The Gruffalo’s Child – Julia Donaldson

More in the Series – Gruffalo
“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

Man, I love these books. Donaldson has that rare knack of writing light rhyming text that totally belies how hard it is to do right. Plus, I always love me a trickster tale, and the mouse in these books is absolutely a trickster.

In this one, the Gruffalo warns his daughter about the Big Bad Mouse, but she decides to go exploring to see for herself. She meets a variety of animals all of whom warn her that the Mouse is down by the lake eating Gruffalo cake (or similar). She finally finds the Mouse and is unimpressed by how little he is. However with the help of some clever shadow work, he manages to trick her into thinking that the Big Bad variety is right there and she runs home back and snuggles in with the Gruffalo again.

There’s no Bechdel pass, and no diversity to speak of. The characters (with the exception of the Gruffalos) are all woodland animals, and the only clear female is the child herself (who has no name of her own).

But it’s an awesome little tale about the trickster mouse, and the triumph of brains over brawn. Plus the text trips along so lightly, making it an utter pleasure to read out loud.

Highly recommended.

 

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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.

 

Pest in Show: The Buzz of Broadway – Victoria Jamieson

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

C found this book utterly hilarious – possibly, I suspect, because of the rewritten songs in it, which I sang with great gusto. Because they were fun.

This is the story of a diva ladybug and her annoying kid brother (who is a spider – I assume there was an adoption in the family; this is never explained). The ladybug is doing some most excellent musical theatre, but her brother wants some of the limelight. This culminates in a bug dance off, after which they discover that if they pool their talents, they can both be superstars!

It’s a pretty cute little tale of sibling rivalry and the benefits of working together. There are plenty of inside jokes if you know musical theatre – posters for ” Pest Side Story”, “Antie” and “Bugspray” that deliberately echo the iconic imagery of the originals. The songs are new lyrics to the tunes of such hits as “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, lyrics composed by “Wolfspider Amadeus Mozart”. The book has plenty to make the adult reader smile to themself.

It’s clever and cute, and, while it doesn’t do extremely well by our metrics – despite being anthropomorphised bugs, the characters in the book don’t feel diverse, exactly, and the gender roles are pretty explicit, with the diva older sister and the prankster little brother who showers her with garbage and so forth – it’s still a fun read.

Hairy Maclary: Scattercat – 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 point

cover

I’ve said before that the genius of Lynley Dodd is how she makes it look easy. Her words and rhyme are so perfectly constructed that you find yourself thinking there is no other way they could go, and therefore this kind of verse must be easy. The text trips lightly across the page, seeming effortless.

As someone who occasionally writes this kind of thing, it is certainly not effortless. Dodd is kind of a genius. 🙂

This book doesn’t really pass any of our metrics – the characters are all dogs and cats so you can’t really talk about diversity. Some of the cats are female, but there’s no dialogue. It’s just a simple romp of Hairy Maclary chasing all the cats in the neighbourhood until he comes up against one who is scarier than he is.

It’s charming as hell, you guys, and if you still haven’t read a Hairy Maclary book (probably because you don’t live in New Zealand), they are definitely very worth getting your mitts on and reading with your kids. They’re somehow very Kiwi and still completely universal, which is quite a thing to pull off.

This is children’s lit at its best. 🙂 C loves them, they’re fun to read, and I marvel at the brilliantly constructed rhyme schemes. Good stuff.

Snail and Turtle Rainy Days – Stephen Michael King

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

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I was so glad C chose this book, because I am quite excited to tell you about it. It actually made me tear up a little bit when I read it to him, and when I just skimmed through it again now in preparation of writing this, it happened again.

It doesn’t pass the Bechdel, and it has no diversity, but there is something really quite wonderful going on in this book.

So Snail is hiding in his shell because it is raining and he doesn’t want to come out, and Turtle does all he can to coax Snail out of his shell.  He does all of Snail’s favourite tricks, but to no avail. And then something magical happens. Turtle gently pats Snail’s shell and says, “Maybe tomorrow will be brighter”.

Tomorrow is worse. The storm intensifies. Snail continues to hide. It keeps raining, day after day, and then Turtle makes a plan, and starts building Snail a shelter. He adds swirls because “swirls are what Snail loves best”. The storm gets worse.

And Turtle says, “It’s alright Snail. Stay in, as long as you need.”

The next day, it is still raining, but now Turtle has built a shelter, and he manages to coax Snail out of his shell. They sit in the shelter and eat the food Turtle has brought. And Snail finds them “surprisingly delicious”.

And that’s when I get all teary. Because blow me down if this isn’t a story about helping a depressed friend, you guys. And Turtle does it so well.

In a world where more and more people are struggling with depression (or maybe just a world where more of them are talking about it), this story is a very gentle, very subtle way of showing kids how to help people they care about. You do what you can. You make a shelter, if you can. You show up. And you let them take as long as they need. And when they come out you hug them and feed them. 🙂

It’s… beautiful. Compassionate. Wonderful. And so beautiful.

Highly recommended.

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.

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. 😉