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

curiousgeorgefirst

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. 🙂

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Babar at Home – 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

This one is marginally better than the last one. Still no Bechdel pass, nor is there any real diversity. This one also still reads in that colonial register.

But, perhaps because it is focussed on the home and Babar and Celeste’s triplet babies, it is not quite so full of totally horrible colonial notions, and it’s a bit easier to be forgiving of the flaws in the story.

This one is essentially the story of the birth and early childhood of Babar’s children. There are various episodes of baby elephant hijinks. Flora nearly chokes, Alexander floats down-river in Babar’s hat and has a run in with a crocodile, from which Babar rescues him. It’s all a bit adventurous and has a small tinge of that “What ho! Growing up in Africa is rollicking good fun, old chap!” stuff going on.

Plotwise it’s episodic. I wasn’t that impressed. C still likes them well enough, and the whole hat/river/crocodile episode got his attention.

I mean, it’s not quite as eye-rollingly colonial as the previous books, but if the best I can say about it is that it’s not as bad as the others, that’s not that impressive. I know these books are meant to be greats of the kid-canon, but honestly, I think you could skip them very easily.

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.

 

A Child’s Garden of Verse – Robert Louis Stevenson

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

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

This is one of the books that pops up time and again as being so very entrenched in our canon that we’re expected to just accept it as wonderful.

But, you guys, it’s not wonderful. C did say he liked it, but I can tell you it took us ages to get through because mostly he didn’t really understand the poems, and the ones he did understand he seemed largely bored by.

On top of that, several of them are outright racist. Oh my god the travel poem is just a bunch of stereotypes, and there are actual “red indians” and it’s just very cringe-worthy and has not aged well.

I was sort of expecting that at least some of the poems in the book would be ones that have drifted into the realm of nursery rhyme – that they would be things familiar to me, but none of them actually were. They all lacked that timelessness of nursery rhymes.

Mr Stevenson should probably have stuck to adventure stories. :/

There are probably beautifully illustrated versions of this book floating around but the one we got from the library was pretty average in that regard too.

I just, I don’t really have anything good to say about this. Disappointing.

Duck and the Diesel Engine – The Rev. W Awdry

More in the Series – Thomas/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: 1 out of 10.

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

Okay so, I know Christopher loves these books and so do millions of children, but I still can’t find much to recommend them. And here, with the introduction of Diesel, my ire becomes stronger.

Every story needs a villain, and, you know, it took the good Reverend a long time to figure this out – many books in fact – but figure it out he did, and so we are introduced to Diesel, who is a slimy, lying, conceited prat, basically.

Let me backtrack a little. The very first Thomas book C ever had was one involving Diesel – not this one, a later one. In that book, basically all the engines were really mean to him and set him up to fail, which he did, and then everyone nodded sagely about what a horrid engine Diesel is and how it was his own damned fault. The thing is though, without the context of the wider series, it wasn’t clear to me from the one book that Diesel was actually that horrible.

In this book, he definitely is. He is conceited, unwilling to learn, and he makes an effort to bad mouth Duck (who is actually, legitimately, one of the nicer engines). He is the classic poisonous gossip, who spreads malicious stories about others until eventually he gets tangled in his own bullshit and ends up getting his come-uppance (in this case, with the Fat Controller “sending him packing”). As a character he is every bit the villain, and deserves what he gets.

But, and here’s the thing I have an issue with, I can’t help but feel that portraying Diesel in this way is some sort of overly-nostalgic Luddite anti-tech thing. Because of course steam engines are soooo much prettier and nicer and better than Diesel engines. They have class and style, and while I don’t exactly disagree, I think the anti-tech thing is problematic. I also object to the idea that “the old ways are better” JUST BECAUSE they are the old ways, and it seems to me that there is some of this ideology going on here.

Of course I am over-thinking it, but that is what I do. 😉

C loved it, as always. It failed basically every metric, as all these books have done thus far (and I don’t really expect that to change).

Me? I remain unmoved by the whole Thomas phenomenon.

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.

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.