Angelina and the Princess – Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

More in the Series – Angelina
“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: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

This book passes the Bechdel in that Angelina and Miss Lilly have some dialogue that is about ballet! But that’s the high point really.

You could probably make a case for diversity because there are many mice of different colours, but that’s a bit of a stretch even by my rather low bar in this project, so I’m not giving it. There are certainly no particular cultural markers beyond the colours of the mice to suggest any real diversity going on.

And then there’s the story, which made me twitch a little. Angelina is too sick on audition day to dance properly and ends up with a small part in the show they’re putting on for the Princess of Mouseland (who is nameless). She is, of course, distraught, being as how she is obviously the most important ballerina to ever ballet, but instead of ending up being a story about a little girl setting her ego aside and being happy for her friend Flora who had the main part, this becomes a story about Flora twisting her ankle at the last minute and Angelina swooping in to the rescue, and getting the main part anyway.

It’s… just a bit too Mary-Sue for my taste. Meh.

I don’t recall being particularly impressed with the first book, and this one left me sort of mildly irritated, so I wouldn’t put it on the recommended list. Skip it. There must be better ballet stories if that’s your thing.

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The Church Cat Abroad – Graham Oakley

More in the Series – The Church Mice
“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 point
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

I really liked the first book in this series, and, while this one does have some of the same charm, I think it falls slightly short of its predecessor. Still, it was fun to read.

There are no named female characters, so no way for it to pass the Bechdel. There are a couple of black kids in the illustration at the zoo, so I’ve given it a point for that (just because, as I’ve said before, showing any kind of diversity puts it ahead of the pack, alas). But for the most part this book is all Anglo-Saxon male, pretty much. The main characters are all animals, true, but they’re all very ‘default British male’ characters, nonetheless.

Still, it has its charms. Sampson, the cat, and his friends Arthur and Humphrey, the mice, decide to become actors to try and make enough money to fix the leaky vestry roof so that they don’t get rained on any more. They end up on a rollicking adventure to a South Seas island, get left behind, have to fool some scientists into thinking they are rare animals to get back to England, and then have to escape from the zoo to get home. It’s quite entertaining, and has all the humour (some of it definitely aimed at the adult reader) of the original.

I didn’t find it quite as perfectly executed as the first book, but it is still a charming, neat little story.

Angelina Ballerina – Katharine Holabird

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I think this is the first book we’ve encountered that is absolutely packaged and presented as a “girl’s books” and it gave me great pleasure that my very male kid barely twitched an eyelash about that. 🙂 I must be doing something right.

It passes the Bechdel, perhaps unsurprisingly, since Angelina speaks with her mother (who is actually named! Mrs Mouseling), and her dance teacher, Miss Lily. It’s a decent tale about following your dreams and working hard to get what you want, and also, from a parent’s point of view, about channeling your children’s talents and energy into something positive. So that’s all good.

Unfortunately it also falls into all the gender stereotypes you’d expect of a story about a little girl who becomes a ballerina. I mean, there couldn’t have been even one boy in her ballet class? Really? All the characters fall neatly into the prescribed gender binary, up to and including the boys who chase Angelina on the playground (and who, after she has stopped dreaming all the time about ballet and therefore become more engaged with other aspects of her life (which is a positive!), she now lets catch her ‘sometimes’ (*facepalm*)).

I mean, it’s a cute story and all, and there is some positive in there. I just really wish it wasn’t so… well… binary.

C loved it though. He has always been interested in dance, and we’ve had many a conversation about why boys can totally be ballet dancers if they want to (and more than one YouTube ballet video rabbit hole as a result), so it’s not that big a surprise. I’m just glad he’s not even remotely put off by all the glitter and sparkles, nor by, and this is the big one for me, female protagonists.

 

The Church Mouse – Graham Oakley

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I liked this book a lot more than I expected to. I was expecting a relatively twee British cat and mouse tale, but what I got was something witty and funny and really pretty marvellous.

Unfortunately it still fails all the metrics – no named female characters at all, let alone ones who speak, and not a person of colour in sight.

The story is not particularly original – the mice make a deal with the parson that they will help out in the church in exchange for being allowed to live there safely. The congregation find out and get rather upset about it. The mice foil a church burglary where the burglar was going to steal some much beloved candlesticks. The people see the error of their ways, everyone becomes friends and they all live happily ever after.

The thing that makes this book so enjoyable is that it pulls off something only the very best children’s picture books do – it engages the child (mine was entranced) while being peppered with enough jokes and nods to the adult reader that it’s also fun to read. I am particularly fond of the schoolmouse who is always trying to be clever, because let’s face it, we all know that guy. 😉

The jokes are delivered in a totally straight-faced narrative voice, so that I kept having to stop to chuckle, and C would say, “What’s funny, Mommy?” and I’d realise how hard it would be to explain to a five year old why it was funny that some people only come to church to check that the candlesticks are still there, and we’d move on.

Despite its low score, I’d still recommend it. It is a remarkably well-written little tale, and if you like dry subtle humour and your kids like animal tales, it will probably become a favourite.

The Tale of Two Bad Mice – Beatrix Potter

More in the Series – 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: 0 points
Good story:  2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

This is an interesting little tale because it kind of does a double-take, and backtracks on itself.

But before we get to that, there is no Bechdel pass, despite quite a number of named female characters (the fact that two of them are dolls, and therefore can’t speak probably contributes to this). There is also no diversity – like pretty much all the BP books, this one is firmly rooted in white British culture, and there is not a whiff of any other sort.

Ideologically it’s on somewhat iffy ground. the mice are, in fact, pretty bad – stealing things and making a mess of and breaking the things they can’t steal. The title is clear about that. But at the end of the book, the narrator does a bit of a turnaround claiming they’re not as bad as all that because they go and help out after the fact – cleaning the dolls-house and putting money in the dolls’ stockings.

I’m not convinced though – this all feels a bit “too little, too late” to me. So I asked C to get a five year old moral perspective. He said he thought they were quite naughty even though they tried to make up for it because stealing is always wrong, and because they broke things and that was bad. So there you have it.

Having said that, the book is an interesting one for starting that kind of conversation. I am a fan of kids’ books that deal in moral greys, just because I think absolutes are always dangerous, and the real world is almost never morally absolute. So it was kind of cool to have a forum for having that conversation with C: people (or in this case mice) who do bad things also sometimes do good things and it’s not always possible to work out if someone is a “bad guy” or a “good guy”. Mostly, people are a bit of both.