Rex – Simon James

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:  4 out of 10.

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

Rex is the story of a big scary T-rex who accidentally adopts a tiny little baby dino called Rex. At first he is grumpy and unwilling to be friendly, but eventually he is won over. One day, however, he tells Rex that he’s not his real dad, and Rex sadly goes off into the world to find out where he belongs. Of course the big dinosaur realises he was wrong and goes looking for him. And they find out that family and belonging is not always about blood relations. 🙂

This “chosen family” theme is one I really love. I think that while it’s awesome when kids have that connection with their blood families, not all get that, and it’s so important for children (and humans) to realise that you can find love, acceptance and belonging among chosen family too. That family doesn’t make love, it’s the other way around.

I also kind of love that this is a “dad”/”son” dynamic, just because this kind of parenting/nurture thing is often reserved for women in books – especially children’s books. As the mother of a child who already seems very sure that he wants to be a dad one day, I love it when children’s books teach that this kind of parental nurture is totally open to boys too. YAY!

Obviously the book’s main characters are two male dinosaurs, so it doesn’t really make sense to talk about diversity here, and despite not passing the Bechdel, I’d still say it gets some feminism points for challenging traditional gender ideas regarding who does the parenting, so really it’s full of win.

Also, dinosaurs. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs, right? 😉

Recommended.

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.

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. 🙂

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!

 

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

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?