The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck – Beatrix Potter

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

I had actually never read this one before, and it turns out it may just be one of my favourite of Beatrix Potter’s books. Jemima is so deliciously oblivious to her danger, and so much of the story happens in subtext. It is delightful.

Plus it has a female protagonist and actually passes the Bechdel when Rebeccah Puddle-duck and Jemima have a little spat about the latter’s egg sitting abilities.

I actually quite honestly thought that this book was going to end with Jemima being eaten by the “bushy long-tailed gentleman”, and was a little disappointed when she wasn’t. (I am probably a bad person for this, but oh well.)

Having said that, her eggs were still eaten by the fox hound puppies who saved her life, and that in itself is part of what I love about Potter in general, and this book in particular – there is no shielding children from the truths of nature.

C enjoyed it, although I don’t think he entirely got it. We had a conversation about the fox and what had happened to him and why and he was certain that the dogs were just being mean to him. I asked him if he thought the fox was going to eat Jemima and he said, “I don’t think so, but the dogs chased him away anyway.” Charitable kid. ūüėČ

It’s a great little story – just a little bit dark, but in the best way. I’ve given it an ideology point because I love stories that don’t sugar-coat things too much for kids. I am in the camp that believes that kids can handle dark stories a lot better than most adults think they can, and shielding them from the natural cycles of the world too much can be a bad thing. So a book like this where we can become invested in Jemima and also in the polite and charming villain who wants to eat her blurs the lines between good and bad in interesting ways.

What do you think? Is it a little too dark? Do you think Jemima  deserved eating? Do you read darker books to your children?

 

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The Tale of Jeremy Fisher – Beatrix Potter

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

Jeremy Fisher has no female characters at all, and no¬†diversity – but, in fairness, there are only three characters. Four if you count the fish. I can’t really say much to recommend it ideologically – Fisher is a bit pompous and silly. But having said that, it is still a totally charming story.

Jeremy Fisher goes fishing, and very nearly becomes the prey. He is not a very adept fisherman, it seems, and is somewhat out of his league when a trout decides to make him its lunch. He escapes only because the trout doesn’t like the taste of his macintosh.

Like most of Potter’s tales, it is a very British tale, but has a dry humour about it which somehow manages to call fun down on the very Britishness that is its tone.¬†I am particularly fond of the names of Fisher’s visitors at the end: Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton, the latter being, of course, a newt. Punnerrific Ms Potter. ūüėČ

As I mentioned at the start, there is no diversity and not a woman to be seen. The characters are all pretty clearly animal versions of white British men, with their macintoshes and waistcoats. Still, the book has a charm – perhaps even more so, for me anyway, than Peter Rabbit.

C and I both enjoyed it. He laughed at the idea of roast grasshopper for dinner. It was grand. Not a high scorer, but still great fun to read.

What do you think? Better than its more famous counterpart, Peter Rabbit?

 

 

Mother Goose – Kate Greenaway

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

A lot of what I said about¬†Lavender’s Blue, the first book of nursery rhymes we encountered, applies here too. Many of the rhymes are the same rhymes, although this one is significantly older and so some have more archaic forms and slightly different lyrics to what are generally used in modern versions.

Kate Greenaway is generally considered one of the greats of children’s book illustrations – there is even a major children’s illustrator award named after her – but personally I find her illustrative style way too twee. This book is beautiful in the sens of being obviously out of its time, and the copy I had was a very small book which gave it a kind of old-world miniature charm. It’s an interesting thing to expose children to this sort of totally different aesthetic

As far as scoring goes, there is one rhyme where words are passed between women, but the women are nameless, so it doesn’t pass Bechdel. As for the rest, it fails pretty dismally, as you would expect a book published in 1881 to do. It is however an icon of our culture, and there is some value in that. C enjoyed it, though I suspect mostly because of the familiarity of many of the rhymes. It was shorter than Lavender’s Blue, but he still got bored partway through. It’s arguable that a book like this is meant to be dipped into, though, so I am giving it to the two points for being enjoyable anyway.

The book definitely has the sense of being a cultural treasure, and there is absolutely value in that. As someone who grew up with nursery rhymes ingrained in my head, I think there is something kind of magical about these rhymes passed down through so many generations that they have almost lost their original meaning, and yet children still know the words. So does it have its place? Certainly. But does it pass based on the criteria we’re working with here? Not even close.

What do you think? What’s your favourite nursery rhyme book? What’s your favourite nursery rhyme in general? Do you think it’s a dead artform we should leave behind, or do you think they still have value?

Handa’s Surprise – Eileen Browne

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

FINALLY! A book with a protagonist who isn’t a white kid or an Anglicised animal!

Handa’s Surprise is about a little girl who takes a basket of fruit to her friend Akeyo. On the way the fruit gets stolen by a variety of animals, and eventually replaced with a pile of tangerines. Akeyo is pleasantly surprised because she loves tangerines, and in a play on the title, Handa is also surprised!

The book is set in Kenya, the animals are African animals, even the fruit is reminiscent of home for me. Guavas and mangos are stolen by ostriches and zebras. The blurb in the¬†1001 Books book is all about the ‘exotic’ animals and fruit, but for me it feels not exotic but comfortable and familiar. I grew up, not in Kenya, but in South Africa, and the fruits in Handa’s basket are the fruits I used to eat in my childhood garden. This thrill of familiarity must be minor compared to children who almost never see characters like themselves in books.

The best part is that despite the¬†1001¬†blurb, there’s nothing exotic or token about the story. It doesn’t feel like “a story about a black African kid”, it feels like a story about a little girl taking a surprise to her friend. It just happens to be a surprise made of the kind of fruit that grows in Kenya, and is filched by the animals indigenous to that place.

And on top of all that, it passes the Bechdel  with flying colours. In fact, the only named characters are girls, and the only dialogue is between them.

I love it. It was a total pleasure to read to my son, who thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt almost nostalgic to me despite the fact that I had never read it before. It’s a great little tale. Definitely recommended.

What do you think of¬†Handa? Do you know of other awesome kids’ books set in Africa?

Owl Babies – Martin Waddell

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

Owl Babies is a way better “your mommy will always love you” tale than most of its kind. The three owl babies wake up to find their mommy gone, and proceed to express their nervousness about whether or not she’ll come back in a fairly realistic way. They make avowals of certainty that she will return, with mice! probably. Their actual uncertainty of this fact is left implied. When she returns, her response is essentially “Of course you knew I’d come back” like it isn’t even a real question. The effect is subtle but unmistakable- to her, there is absolutely no question.

Technically the book passes the Bechdel, because one of the owl babies is Sarah. All the characters are owls though, with Anglo-Saxon names, so no points for variety. I found it remarkably charming, personally, and C was pretty engaged. He kept stopping the story to discuss it. “Mommy, when you go away, I miss you, but I always know you’re coming back!”And then there was the moment when he said, “And if I get lost, when you find me, I’ll say ‘Mummy!'” (like the owl babies do), which gave me feels because he didn’t even question whether I’d find him.

Which really is the thing I loved about this book: the simplicity of the parent-child bond. The babies are definitely nervous and frightened, but there is no question really whether¬†the mother owl will return. And when she does she acts as though the idea that she wouldn’t is just unthinkable (“What’s all the fuss?”). This is far more representative of the abiding love of a parent, in my opinion, than the creepy, controlling so-called ‘love’ in, say¬†The Runaway Bunny.

What do you think of Owl Babies? Am I being too kind? What’s your favourite children’s book to deal with this theme of abiding parental love?

 

Maisy Goes to Preschool – Lucy Cousins

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

The¬†Maisy books are almost as much of an institution as the¬†Thomas books, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, are significantly better. This one (also called¬†Maisy Goes to Playschool in some countries) is a great little introduction to Maisy and her world. The preschool experiences closely mirror what C, at least, has experienced, and he took great pleasure in talking about how “we do that at kindy too!”. Which is evidence for the fact that children love reading about the familiar almost as much as they love reading about the fantastic (and is also evidence, incidentally, for the value of this whole project – think about what it’s like for kids who hardly ever see lives or characters like their own in their books).

The book passes the Bechdel – Maisy and her friends chat about various things, including the fact that they should wash their hands after going to the bathroom. It’s reported speech rather than direct dialogue, but I’m still giving it the point, Bechdel passes being rare enough birds as it is. We could almost give it the “variety of characters” point, given the different animals in Maisy’s class, but I decided that would be a touch too generous.

Having said that, Maisy’s preschool teacher is male, which is enough of a slap in the face of the generally accepted status quo that it gave me a smile. While nothing particularly exciting or subversive happens in the plot of the story, there is a real sense of this being a positive and safe space for these ‘children’, and the kind of preschool I’d be happy to see my son at. Everybody does everything, there is no gender stupidity or exclusion of characters. It seems like a safe nurturing encouraging environment.

And, in general, I love Maisy as a female character in a children’s book. She drives toy cars, wears trousers, paints, plays music, holds hands with her friends… There is zero suggestion that her only options are pink sparkles and princesses, which, honestly, is a breath of fresh air.

Good stuff. Very good stuff. Highly recommended. I actually look forward to working my way through the rest of this series.

What do you think? Do you enjoy the Maisy books? Have you read them to your children? Which is your favourite?

Kipper – Mick Inkpen

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

This was my first experience of Kipper, and we both really quite enjoyed it.¬†Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get anywhere on our scale.

It’s a pretty standard “no place like home” kind of story. Kipper decides to clean out his basket, gets rid of the dirty half broken things therein, discovers that without them his basket isn’t comfortable, goes gallivanting about to see if any of the things that are comfortable for other animals (lily pads for frogs and nests of twigs for squirrels) will work for him, discovers they do not and ends up back in his comfy old basket with his old smelly blanket and bunny and chew-toy. It’s some classic “explore to find out there’s nothing quite like home” stuff, really.

There’s no dialogue except for Kipper’s, and no human (or explicitly female) characters, and very little in the way of status quo challenging ideas. Still, it’s a neat little tale, and while part of me (probably the part that is a nomad and has traveled very far from my home over the years) is always a bit skeptical of the message that the place you start is ultimately always the best place for you, being happy with who you are and where you belong is not awful either, I suppose. ūüėČ

C and I enjoyed reading it, he loved the various animals. It was entertaining enough.

Not a high scorer though, and not earth-shattering by any means. This is a comfortable white bread book. Which I guess is sort of the point.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Kipper? Am I being too hard on it?