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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Hairy Maclary: Scattercat – Lynley Dodd

More in the Series – Hairy Maclary
“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

cover

I’ve said before that the genius of Lynley Dodd is how she makes it look easy. Her words and rhyme are so perfectly constructed that you find yourself thinking there is no other way they could go, and therefore this kind of verse must be easy. The text trips lightly across the page, seeming effortless.

As someone who occasionally writes this kind of thing, it is certainly not effortless. Dodd is kind of a genius. 🙂

This book doesn’t really pass any of our metrics – the characters are all dogs and cats so you can’t really talk about diversity. Some of the cats are female, but there’s no dialogue. It’s just a simple romp of Hairy Maclary chasing all the cats in the neighbourhood until he comes up against one who is scarier than he is.

It’s charming as hell, you guys, and if you still haven’t read a Hairy Maclary book (probably because you don’t live in New Zealand), they are definitely very worth getting your mitts on and reading with your kids. They’re somehow very Kiwi and still completely universal, which is quite a thing to pull off.

This is children’s lit at its best. 🙂 C loves them, they’re fun to read, and I marvel at the brilliantly constructed rhyme schemes. Good stuff.

Hairy Maclary’s Bone – Lynley Dodd

More in the Series – Hairy Maclary
“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 points

I have a real love for the Hairy Maclary books. I wasn’t born a Kiwi, but I’ve lived here for, good god NINE YEARS now, and so I feel a certain amount of pride that these incredibly simple, deft books came out of NZ. They really master the art of being local while still being internationally relevant (I can’t imagine anyone not developing a fondness for Hairy Maclary and his compatriots.

There are no female characters at all in this book, as far as we can tell, anyway. There is also no real sign of diversity (unless you count diversity of dog breeds, which, no, not really). But the issue is a bit kind of adjacent given that all the major characters are animals, and the humans that do exist do so in a Schultzesque “legs and arms only” manner.

In this tale, Hairy Maclary receives a bone form the butcher and takes it home. He is followed by all the neighbourhood dogs who have a mind to “share” it with him, but as he goes he manages to lose them one by one by choosing a route home that proves too narrow, high, athletic and so on for each of them.

Like all these books, the rhyme is deft and simple. Lynley Dodd has a knack for making it look easy, which is the sign of a true linguistic artist. As someone who has read a lot of kids books where the rhymes have been forced to conform, twisted and shoved into place, Dodd’s nimble, elegant words are a pleasure.

C loves these books as much as I do. They are always fun to read (and reread!) and the protagonist is extremely lovable. Not high scorers by our metrics, but well worth the read anyway. 🙂

The Gruffalo – Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

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

I had never read this book before and I am utterly charmed by it. It’s wonderful. There’s no Bechdel pass, and no diversity – all the characters are animals and are either male or not gendered at all.

But despite all that, this book is a little work of genius, in my not-so-humble opinion. It’s written in rhyme which is one of those things that is so often done badly in kids’ books that when you come across a book that makes it seem totally effortless it sort of makes you want to stand up and cheer. And this is one of those books. Perfect metre, doesn’t feel forced at all, it’s absolutely perfectly crafted linguistically, which makes it a total pleasure to read. I just reread it before writing this, and it made me smile all over again. There’s something so satisfying about well written rhyme.

The illustrations are also absolutely beautiful. Bright and bold and everything you could want in a children’s book.

And then there’s the story. Which really, pushes all my narrative buttons. It has all the best qualities of a fairy tale – three things there and three things back; laying the groundwork in the first half for the things that save you in the second. And this quick thinking trickster mouse! Well, I mean, I have a thing for tricksters, as you may know, but who doesn’t love this little guy? He makes up a story about a monster to avoid being eaten, and then uses the very story he told to prove to the monster he invented that he’s the “scariest thing” in the woods. It’s perfectly balanced, beautifully structured, and gleeful in its trickery.

Yes, I am gushing, but it is very rare for me to find a book that hits so many of the things that make me love it. This book totally deserves its beloved state, in my opinion. Ideologically, it falls into the “brains over brawn” camp -surviving by cleverness and trickery, which is a long and noble tradition in folklore that goes all the way back to Aesop. I’ve always had a weakness for these characters, and this is no exception.

Read it. Buy it. Enjoy it with your kids. I strongly suspect that it’ll absolutely survive multiple readings as well.

Mister Magnolia – Quentin Blake

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

There is no dialogue in this book, and also no named characters at all apart from the title one, so it cannot pass the Bechdel. It does fall pretty much into gender stereotypes: his “two lovely sisters” both wear long flowy dresses and have long flowy hair. One of the girl children wears trousers, and that’s about the best I can say for it in that regard.

Similarly, every single person in Mister Magnolia’s world is white as can be – not a person of colour to be seen. So it scores very low in all regards there.

It’s still kind of a neat little book though, and I say this not just because I have a fondness for Quentin Blake that goes back to my own childhood. It’s pretty standard kiddie nonsense – the ‘story’ doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the rhyming text is entertaining and it is kind of funny. The one boot thing is amusing and Mister Magnolia’s sheer joy at having a second boot is only made more funny by the fact that they don’t match. This simle fact sent my five year old into paroxysms of laughter. “His shoes don’t match Mommy!” So funny, apparently.

The illustrations are typical of Blake’s comedic style. His “magnificent brute” of a dinosaur is pretty spectacular. It’s fun to read, but it sure isn’t going to break any status quos. I guess when I see Blake’s illustrations, I kind of expect some of Dahl’s subversion (just because in my head the two are intrinsically linked) but this book really is just a joyous romp.

And social justice aside, a joyous romp is always a good thing. 🙂

Up in the Tree – Margaret Atwood

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I really enjoyed this book, even though I got the distinct impression Atwood was channelling Dr Seuss a little bit.

There is no dialogue at all, and only two human characters. They’re definitely white, though they are also remarkably gender neutral for a kids’ book. Most kids’ books are very clear on the boy/girl thing, but these children who live in this tree really could be either (or neither) which is kind of neat.

There’s not a lot of ideology to sink your teeth into in this. It’s a fairly silly little tale about two kids living in a tree that has surprisingly good facilities. (One of their laments is that they’ve run out of hot water – the tree has a tap. Running water straight from a tree. You don’t see that every day.) Their ladder gets stolen, and they get stuck, but they are rescued by a friend (a bird) and then they build a ladder onto the tree trunk so it won’t happen again and they can live happily in their tree again.

I mean, I dig the whole initiative/problem-solving aspect of that part – your ladder gets stolen, so you come up with a ladder that can’t be stolen. But apart from that there’s not a lot to say. It’s whimsical, and the rhymes are good (not as common an occurrence in kiddielit as you’d expect). The illustrations are simple and engaging. Atwood even has an introduction at the beginning where she explains why the pictures only have two colours (because of when it was printed and the expense involved at the time of printing more).

It’s cute. Worth having in a home library, I’d say, but really the most seriously remarkable thing about it is that it’s a Margaret Atwood, I suppose. I’ve never been that much of a fan of her adult writing, but this was lovely.

Madeline’s Rescue – Ludwig Bemelmans

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

I can’t get over how badly mistitled this book is. Madeline falls in the Seine and is rescued by a dog, who then becomes part of the family in “the old house in Paris”. But the bulk of the story is about the dog – her adoption, how the children fight over her attention, how the trustees in the school kick her out and how they all go looking for her afterwards to bring her back. The book is named for the rescue, but the rescue is over by the fifth spread, and most of the story focusses on the dog.

Apart from that little quibble, though, the book is as charming as the other Madeline books. I am definitely a fan of these stories. It passes Bechdel as Madeline and Miss Clavel have dialogue between them. There’s no real diversity at all, apart from the fact that the bulk of the characters (including the dog) are female.

I guess there’s a little bit of ideological stuff going on about how the trustees are wrong about the dog, and how their distaste for her seems to be snobbery. Their spokesman (Lord Cucuface!!) says she should leave because: “it’s a perfect disgrace for young ladies to embrace this creature of uncertain race”. Which, to me, reads like a breeding thing – in other words, Lord Cucuface (oh my, that name) is just being a big snob.

I am amused by how after they leave the girls and Miss Clavel go in search of Genevieve (the dog) and there is no question that Miss Clavel is on their side. She cannot stand up to The Money, but she has no qualms subverting their orders along with the children. I’m not sure what they’re going to do the following year when they have not one dog, but a whole pack – given that in the end Genevieve has puppies. But I suppose that’s next year’s problem. 😉