Chinese Fables and Folktales

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

This was a pretty interesting thing to read with the kid, just because of his reaction. We’ll get to that.

There is no Bechdel pass here – there are pretty much no women at all in any of these stories. By the very nature of the book, though, it passes the diversity test.

Here’s where it gets interesting. So, I asked the kid what he thought after we read it, and he said, “I liked it but the stories were strange.”
“Strange how?” I asked.
“They just ended. It was weird.”

This is kid code for “these tales have a different narrative structure to that with which I am familiar”. And this is why you should expose your kids to stories from other cultures!! Much narrative structure is fairly cultural. It’s useful for children to be exposed to other kinds, as it helps them see the scaffolds of narratives which makes them more critical! *folklore nerd squee over*

It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I enjoyed reading this with the kid. I love folktales from all over the world – they are endlessly fascinating to me. I’m grateful to the translaters of this book for not “westernising” them up too much.

Read your kids stories from other cultures! It will make their brains more agile. 😉

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A Great Big Cuddle – Michael Rosen/Chris Riddell

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

 

This is a collection of poetry for young children. The poems themselves are a bit… random. Some are definitely better than others. What makes this book are Riddell’s amazing illustrations.

Confession: I am a long-time fan of Riddell’s work. He works with Gaiman quite a bit (he illustrated Gaiman’s Chu books and also the endlessly entertaining “Fortunately, the Milk”) and his illustrations have a depth and personality that is just exquisite. So I was predisposed to like them.

But seriously. They’re just charming as hell. Look:
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On to metrics! So, as with a lot of poetry, it’s a bit hard to pass the Bechdel, especially since most of the poems seem to be a kind of internal kid monologue. No names really. However, due, again, to Riddell’s pictures, the book gets points for diversity because he has included kids from multiple backgrounds it appears! Yay for a kids’ book that isn’t just white kids!

C and I both enjoyed this. He recognised it was aimed at kids younger than him, but he still liked it. He said it was weird and funny and the pictures were cool. Which is a pretty awesome endorsement from a small human. 😉

I probably only like it because of the pictures. I found the poems a bit random, to be honest. But, full disclosure, I’m not one for poetry that isn’t narrative most of the time anyway, so it’s already hard to win me over. Kids often love the sort of repetitive nonsense verse thing, so chances are many of them would disagree with me.

It’s a pretty great book. I am tempted to get a copy, just cos I love beautiful books. Worth a look.

The Fox Hunt – Sven Nordqvist

More in the Series – Findus
“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: 4 out of 10.

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

The best part of this book (according to both C and me) is that every picture has a bunch of secret, hidden, awesome little interesting details. Chickens stepping out of picture frames, and trees shaped like musical instruments… it’s great fun. I really love it when picture books embrace the “picture” part of that description and have more going on than just a standard rendition of the text.

The relationship between Pettson and Findus is also totally frikkin’ wonderful. It has all that wonderful nuance of a friendship that has existed for years where you’ve learned all the other person’s little quirks and kind of indulge them in that gentle smiling “I see what you did there” way. It’s charming as hell.

I love how Findus keeps pushing Pettson to new heights of the ridiculous in his plan to scare the fox off, and you get the distinct impression that it is far more about amusing himself than it is about achieving the objective.

The book has no female characters, and no diversity at all to speak of, but it’s still 100% worth a read. I loved the fact that it gently implies that perhaps killing a fox who is just trying to feed himself is not entirely ethical. 😉 And the fact that when the trap is sprung it is the hunter Gustavsson who is caught in it and discouraged from his (fox-hunting) behaviour.

Charming, brilliant stuff. Well worth a read.

 

Olivia Saves the Circus – Ian Falconer

More in the Series – Olivia
“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: 4 out of 10.

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

This was our second foray into the Olivia books, and she’s just as charming the second time through. Once again, the book is a tribute to the power of imagination. Olivia tells a story in class about going to the circus and saving the day, playing all the parts in the circus because everyone is sick “with ear infections”.

On being asked by her teacher if it’s true, Olivia says yes, “to the best of my recollection”. The teacher looks mildly exasperated, as if this is the sort of conversation they have a lot.

I’m the parent to a child with an extremely active imagination, who frequently tells me stories that are “really true, Mommy”, and only when I push him on it, does he respond, “not really, but we’re just pretending”. So I am familiar with this sort of thing. 😉

My little storyteller was quite taken with this book. When I asked him if he thought her story was true he responded, “No, I think it’s just pretend.” But I definitely felt like he related.

The book kind of passes the Bechdel, if Mummy qualifies as a name, but since it’s a kids’ book, I’m counting it. (If you’re not a parent you may not yet have discovered that to kids you’re always only ever “Christopher’s Mum!”. It’s a thing. Kids seem to tend to see adults only in relation to other kids a lot of the time.) There’s no diversity to speak of.

I love the gentle, smiling portrayal of imagination. It’s great. The imagery is very simple, much like the first book, but it works.

Very  cute.

 

Rex – Simon James

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:  4 out of 10.

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

Rex is the story of a big scary T-rex who accidentally adopts a tiny little baby dino called Rex. At first he is grumpy and unwilling to be friendly, but eventually he is won over. One day, however, he tells Rex that he’s not his real dad, and Rex sadly goes off into the world to find out where he belongs. Of course the big dinosaur realises he was wrong and goes looking for him. And they find out that family and belonging is not always about blood relations. 🙂

This “chosen family” theme is one I really love. I think that while it’s awesome when kids have that connection with their blood families, not all get that, and it’s so important for children (and humans) to realise that you can find love, acceptance and belonging among chosen family too. That family doesn’t make love, it’s the other way around.

I also kind of love that this is a “dad”/”son” dynamic, just because this kind of parenting/nurture thing is often reserved for women in books – especially children’s books. As the mother of a child who already seems very sure that he wants to be a dad one day, I love it when children’s books teach that this kind of parental nurture is totally open to boys too. YAY!

Obviously the book’s main characters are two male dinosaurs, so it doesn’t really make sense to talk about diversity here, and despite not passing the Bechdel, I’d still say it gets some feminism points for challenging traditional gender ideas regarding who does the parenting, so really it’s full of win.

Also, dinosaurs. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs, right? 😉

Recommended.

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. 🙂

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.