Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – May Gibbs

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

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This book is about as cutesy and twee as the title will lead you to expect. To my great surprise, however, C really loved it. He was quite taken with these two “nuts” and their adventures.

The book does pass the Bechdel – just. And only right at the very end where Lilly Pilly (the actress) offers to adopt Little Blossom and make her her sister. It’s one line of dialogue, but they both have names and it’s not about a male character, so it’s a technical pass.

I mean, I guess it’s cute of you like that sort of thing. There are a lot of close calls, and near catastrophes, and the two title characters do have fairly clear personalities, which is more than I expected. There is a certain charm to the way the Australian flora and fauna is personified. It’s still a bit twee for my taste, but I can see how if cutesy is your flavour, you may dig it.

Ideologically there is a bit of stuff about not judging by covers and all that good stuff – Little Blossom proves herself to be very brave and willing to do whatever she has to to save the Nuts from the evil Mrs Snake and her army of Banksia men. She is of course rewarded with  financial security and a new home. 😉

It is definitely a product of its time, though. There’s a lot of that “ideal of childhood” stuff going on, which has never sat that well with me.

May be worth a read if you’re into antipodean classics. Like I said, C loved it, so there’s obviously something there. Me? I could take it or leave, to be honest.

 

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Owl Moon – Jane Yolen

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

Full disclosure? I love Jane Yolen. I pretty much love everything I have ever read that she has written. So it’s not surprising that I love this.

The book only has two characters, and one is Papa, so it can’t pass the Bechdel, but I sort of love that the gender of the child is unclear. The story is written in the first person from the point of view of the child (who is wrapped up in winter clothes) so it is unclear whether it’s a girl or a boy. I love this. It means that it could be any child – that every child who reads it can read themself into the story. Perfect.

The story itself has a magical poetic quality. Papa and the child go “owling” – walking at night through a quiet snowy landscape looking for an owl. papa makes owl hooting noises, which C loved me doing, and echoed back to me. The pictures are perfect – you can almost feel the quiet of this snowy night. The text is simple but poetic, conjuring up this sense of this being almost ritualistic – like they are following a prescribed path, something almost spiritual, this father and his child, owling in the snow.

It’s really beautiful. Like all really good art, it is simple but seems to tap into something deeper, something connected to all the world and yet somehow deeply human. It doesn’t score extremely high by our metrics, here, but C sat totally still through the whole thing (which almost never happens). There’s something very special happening in this book.

Honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 🙂

Curious George – H. A. Rey

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

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

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Alas, this is a book that definitely doesn’t stand the test of time. We’ve been watching the TV shows for years – C loves them, and I actually think there’s a lot in them that is good: an emphasis on kindness and investigation, ingenuity and experimenting to find ways to do things.

But the book, not so much. It starts with the man in the yellow hat basically kid-napping George  from his home and family and whisking him away over the sea. In this book, curiosity is not a good thing, it is a thing that gets George into trouble over and over again. It is more of a hazard than an asset.

I mean, you know, he’s a naughty little monkey, so he comes out of it okay in the end (if you consider living in a zoo instead of the wilds from which he came “okay”). There’s no diversity at all. One female character, a nameless girl buying her little brother balloons, with no dialogue, and only white faces as far as the eye can see.

Even C seemed a bit disappointed. He still gave it a thumbs up, but he did comment on how it seemed pretty mean of the man with the yellow hat to steal George like that.

I guess we’ll see how the rest of the series go, but this one doesn’t actually have that much going for it. I mean the story is kind of funny, I suppose, but in this case the screen version is definitely vastly superior. 🙂

Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella -Constance Heward

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

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This is a great little story about a little girl who is resourceful and kind. Ameliaranne is going to a tea-party at “the Squire’s” but all her little brothers and sisters are sick and can’t go along. So Ameliaranne takes a green umbrella with her and proceeds to sneak cakes and scones away in it for her siblings. She is caught at this, but instead of being punished the Squire (who, it turns out, was watching her the whole time and saw that she ate nothing herself) rewards her kindness by sending her home with a packed tea for her whole family.

I love that Ameliaranne herself is such a strong, resourceful, kind girl. Given this book was written in 1920, it’s pretty cool to see a female protagonist show initiative like that. Also, honestly, I am a sucker for stories that show kids being kind, especially to siblings. C, apparently, shares this with me, because his response was, “That’s really nice of her, isn’t it, Mommy?”

Of course. there’s some class stuff going on here. For all the Squire responds to the situation with kindness, he apparently is doing nothing on a day to day basis about people like this poor single mother who does other people’s laundry for money and is forced to feed her six children gruel most of the time. He definitely seems to think that giving the children an annual teaparty is sufficient to be considered a jolly old chap.

The book does, however, pass the Bechdel. Ameliaranne has conversations with her mother (who is called Mrs. Stibbons, not just “Mother” or some such like in so many kids’ books), and a couple with Josephine, the Squire’s rather bitter nasty sister, who catches Ameliaranne at her sibling food hoarding in the first place.

Despite the dodgy class stuff, it’s really a very charming story, and C loved it more than I expected him to do. (He really does have a liking for stories about kindness, which is pretty cool, if you ask me.) So it gets points for that from both of us. Worth a read. 🙂

 

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

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 bit of a hard one for me to review because it is so very beloved, and with such good reason. We’ve all seen that thing about how you become real by being loved and how that process can hurt and by the time you’re real, all your fur has been cuddled off and all that. And it’s a great message. It certainly resonates with a lot of people.

Thing is though, this book fails almost all our metrics. The only female character is the fairy, and her entire role is to rescue and bring the rabbit to life. So no Bechdel. There is definitely no sign of diversity.

And also, you know, I sort of object to the idea that “realness” is something that is bestowed upon you by someone else’s love. That’s… just a bit problematic for me.

But I get it. It is a very beloved book, and not without reason. The bond between kid and their favourite toy seems to be a pretty universal concept. Certainly C loves this book because he has a “Kitty” he loves like that. And he has solemnly informed me that Kitty is real because he loves him, and on that level I think the book is doing something pretty neat. We do infer meaning onto things as humans just because we have strong feelings about them.

But that’s things. And the book is told from the point of view of the rabbit, and I can’t help but feel that if it is about love, it is not so much being loved that makes a person real as perhaps the act of loving. Also, like, people are just real. You know. It’s not a conditional state.

Emotionally, I adore this book. But when I put my narrative criticism hat on, I can’t help but spot that it is full of ideological holes.

So yes, absolutely, read it to your kids. But then remind them that their worth lies in themselves, not in being loved by anyone else. Because what really makes you “real” is what you do and how you behave. Not what other people think of you.

The Little Mermaid – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

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

Oh Hans, you poor disturbed dear!

Okay, so before Disney got hold of it, this was a story of a girl who martyred herself for love, basically. Hans Anderson had a bit of a thing for tragic tales of unrequited love redeemed by religion, probably because he was a nutjob who stalked a singer for years believing her to be like his one true soul mate. (Seriously, if you have a lot of hours of your life you’d like to lose, read his autobiography. It’s long as hell, but the insight it gives you into Anderson’s weird brain and interesting social issues is pretty fascinating.)

Anderson did pen my all time favourite fairy tale, and there is no doubt there was some genius there, but this one kind of makes my skin crawl, and the older and wiser I get, the more that becomes true.

There are no named characters in the whole story, so it can’t pass the Bechdel, though it would be hard-pressed to do that anyway. If the mermaid’s sisters had names and if the dialogue about what they saw above the water was written as actual dialogue, it might have, but that’s a lot of ifs.

From a feminist point of view, this story fails in every way. The mermaid quite literally gives up her voice for a man who not only doesn’t love her but essentially treats her like a pet. She sleeps on a velvet cushion before his door. A velvet cushion. Before his door. Like a mother-fucking dog. And this is portrayed as some sort of enormous favour. (I mean, look, I know, fairy tales, and also, nature of the times and all that, but bloody hell.)

She is in constant pain from the fact that every step feels like knives stabbing into her feet, but she smiles sweetly and dances like an angel and no one has any bloody idea.

Then when he marries someone else (because she like, never learned to write, or figure out any kind of real communication so she could oh say for example TELL HIM SHE LOVED HIM), she sacrifices her life for his and is rewarded with the opportunity to spend hundreds of years in service doing “good things” in order to “earn” a soul.

I just…. UGH. No. Gross.

Go read The Snow Queen instead. At least Gerda has some frikkin’ attitude.

 

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. 🙂