The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

I have such a strange complicated relationship with HCA. It is very difficult to separate my attitudes and knowledge about him from his work. This is another thing I could write about at great length, but I’ll try keep it brief.

So let’s start with the easy things. There is no Bechdel pass in this book, in part because none of the characters have names, but also because really, every conversation is about the duckling himself, more or less. There is also no real diversity to talk of. This is definitely a very European story.

So let’s talk about the story. We all know it right? Duckling doesn’t fit with his family, is obviously different, goes through many trials and tribulations, even almost dies of cold and abandonment, and then ultimately discovers his true place, and his true beauty.

It’s not a terrible lesson, and I certainly think it’s a useful moral tale for children, both for kids who feel different themselves, and for kids who don’t, because it is a great lesson in empathy.

But it is a VERY moral tale. And this is a theme with Anderson. He was very fond of his moral tales, and this one in particular is extremely autobiographical – he absolutely saw himself as this underappreciated ugly duckling who would eventually “show everyone”. And he did, I guess. I mean many of his stories are now a standard part of the fairytale canon.

That being said, as far as fairytales go, this one is probably one of the least dodgy ones. A lot of fairytales have a lot of things in them that to the modern audience feel very unsavoury, when you start to think about them. This is a simple rags to riches kind of deal. The duckling finds the place he belongs, discovers his true self, and all is well.

You could definitely do worse. 🙂

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The Story About Ping – Marjorie Flack

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

So I really dig Ping. I also just wanted to write that sentence.

Seriously though, this book doesn’t score very highly, but I really enjoyed it. There is something about the rhythm of the language, and the luck and silliness of Ping, and the simple child-like logic of avoiding going home altogether in order to avoid being punished for being last that just tickled me.

No female characters of any note, but the story is actually set somewhere not Euro-centric, so it gets a point for that! And it’s not a ‘notable’ thing about the book – by which I mean, the story doesn’t rely on it – it just IS. It’s almost as if random animal stories can happen anywhere in the world! Who’da thunk it?

The story itself is simple enough. Ping, in order to avoid the smack he’ll get for being the last one home, avoids going home and ends up spending a day all alone on the river, having various adventures before being reunited with his family. The ducks act like ducks, which I like, and Ping is mischievous and silly, but not actually naughty or malicious.

The humans he encounters are remarkably balanced too – there is a kind boy, but for the most part they act pretty much like you’d expect fisher folk to act – they have busy lives that Ping passes through with minimal impact. None of Anderson’s overly burdensome morality in that other story about a lost duckling. 😉

Basically, it’s not particularly earth-shattering, but it’s a really neat little tale, and one which ticks a lot of my personal boxes.

What do you think? Have you read Ping? What do you think of it?

The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck – Beatrix Potter

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

I had actually never read this one before, and it turns out it may just be one of my favourite of Beatrix Potter’s books. Jemima is so deliciously oblivious to her danger, and so much of the story happens in subtext. It is delightful.

Plus it has a female protagonist and actually passes the Bechdel when Rebeccah Puddle-duck and Jemima have a little spat about the latter’s egg sitting abilities.

I actually quite honestly thought that this book was going to end with Jemima being eaten by the “bushy long-tailed gentleman”, and was a little disappointed when she wasn’t. (I am probably a bad person for this, but oh well.)

Having said that, her eggs were still eaten by the fox hound puppies who saved her life, and that in itself is part of what I love about Potter in general, and this book in particular – there is no shielding children from the truths of nature.

C enjoyed it, although I don’t think he entirely got it. We had a conversation about the fox and what had happened to him and why and he was certain that the dogs were just being mean to him. I asked him if he thought the fox was going to eat Jemima and he said, “I don’t think so, but the dogs chased him away anyway.” Charitable kid. 😉

It’s a great little story – just a little bit dark, but in the best way. I’ve given it an ideology point because I love stories that don’t sugar-coat things too much for kids. I am in the camp that believes that kids can handle dark stories a lot better than most adults think they can, and shielding them from the natural cycles of the world too much can be a bad thing. So a book like this where we can become invested in Jemima and also in the polite and charming villain who wants to eat her blurs the lines between good and bad in interesting ways.

What do you think? Is it a little too dark? Do you think Jemima  deserved eating? Do you read darker books to your children?

 

Make Way for Ducklings – Robert McCloskey

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: Nope
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 1 point. C gave it a thumbs up, but I still think it’s overrated.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

I’m honestly a bit flummoxed as to why Make Way for Ducklings is as famous and iconic as it is, apart, maybe, for its love affair with Boston. I mean, it’s an okay story, I suppose, but it’s way too long for the age group it’s in (which may be a fault of the list from which I am working more than the book itself), and, well, I am less than enthralled by it.

Having said that, C gave it a thumbs up on this read through. I actually think it may be better for his current age. I’ve read it to him before and he wasn’t impressed, but this time around he liked it. And is, as I write this, sitting on the floor playing and reciting the “Jack Kack Lack…” list of the ducklings names. (Which is another thing – how the hell are you meant to pronounce “Ouack”? I went with “Whack”, as in Ouija, but am open to suggestions.)

As for my liberal agenda, it pretty much fails in all regards. 😉 Fails the Bechdel (only one female character, unless we assume some of the non-gendered duckling names are girls, but even then they never reply to their mother), has some exceedingly old-school gender role stuff going on (complete with the absent father who goes off “exploring” leaving Mrs Mallard to take care of the children herself), and, if you look at the illustrations, you’d swear there was no-one in Boston in 1941 who wasn’t white.

I don’t get it, to be honest. I mean, I guess it’s probably nifty if you’re a Bostonite and want a book that has clear images of your home, or if you’re particularly attached to ducks. The story is kind of cute, I suppose. I’m not even going to take issue with the totally far-fetched notion that the Boston police force had so little to do in 1941 that they dispatch an entire car full of cops to help some ducks cross the road – it is a kids’ book after all, albeit one selling itself at least in part as realism.

The 1001 book claims that the ducks never act as anything other than ducks, but I don’t buy that. Mrs Mallard seems very much like a 40s housewife to me, and Mr Mallard is as condescendingly long-suffering as any 40s husband may be expected to be about his wife’s fussiness about her new home. There are definitely some old-school values going on there to do with what it means to be married and having children. And there is a clear “the children are the woman’s job” thing (which may be what ducks do – I am no ornithologist – but it’s framed in a very anthropomorphic way, so my ideological stance on it stands).

It’s an okay tale, I guess, but it doesn’t score high by the standards I’m working from here.

 

What do you think? Overrated? Am I being too mean? What alternative duck stories do you know about for this age group?