Madlenka – Peter Sis

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

This is, at its very heart, a story about the diversity of New York City. So of course it gets points for having people of colour, people from multiple cultures, and more than one instance of named female characters talking to each other.

Madlenka is a little girl who lives in a big building in NYC. Her tooth becomes loose, so she goes to “tell everyone”. This includes a huge range of people from all around the world. Each page is a celebration of a different background. The illustrations are ornate and complex and very very beautiful. The book has hidey holes for peeking through into other people’s worlds, and turnign the page reveals that world in great detail.

Madlenka treats all these people as friends – she has no sign of prejudice or weirdness about it. You can tell that all of the people she goes to talk to are people she has relationships with, people she considers friends. Her community is international.

It’s a really great story. At its heart it is just about a girl and her people, but there is so much richness in the illustrations that it becomes a real celebration of how interacting with people from other backgrounds and cultures can be a completely enriching thing for a child.

On top of that C loved it, wanting to stop and pore over every page, examining details, finding things in each picture. And, in case it’s not obvious, I loved it too. 🙂

Wonderful wonderful stuff.

Jamela’s Dress – Niki Daly

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

I love this book. I’m going to admit that I have a bit of bias, because it’s set in South Africa, and so I had a massive nostalgia homesick thing going on when I read it. But it’s pretty great even setting that aside.

It passes the Bechdel with flying colours – there are several named female characters who have conversations with each other about things that are not men. And as you can tell from the title and cover, this book is about a little black girl in her community. So far from the usual thing we’ve seen with a couple of faces in a crowd, this book is way above the bar we’ve set.

And, on top of all that, it’s a really great story. Jamela’s mother buys some fabric to make a dress for her friend Thelma’s wedding. Jamela falls in love with the fabric and ends up making off with it through the town, wrapped around her like a dress. In the process she ruins it, of course, and her Mama is understandably upset. Luckily Archie took pictures, and his picture of “Kwela Jamela, African Queen” wins a competition and he very kindly uses his winnings to replace the fabric. There’s even enough to make Jamela a dress of her own.

I’m very slightly put off by the deus ex machina resolution of this windfall of cash, but apart from that it is a great little story about how easy it is to do the wrong thing and accidentally cause real hurt to someone you love. “Even Jamela was cross with Jamela.”

The illustrations are gorgeous, the story is lovely, plus it shows black people living their lives like, you know, normal people (who woulda thunk), and not in any way with the ikky tokenism we sometimes see in kids’ books. So points all round! Read this to your kids.

Amazing Grace – Mary Hoffman/Caroline Birch

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

This book is exactly the sort of thing this blog was designed to highlight, and it ticks (almost) all the boxes for me. We have a flying Bechdel pass – with Grace, her mother and her Nana all having conversations about Grace and what she wants, as well as at least one named other child in her class (Natalie).

We have a protagonist who is a spirited black girl who sure as hell isn’t going to let people tell her she can’t do something because shes black OR because she’s a girl, and in addition, we have a classroom of children in all the wonderful shades of the human race.

The book is very clearly about these facts – Grace wants to play Peter Pan in the school play and is told variously that she can’t because she’s a girl, and because she’s black. Her Nana takes her to see a ballet of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is danced by a black woman. There is a clear message here that you can be whatever you want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

As you will know if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, the stories I love most are the ones where these things just exist in the world and it’s not the point of the story. Gay people have ordinary lives. People of colour are not “inspirational” or “overcoming of odds”, they are ordinary people with ordinary lives (which do sometimes inspire and overcome odds, but you know, I hope, what I mean). I want ‘diversity’ normalised.

That being said, these stories are important for kids, because the world is not there yet, and a black girl who wants to play Peter Pan will still, even today twenty-five years after this book was published, probably get push-back about it. And stories give children ammo for those moments.

But my favourite thing about this book was the moment when we were reading about how much Grace loves stories, all stories, how she acts things out, pretends to be the characters, and my white, Kiwi son turned to me and said, “Mommy, she’s just like me. I love doing those things too.”

Mommy. She’s just like me.

Guess I’m doing this parenting thing right. 🙂

A Birthday for Francis – Russell 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: 6 out of 10.

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

I am sure by now none of you are surprised that I love the Frances books. On a scale of Frances books, this one isn’t really at the top of my list, but I still think there’s a lot happening here that is awesome.

First of all, Bechdel pass! Woo! Female protagonist who isn’t a stereotype! Double-woo! But apart from these nice little tickboxes, there is a lot going on in this book which is just great.

I love Frances’ parents. Seriously. Fictional parents get a bad rap a lot of the time. They’re neglectful or evil or stupid in a truly astonishing number of kids’ books. Mostly because that’s what the story needs to push it forward, it has to be said, but it still always makes me happy when kids’ books show parents being awesome. (Neil Gaiman is, in my opinion, remarkably good at writing very real, loving, fallible parents, for the record, but we will no doubt get to him at some stage later in this process.)

Frances’ parents manage to successfully navigate their rather willful daughter with humour and affection and effectiveness. They don’t let her get away with hijacking Gloria’s birthday, while at the same time addressing her feelings of envy about it.

This book is very much about getting over your own negative feelings about something for the sake of someone else that you love (in that special kind of love-hate way only siblings really get 😉 ). This is no small feat for anyone, let alone a small person, and it’s neat to see a book handle it so well. At no point does it suggest that Frances is wrong for how she feels – but at the same time the story nudges her towards a better way.

I think the thing these books do so well – and it’s particularly clear in this one – is that they totally nail the emotional complexity of being a small person trying to navigate big feelings. The book addresses this with gentle humour and compassion, which of course is the best way to handle it in kids too.

C and I had a really cool conversation about how sometimes it’s hard when you give someone a really good present you’d like for yourself and you have to remember that it’s about the other person. He said he thought Frances was naughty for eating the bubblegum she bought for Gloria, but at least she was nice in the end. Then he told me he wants a baby sister, and that’s a whole new kettle of worms. 😉

Still, we both enjoyed the book, and I think there’s a lot of great ideology going on here. The next Frances book is my all time favourite, so I’ll stop there. 😉

What do you think? What books do you know of that help kids deal with the complexity of navigating their big feelings?

 

 

Bread and Jam for Frances – Russell 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: 6 out of 10.

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

It is no secret by now that I love the Frances books. Frances is an awesome little heroine, and her parents are surprisingly humorous and competent for a kids’ book. (It is constantly astonishing to me how many parents in children’s books have to be totally useless to let the story progress! But that’s a discussion for a different time.)

This book is no exception. Frances becomes very attached to eating bread and jam to the exclusion of all else. Her parents try to convince her that trying new things is good, to no avail. Her friend Albert, who loves food, is cheerfully supportive of her bread and jam devotion.

But then her rather smart parents pull a classic reverse psychology trick and start giving her only bread and jam, removing all choice. While her baby sister gets to have a poached egg for breakfast, like their parents, Frances gets bread and jam. She gets bread and jam in her lunchbox. She gets bread and jam for her afternoon snack. Then at dinner everyone else gets spaghetti and meatballs, and Frances gets bread and jam, and it all gets too much for her and she gives in and declares that maybe she should try things to find out if she likes them after all.

Getting kids to try new things is a pretty well-known parental quest, and this book handles it with aplomb and humour. As the parent of a fussy eater, it was a great pleasure to me when C’s response was, “She has to try it, doesn’t she, Mommy?”. Yes, my darling, and I’ll remind you of that at dinner time. 😉

Frances’ family is pretty quintessentially British, but having a young female protagonist with Frances’ humour and intelligence and creativity is a pleasure. Again, this is not a ‘book for girls’ it is simply a book with a girl in it, if you see my distinction. It’s pretty great that the series continues to live up to the promise of the early books.

Good stuff.

What do you think? Fan of Frances? Do you know of other books that deal with the problems of fussy eaters well?

Handa’s Hen – Eileen Browne

More in the Series – Handa
“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: 6 out of 10.

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

Remember Handa? This is the sequel, and it is just as delightful as the first. Handa is a young girl living in Kenya, and in this book she loses her hen and her friend Akeyo helps her to find it. This is coupled with a counting trope (first they find two fluttery butterflies, then three stripy mice, four little lizards and so forth).

ALL the characters in this book are female! Handa and her friend Akeyo, Handa’s grandmother, hell even the hen! This is really only notable because it pretty much never happens. So, yep, it passes the Bechdel. Not only that, but these two young AFRICAN girls show intelligence and ingenuity! YAY!

(Waits for the MRAs to start in – just don’t, okay? I’m not interested in engaging with you if you can’t see why this is relevant. 😛 )

The illustrations are gorgeous, and there is even a note in the front telling readers what the exact species of each of the animals they find before they find Mondi, the hen, and her ten new little chicks.

This book is great. It normalises Kenyan rural life, a big deal is not made about this or the fact that the characters are girls. The animals are all indigenous to Kenya, so its accurate.

Good stuff. More of this, please.

What do you think? What other books do you know of where all the characters are female and it’s not a big deal?

Handa’s Surprise – Eileen Browne

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

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

FINALLY! A book with a protagonist who isn’t a white kid or an Anglicised animal!

Handa’s Surprise is about a little girl who takes a basket of fruit to her friend Akeyo. On the way the fruit gets stolen by a variety of animals, and eventually replaced with a pile of tangerines. Akeyo is pleasantly surprised because she loves tangerines, and in a play on the title, Handa is also surprised!

The book is set in Kenya, the animals are African animals, even the fruit is reminiscent of home for me. Guavas and mangos are stolen by ostriches and zebras. The blurb in the 1001 Books book is all about the ‘exotic’ animals and fruit, but for me it feels not exotic but comfortable and familiar. I grew up, not in Kenya, but in South Africa, and the fruits in Handa’s basket are the fruits I used to eat in my childhood garden. This thrill of familiarity must be minor compared to children who almost never see characters like themselves in books.

The best part is that despite the 1001 blurb, there’s nothing exotic or token about the story. It doesn’t feel like “a story about a black African kid”, it feels like a story about a little girl taking a surprise to her friend. It just happens to be a surprise made of the kind of fruit that grows in Kenya, and is filched by the animals indigenous to that place.

And on top of all that, it passes the Bechdel  with flying colours. In fact, the only named characters are girls, and the only dialogue is between them.

I love it. It was a total pleasure to read to my son, who thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt almost nostalgic to me despite the fact that I had never read it before. It’s a great little tale. Definitely recommended.

What do you think of Handa? Do you know of other awesome kids’ books set in Africa?