A Treasury of Japanese Folktales – Yuri Yasuda

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

C absolutely loved this book. He was legitimately sad when it ended. I think I have a mini folklorist on my hands. 😉

It passes the Bechdel on a technicality – in “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”, the old lady and the sparrow have conversations about starch and laundry, and both have names. WIN.

So, if you’ve been following me at all, you’ll know that I have a real love for folklore from around the world, and that I firmly believe that it is good for kids to be exposed to international folklore. These stories are, in many ways, the blueprint for the way we (as humans) tell stories, and I think it benefits kids to understand that those narrative structures are relatively universal.

The kid utterly loved this book. It was kind of fascinating to me just how much he loved it – and unexpected. The stories are what you would expect – folkloric, occasionally didactic, but mostly just the sorts of tales you expect a grandparent to tell their grandchildren. He lapped them up.

I love it too, but that is less surprising.

Read folktales from around the world to your children! Give them a rich storytelling basis from which to create their own worlds. ❤ Start with this one. It is absolutely lovely.

The Secret Lives of Princesses – Philippe Lechermeier/Rebecca Dautremer

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

I adore this book. It is a book that requires time though, because there is a lot to it. We read it over several sittings – poring over the gorgeous illustrations and making sure we didn’t miss any of the extra text bits.

It is basically a guide to princesses – and not only the usual airy fairy ones. This book has princesses from all over the world with all sorts of passions and personalities. There’s no homogeneous Disney thing going on here – it is a way more complex and quirky world.

It can’t pass the Bechdel, because it is structured as a guidebook, and therefore has no dialogue – but it definitely passes the spirit of the Bechdel. These are no sexy lamps in someone else’s story, these princesses are all at the very centre of their universes.

This would be a great book for a little girl who has bought into the princess thing but hankers for a bit more substance. There is a huge selection here – princesses of all temperaments and kinds. And clearly multi-cultural too, which is awesome.

And even when you set all that aside, this book is utterly beautiful and totally whimsical. It’s a pleasure to work through. C liked it, although I think a lot of it went over his head. (It’s listed in the 3+ section, but I’d say it would probably be better for 7+ year olds. There’s some pretty complex stuff in here.) It’s definitely not a single-sitting book. It’s more the kind of book you buy and look at over and over again.

Gorgeous. Wonderful. Highly recommended.

Alfie Lends a Hand – 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: 5 out of 10.

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

These books really are just lovely. In this one, Alfie goes to a birthday party for his friend Bernard. I like how Bernard is portrayed as naughty, and it’s not dismissed or hand-waved away as “boys will be boys” but at the same time he’s not a total monster. It’s nice to see the nuance of behaviour in kids in a book for kids.

Also the children at Bernard’s party are actually pretty representative of multiple cultures, which is awesome to see. In this one there is a child called Min who actually gets quite a lot of airtime, so it’s not even only the token “faces in the crowd” thing. Minor step up from the truly low bar we have set.

I’ve given it the Bechdel pass because Min and Bernard’s Mum have a couple of conversations that, although a direct result of Bernard’s actions, are not actually about him. I know that calling Bernard’s Mum named is a stretch, but I spend a lot of time around children who refer to me only as “Christopher’s Mum”, so I know that that is pretty much how kids see the parents of their peers. I’m counting it. 🙂

The story is about being brave, and about being kind. Alfie is afraid to go to the party alone and takes his security blanket with him, but when Min needs a friend, he sets the blanket aside because he needs both hands to help her. It’s a cool little moral analogy to do with doing the scary thing to help someone who is more scared than you are.

These books really do have some great ideologies under their really quite relatable stories. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them.

C liked it too – though he was a bit judgy about Bernard’s behaviour. But it was a good story, with some neat messages that were not too overt. Good stuff.

All About Alfie – 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: 5 out of 10.

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

These books consistently do fairly well on the diversity points, and this one is no different. While Alfie and his family are very clearly a white Anglo family, the other people in the world are depicted in all their wide variety. This book is no exception – the one image that is in a semi-public place (Great-Grandma’s retirement home) has all kinds of people in it.

This one even passes the Bechdel, as Mum and her friend, Helen, talk about their adventure, and the owl in the cottage at which they’ve arrived for their weekend visit. Alfie is there, and it is told more or less from his point of view, but the dialogue feels at least a little like two adults talking over the head of the child who happens to be there, so I’m giving the point.

And while we’re on the topic of Mum’s friend, Helen, man I want to believe that Helen is not just Mum’s “friend”, and that they’ve gone off for a weekend away together with Alfie as part of a totally legit poly arrangement. I mean Dad waves them off and everything. Why is he staying home with Annie Rose? This is never explained. I love that it is never explained. And when they’re all frightened by the owl and end up outside, Mum and Helen are totally holding hands!!

I am almost certain that none of this was intended to depict a functioning poly arrangement, but it can absolutely be read that way. And this pleases my little maverick heart. 🙂

The stories in this book really are pretty wonderful. I find myself incredibly fond of Alfie’s Great-Grandma who worked in a factory building airplanes and therefore knows all there is to know about old airplanes. It’s awesome how taken with her his very boyish friend Bernard is, to the point where he hugs her even though “hugging people was something that Bernard did not often do”. (Also, how great is that? That this is stated like a totally normal thing – some people are just not huggers.)

The more of these I read, the more I love this series. They’re sort of very gently and quietly subversive – not in any big shouty ways, but if you’re paying attention there’s some quiet subversion going on there. Great stuff.

Possum Magic – Mem Fox/Julie Vivas

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

 

This book is frikkin’ great. Not only does it pass the Bechdel with flying colours (the two main characters are both named female characters, who talk throughout the book), but on one of only two pages with humans on them, there is actually a reasonably wide selection of people colours and types! Which, given that the bulk of the story involves animals, is pretty impressive.

On top of those basic metrics, there is so much about this book to love. It has real character. Grandma Poss is a straight up magical old woman, which is one of my favourite fictional archetypes, but she’s not portrayed as a witch. She does magic, yes, “bush magic”, but the portrayal of her is exactly the kind of “wise magical woman” I love to see. Grandma Poss is a crone – smart, fiesty, magical, and kind.

Hush loves being invisible, but when she tires of it and asks her grandmother to turn her back, her Grandma can’t do it. Hush tells her she doesn’t mind, “but in her heart of hearts she did”. This is another thing I love. Hush doesn’t want to make her Grandma feel bad when she doesn’t succeed, so she tells her it’s okay. But in reality she is upset. And Grandma Poss knows that, so they go on a journey to find the answer. This is such a true to life emotional journey – this is what happens when someone you love makes you feel bad. You try to hide it. They try to fix it anyway. The nuance of that is so rooted in love and compassion, and it’s so awesome to see that so simply and effectively addressed in a kids’ book.

These characters are marvelous. The story is marvelous. It’s deeply Aussie, too, so if you live down here in the Antipodes, that may appeal. Though I have to say, in defense of my adopted home, Pavlovas are TOTALLY a Kiwi thing. ;P

Read it. It’s fantastic.

Morris’s Disappearing Bag – Rosemary Wells

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

This is a pretty neat little story. Morris has two named sisters, but there isn’t any dialogue in the book that could be considered just between them, so it is still not a Bechdel pass. I have given it one variety point just because it has some good gender stuff going on – girls who like science AND beauty.

It is Christmas, and Morris and his three siblings each get gifts. When Victor got a hockey outfit and Rose got a beauty kit, my heart sank a little, but then I turned the page and on the very next page, Morris’s other sister Betty got a chemistry kit! And Morris got a bear. The three older kids then proceed to all share their toys, including Victor taking a turn at the beauty kit. And this is all presented as if it is absolutely no big deal. Reader, my feminist heart was warmed. Betty even wears a bow in her hair and dungarees. It’s like girls can wear whatever they want and be as girly or not as they want or something!

However, the older kids all think that Morris is too small to play with their things, and none of them want to play with his bear. He feels understandable left out, until he finds one more parcel, which contains a disappearing bag. It’s so amazing that all his siblings want to play with it, and it allows Morris to play with their things in turn. It is a neat little tale about including everyone.

I think my favourite thing about this book is that it really isn’t clear whether the disappearing bag is real or not, and whether his siblings are playing along with his imaginary game or not. I love things like this in kids books, just because to kids their imaginary games can be so real. It’s nifty.

So a combination of a really great story with some very satisfying approaches to gender and that false boys/girls things dichotomy. Recommended!

 

Dogger – Shirley Hughes

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

I’ve mentioned before that C has a Kitty that is a much beloved toy. We’ve lost Kitty once, and eventually found him again, and as a result there are now two Kitties floating around. I think this is a relatively familiar experience for many small humans and their parents, and Dogger tells the story really well.

It just squeezes a Bechdel pass because Bella (the protagonist’s sister) asks Mum for an ice-cream. In a longer book, I probably wouldn’t count this, but given this is a picture book with minimal text, I’m going to. There are a couple of kids of colour in the illustrations of the school fair, so I’ve given it one point for that. I always feel like that is such a low bar, but given how few of the books we’ve looked at do even this much, I’m giving it that point. None of them actually interact with the main characters in a meaningful way, however.

C and I both enjoyed the story. I’m not going to lie, I may have got a bit teary when Bella gave up her big teddy so her little brother could get his Dogger back. There’s a lot in this book about simple sibling kindness, and that’s something I always enjoy. Teaching kids kindness is always a good thing.

It’s a neat little book about something to which a lot of children and their parents will relate, and it’s  told with warmth and kindness and empathy. Good stuff.

A Pocket for Corduroy – Don Freeman

More in the Series – Corduroy
“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: 5 out of 10.

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

I thoroughly enjoyed the first Corduroy book, and this one is just as great. It very nearly passed the Bechdel, but I decided that “Lisa’s mother” didn’t count as a named character. (I would have accepted “Mom”, but framing women only in relation to their mothering is also a touch problematic in general, so I’m not giving it the point.)

There are, however, two major female characters, and they do have a conversation about something that’s not a male character. I mean, it’s laundry, so there’s still some gendered stuff going on there. But nevertheless. Almost passed the Bechdel, but not quite.

However when it comes to variety of characters, this book does well. Lisa and her mother are black, and the laundry owner is Hispanic. I almost gave it a point for having solid female characters, but to be honest, they’re still being portrayed in very gendered ways (nurturing, laundry, etc) so I recanted.

The story itself is really nicely told. Corduroy has that naivete and adventurousness that he had in the first book. I enjoyed his interaction with the artist, and the idea that inspiration can be anywhere. The friendship between Lisa and Corduroy remains tangible in this book.

C and I both enjoyed the story. C related to having a beloved toy that gets lost, because he has his Kitty, and that has happened on occasion. Relatable, charming, a great story.

Recommended.

Best Friends for Frances – Russel Hoban

More in the Series – Frances
“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: 5 out of 10.

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

This is the only Frances book we actually own, but it has been read to death, and I love it on so many levels. This one is a story about friendship and about gender and is handled with Hoban’s characteristic deft and humour.

It passes the Bechdel swimmingly since a big chunk of it is about the conversation and budding sister-friendship between Gloria and Frances. There’s a very clear message in the story about not being stupid about boys only games. When Frances made her “No Boys” retaliation sign for her and Gloria’s picnic, my kid got quite indignant. “I know he was bad cos he didn’t let her play with them, but no boys is still bad, Mommy!” We had quite a long conversation about consequences of being mean, and how if you exclude people it’s a bit cheeky to get upset if they exclude you back, but how he was right cos it’s not really a good response, albeit understandable. Honestly, I am not sure how much of it he got, but I think these are important conversations, and the book gets massive points for opening them up for us.

I also love the fact that after everyone makes peace, Albert assumes that he’s now Frances’ boyfriend’, and Frances’ response is that she’s not sure she’s going to let him be. There is something subtle here happening to do with assumptions about male-female friendship, and the fact that there’s no reason people can’t be platonic friends. It’s a touch heteronormative, but hey, we can’t have everything, and since much of this book is challenging standard assumptions about gender,. it’s not that surprising.

And on top of all this, despite the fact that there is some quite intense stuff going on in this tale it’s still totally entertaining. Frances and the people in her world have remarkably well thought out personalities for characters in a children’s book. It’s utterly delightful.

By far my favourite Frances book (though I think there’s one more to go with which I am unfamiliar), and highly recommended.

 

 

Moomin, Mymble and Little My – Tove Jansson

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

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

This is a very difficult book to hang on this framework we’ve built, because it doesn’t really fit into anything. Which, of course, me being me, I absolutely love. It technically passes the Bechdel, since Mymble and Little My are both female characters as are a number of the strange beings they encounter on their journey, and there is enough dialogue, such as it is, that I’m giving it that point.

It’s hard to talk about diversity in a book made entirely of totally fantastical creatures, so while it doesn’t get that point, it’s not exactly not diverse either, if you see what I mean. It’s entirely open to interpretation.

And this, at the end of the day, is the joy of this book. It is entirely interactive. Each rhyming page ends with the refrain, “And what do you think happened then?”, inviting the reader to come up with their own ideas. (Though in fairness, C mostly said, “I don’t know! Turn the page!” but even so.) There is even  a page where the reader is invited to participate in the making of the book: “The fillyjonk when she has calmed herself – try and draw her for yourself. Tove.” This is accompanied by a blank box in which you can draw your own fillyjonk. C was deprived of this because this is a library book – but it’s still nifty! Each page has little holes in it that hint at what’s on the next page. The whole thing is an exercise in interactivity, in drawing the reader into the story process. And by now we all know how much I love interactivity.

I love the nonsense aspect too. It’s great fun, meandering through this totally fantastical world filled with weird and wonderful creatures. It was wonderful to read out loud, and C and I both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Definitely recommended.

What do you think? Are you a fan of the Moomin world? What’s your favourite nonsense story for kids?