed by sheer audacity and the fact that no one has the gumption to call them out for fear of looking stupid. And that often asking the question anyway leads to greater wisdom, rather than just muddling along pretending.

Anderson’s particular brand of morality bugs me a little, just because he is so very unsubtle about it, but at least in this case I mostly agree with what he’s saying.   

Worth reading. But then, you probably have. 🙂

The Magic Fishbone – Charles Dickens

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

This is a very bizarre tale, ladies and gentlefolk. It does, actually, weirdly, pass the Bechdel, in that GrandMarina and Princess Alicia have a couple of conversations that have nothing to do with men. Go Dickens!

There’s no diversity, but that’s hardly surprising.

The story is… odd. To say the least. But at its heart is a very cool little moral, which is to say that it’s all well and good resorting to magic and wishes, but it’s really best to just solve your problems by yourself first if you can. Princess Alicia is given a magic fishbone that will grant her one wish. But she saves it, solving various dilemmas with smarts and kindness until she is really sure she has a problem that cannot be solved.

Because of her diligence and hard work, Grandmarina (who is, essentially, a fairy godmother) rewards her the way any princess wants to be rewarded – marriage to a prince. (So close, Dickens, and then you fail to stick the landing.) Also, there’s a thing where a dog gets choked on the fishbone at the end which seem very strange and gratuitous.

The story is pretty cool though – there is a clear undercurrent of humour, which I appreciate, where it’s pretty obvious that this is a fairy tale made out of normal working (Dickensian) people. It’s kind of amusingly handled.

C said he liked it, but honestly it took us several attempts to get through it, and I don’t think he really followed the story or understand what was happening. The language is, well, Dickens, so it’s a bit dense. I found it fairly entertaining though, and I’m not usually a fan of Dickens.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag. May be interesting as a novelty, but probably not going to be a winner with your average child reader.

Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

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

This is some truly Hallmark shit y’all. *grin* But when I asked my son to pick his favourite, and he picked this and I asked him why he said, “Because love is really nice”, and honestly, I can’t argue with that. Especially now, when we could all use a little more love, I think.

It doesn’t pass any Bechdel or diversity tests, because the only character is the caterpillar. There is no story, really. This is very much a gift book, based on the Hungry Caterpillar franchise. The text is all cutesy love stuff. “You make my heart flutter” accompanied by the picture of the butterfly and suchlike. There’s not much to it.

Having said that, though, my sweet kid likes it because “love is really nice”. And I cant help but be proud that my five year old feels that way.

So you know what, screw my usual eye-rolling cynicism about this kind of saccharine stuff. The world is a dark place, and we could all use a bit of love. So here it is. In big, gorgeous collaged letters. Let’s celebrate people who make the sun shine brighter.

Love.

It’s an imperative. 😉