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.


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.

The Cat in the Hat – Dr. Seuss

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

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

I am so excited to have finally gotten round to a Seuss. A very classic Seuss at that! And one which, alas, fails dismally. This is another good example of a really great book that has a lot going for it that still manages to fail the criteria we’ve set up, which proves my claim that this is not a perfect system, and is really more about being aware of trends than about the value of particular books. Any system is going to be flawed, and this one is no exception. Still, onwards!

I debated the Bechdel pass with myself for a while, but I think technically I can’t give it. There are two named characters (though one is, admittedly, “Mother”), and Mother does direct dialogue at her kids, one of whom is Sally, but Sally never responds, and I think, in general, the interaction fails the spirit of the Bechdel. It was too borderline, so I couldn’t give it the point.

I also honestly hunted for some good ideology points I could give it, but actually, by the standards of the system I’ve set up here, this book is not great. There are some clear consent violations (the Cat continues to tease and balance the Fish after the Fish has explicitly asked him to stop), which I find hard to forgive given how much effort I put into teaching my kid that when someone says stop you should stop.

The Cat does clean up his mess in the end, but there is a lot of boundary crossing in the story, to the point that I think “clean up your mess” as a message is a bit weak-sauce for this tale.

I am proud that when we got to the end of the book, and reached the question. “What would you do if your mother asked you?”, my son replied unequivocally that he would tell me. YAY! But despite the fact that there is a lot going on here that’s ideologically troubling, it is still, obviously, great fun to read, and a classic of kiddielit for a reason!

In truth, I could probably write a very long convoluted essay defending The Cat in the Hat, but I’m going to try and keep it simple for our purposes here. You see, the thing is that Seuss does something very important which I think is vital in children’s literature, and that is dealing with transgression.

For those of you who don’t know, I wrote my masters thesis on trickster children’s texts, so this is something of a pet topic for me, and I think this book falls neatly into this category – which is to say the Cat is a trickster. The book is dealing with this idea of transgressing – of breaking adult rules – and I think that this is something that needs to be present in children’s books in much the way every pantheon needs a trickster and every court needs a jester – because we humans need a safety valve.

So yeah, ideologically it’s a bit iffy, but that’s sort of the point. It’s skating the boundaries of acceptability and doing it well, which is no easy feat. It’s a trickster text, poking at the edges of adult sensibilities and letting kids in on the chaotic tricksterism of the Cat’s world.

Do you buy it? I don’t know if I’ve sold it well enough here. 😉 But let me know what you think. Are you a fan of the good Dr? Do you love the Cat? Or do you find yourself on the side of the Fish?