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.

 

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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.

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

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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. 🙂

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.

Hairy Maclary’s Bone – 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 points

I have a real love for the Hairy Maclary books. I wasn’t born a Kiwi, but I’ve lived here for, good god NINE YEARS now, and so I feel a certain amount of pride that these incredibly simple, deft books came out of NZ. They really master the art of being local while still being internationally relevant (I can’t imagine anyone not developing a fondness for Hairy Maclary and his compatriots.

There are no female characters at all in this book, as far as we can tell, anyway. There is also no real sign of diversity (unless you count diversity of dog breeds, which, no, not really). But the issue is a bit kind of adjacent given that all the major characters are animals, and the humans that do exist do so in a Schultzesque “legs and arms only” manner.

In this tale, Hairy Maclary receives a bone form the butcher and takes it home. He is followed by all the neighbourhood dogs who have a mind to “share” it with him, but as he goes he manages to lose them one by one by choosing a route home that proves too narrow, high, athletic and so on for each of them.

Like all these books, the rhyme is deft and simple. Lynley Dodd has a knack for making it look easy, which is the sign of a true linguistic artist. As someone who has read a lot of kids books where the rhymes have been forced to conform, twisted and shoved into place, Dodd’s nimble, elegant words are a pleasure.

C loves these books as much as I do. They are always fun to read (and reread!) and the protagonist is extremely lovable. Not high scorers by our metrics, but well worth the read anyway. 🙂

Limelight Larry – Leigh Hodgkinson

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

This book does that metatextual thing for which I have such an enormous weakness. The gist of the story is that the book (the whole book!) is meant to be about Limelight Larry who, you may be able to tell from the name, is the sort of character who really wants all the attention to be on him. Gradually, however, other characters appear and get involved, making Larry more and more put out, until he gets rid of everyone by taking up the whole page himself with an enormous show of plumage! (Larry is a peacock, in case that isn’t clear from the above cover image.)  But then he discovers that things are not as much fun without other people, and the woods have gotten quite spooky so he calls them all back.

It’s a story about sharing the spotlight, and the value of playing nice with others and not trying to hog all the attention to yourself, which is a pretty great message. But the really fun thing about this book is that it is so metatextual about the fact that it is a book. Larry’s whole complaint is that the book is meant to be all about him – he even refers the other characters to the cover. On said cover, and even on the imprint page, Larry has crossed things out and annotated things to make it all about him. He has even edited the authors name to make the book BY Limelight Larry.

I love this stuff. I am a big fan of this kind of tricksy self-referential metatext, especially in kids’ books. It reminds children that stories are unreliable – that someone somewhere had to write them. That they can’t entirely be trusted, and I think this is an incredible thing for children to grasp. Tricksterism has no better venue than a children’s book, in my not so humble opinion, and this book is an awesome example of that.

By our metrics though, it doesn’t do well. While not all of the animals in the book are gendered, the ones that are definitely fall into the kind of “default male” character, and there is no hint of diversity. I mean the characters are all animals, so there’s that, but nevertheless. No points for any of that.

It’s a good message though – don’t be a selfish dumbass – and the metatextual aspect is great fun. And C picked it as his book of the week, so it obviously works at a five year old level too. 🙂 Good stuff. Recommended.