The Gruffalo’s Child – Julia Donaldson

More in the Series – Gruffalo
“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

Man, I love these books. Donaldson has that rare knack of writing light rhyming text that totally belies how hard it is to do right. Plus, I always love me a trickster tale, and the mouse in these books is absolutely a trickster.

In this one, the Gruffalo warns his daughter about the Big Bad Mouse, but she decides to go exploring to see for herself. She meets a variety of animals all of whom warn her that the Mouse is down by the lake eating Gruffalo cake (or similar). She finally finds the Mouse and is unimpressed by how little he is. However with the help of some clever shadow work, he manages to trick her into thinking that the Big Bad variety is right there and she runs home back and snuggles in with the Gruffalo again.

There’s no Bechdel pass, and no diversity to speak of. The characters (with the exception of the Gruffalos) are all woodland animals, and the only clear female is the child herself (who has no name of her own).

But it’s an awesome little tale about the trickster mouse, and the triumph of brains over brawn. Plus the text trips along so lightly, making it an utter pleasure to read out loud.

Highly recommended.

 

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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.

Owl Moon – Jane Yolen

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

Full disclosure? I love Jane Yolen. I pretty much love everything I have ever read that she has written. So it’s not surprising that I love this.

The book only has two characters, and one is Papa, so it can’t pass the Bechdel, but I sort of love that the gender of the child is unclear. The story is written in the first person from the point of view of the child (who is wrapped up in winter clothes) so it is unclear whether it’s a girl or a boy. I love this. It means that it could be any child – that every child who reads it can read themself into the story. Perfect.

The story itself has a magical poetic quality. Papa and the child go “owling” – walking at night through a quiet snowy landscape looking for an owl. papa makes owl hooting noises, which C loved me doing, and echoed back to me. The pictures are perfect – you can almost feel the quiet of this snowy night. The text is simple but poetic, conjuring up this sense of this being almost ritualistic – like they are following a prescribed path, something almost spiritual, this father and his child, owling in the snow.

It’s really beautiful. Like all really good art, it is simple but seems to tap into something deeper, something connected to all the world and yet somehow deeply human. It doesn’t score extremely high by our metrics, here, but C sat totally still through the whole thing (which almost never happens). There’s something very special happening in this book.

Honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 🙂

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

snail-and-turtle-rainy-days

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.

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.

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.