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.

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Guess How Much I Love You – Sam McBratney/Anita Jeram

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

Okay, so this is another very famous children’s book that people are exceedingly divided on. I am led to believe it is responsible for that whole “I love you to the moon and back” which is a phrase that irks me for reasons I find hard to define. (Perhaps because love isn’t measured in distance? I dunno. It bugs me though.)

But I cannot deny its power. Since we read it, every night C has wanted to play The Game. “I love you  to the sun, and all the way round, and back down to earth, Mommy.” And I’ll admit that my sappy Mommy heart loves to hear him talk about how much he loves me, so I totally play.

But the jaded cynic in my head is rolling her eyes at the overly-sweetness of the whole affair.

So, I’ve given it points for being a good story, because although I was not initially taken with it, my kid obviously really was, and it has led to many snuggles. And snuggles are good.

However it fails on every other count. No female characters, no indication of diversity. I can’t even really give it any ideological credit beyond, you know, parents usually love their kids and vice versa. I dunno. I guess I get why it’s such a classic, but I tend to find this kind of “hit you over the head with it” sap a bit much.

Meh. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably be taken with it, but if not, it won’t hurt you to skip it in favour of more nuanced books. Subtle it ain’t.

Miffy in the Snow – Dick Bruna

More in the Series – Miffy
“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: 2 out of 10.

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

This is so much better than the original Miffy book. SO MUCH BETTER. Even still, though, it fails almost every metric. Miffy herself is the only named character in the book (unless you count “Mummy”, but she makes no appearance except implicitly (calling her in because it’s bedtime), so it still fails, even if you do count her).

They’re all bunnies, so no diversity really, either. And the story is… well… fairly underwhelming.

It snows. Miffy plays in the snow. There is a sad cold bird. Miffy makes sad cold bird a house. The end. Meh. I mean, I suppose you could argue for “look how nice she was to the bird”. It is quite nice to build a house for one poor cold bird, I suppose, and that sort of construction is pretty clever for a bunny-child who is portrayed as being pretty little.

That all said, I wasn’t wildly impressed. It’s significantly better than the original Miffy book, which I panned. This was at least kind of fun to read and I didn’t feel the need to correct things in conversation. Not going to be challenging any status quos though, and honestly I still find the world of  Miffy a bit saccharine.

The pictures are cute though, and I like the simple boldness of it. If I’m honest, I would probably have rated this higher if I hadn’t read the first one first.

If you must read Miffy, better this than the other. 🙂

 

The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit – Beatrix Potter

More in the Series – Beatrix Potter
“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: 2 out of 10.

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

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Beatrix Potter is that she doesn’t shy away from the realities of being a bunny in the world. In Peter Rabbit, we find out that his father was baked into a pie. And in this book, there is “a man with a gun”.

I think we have a tendency to think that kids can’t handle concepts of death and the fact that death is a part of the natural order, but that has never been my experience. I have a pretty sensitive kid, but he has no problem talking about these things.

All that aside, though, this book is not Potter’s best work. The narrative is a bit stilted, the language lacks her usual charm. I get the feeling tht maybe she was trying to pitch it at a younger audience (it has that “run, Spot, run” feel to it), but it doesn’t really work.

And at the end of the day the “man with the gun” doesn’t kill the “bad rabbit”, he just shoots his tail off.Before we got to that page, I asked C what he thought was going to happen, and he said, “I think he’s going to shoot him dead. He shouldn’t have stolen the other bunny’s carrot.” That’s some hard-core five year old karma.

No Bechdel pass, since there are no female characters (apart from one mention of the good bunny’s mother, but she doesn’t actually even make a appearance) and the only human in the book is the “man with a gun” who is a pretty standard white British dude.

So not a lot going on here, I have to say. Perhaps stick to her better known works. They’re better known for a reason, it turns out.

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!

 

The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I absolutely love the Beatrix Potter books. I’m just going to put that out there from the start. There are a few of them on this list, and I am quite likely to be kinder on them than I perhaps should be. That said, this one scores fairly low in the end.

I dithered over the Bechdel thing – Mrs. Rabbit does talk to all of her children, three of whom are named females, which is nearly a pass, but I think that Peter’s presence in the conversation (and indeed, the fact that his perspective is the important one) nullifies that. There is definitely no diversity to speak of. Despite the fact that, with the exception of Mr McGregor, all the characters are animals, they seem to me to be quite clearly “British” (in the ‘default’ white middle class sense) characters.

I give the book credit for not pulling its “bunnies can be food” punches. Peter’s father was baked into a pie by the farmer’s wife. As someone who finds overly sensitive children’s plots that ignore this sort of reality a touch saccharine, Potter’s matter-of-fact pragmatism about nature and the food chain is rather refreshing. Still, even with that point, I can’t score it higher than I have.

Having said that, C loves this book. We’ve read it repeatedly over the last few years. I’ve already admitted my fondness for Potter’s books, so it’s no surprise I give it full marks for just being a great little tale.

I’m also a fan of books where children (or their animal proxies) are curious and naughty. They get into trouble, and in this case, nearly get eaten, but this sort of natural curiosity is way better than the syrupy goodie goodie nature of the alternative. Peter is a naughty little sod, and in the end very nearly becomes lunch. But he gets home safe to his long-suffering mother, and all is well (apart from his stomach ache).

I have to recommend this book. Published not even 20 years after the last Greenaway we read, it is so much more pragmatic, and has, in my not so humble opinion, stood the test of time a great deal better. Plus, personally, I way prefer Beatrix Potter’s straightforward illustrative style.

Still grand, after over a hundred years.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Beatrix Potter? Which one is your favourite?

 

Miffy – Dick Bruna

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

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

Miffy is the first in a long series of books about a bunny. (What is it with children’s books and bunnies, man?) In fact, this is the story of Miffy’s birth.

Miffy’s birth is signalled by an angel who shows up to tell Mrs Bunny that she’s going to have a baby. Now I know there is a long tradition in folklore of women being told of their upcoming child by random animals and creatures, but the angel annoys me. My four year old already knows where babies come from. Can we just stop lying to kids about this please?

That aside, Miffy doesn’t do very well in any of the categories. There is (almost) no dialogue at all, so it can’t pass the Bechdel. It almost does because the cow talks to Mrs Bunny (cooing at her about her baby), but the cow is unnamed, so it fails on a technicality. But the gender roles are pretty traditional (Mr Bunny works in the garden, Mrs Bunny cooks and cleans and shops). And there’s certainly no clear diversity.

C gave it a thumbs up, but honestly I find it mostly pretty saccharine and insipid. I’ve only read one other Miffy book, so we’ll see how we go when I proceed through the series in my “Rest of the Series” posts, but I’m fairly underwhelmed. I can’t really find any reasons to give it any discretionary points at all.

I am sure there are better options.

What do you think? Are you a Miffy fan? Or can you think of better alternatives?