Monday, September 12, 2016

Bechdel Friendly Books

Please welcome guest reviewer Lesley!

I love children’s books.  I always have.  In college, when I would start to get stressed, I would go to the fourth floor of the library and just walk through the juvenile literature section.  I’d pick a couple books at random and sit on the floor to read them.  Then I’d be ready to tackle real life again.  I believe in literacy.  I think it makes a very big difference in one’s quality of life.  I deeply want to instill a love of reading in my children.  The good news is, so far, we are on track.  They are young (2, 3, and 5), but right now they love books.  They will sit and let me read to them for a long time.  

I started this list because my daughter lacks confidence.  I understand that there is much conversation around how useful the Bechdel test really is.  I know that there is nothing inherently wrong with books about male characters.  I recognize that, to really have empathy, my children must learn to relate to a person no matter their gender.  But here’s what else I know.  At least once a day my very smart and capable daughter sits on the ground and says “I can’t do it.”  Even when we both know that she can and she has before.  Often she doesn’t even want to try something.  

One of my favorite things to do is watch my kids play when they don’t know I can see them.  They like to “play” the books that I read to them.  They are also at an age where they are starting to explore and understand gender.  So my son gets to be the boy characters and my daughter gets to be the girl characters.  That means, that if I’m not conscientious about what I’m reading to my kids, playing together means that my daughter sits and watches my son do cool fun things.  And that is not what I want her to do, or what I want her to think it means to be a girl.  As a side note, that’s also not what I want my sons to think it means to be a girl.  So I’m making an effort to read more books in which female characters have a positive, empowered, contributing role.  

Alice and Greta
This is one of my very favorite books.  I’m not sure if it strictly passes the test or not.  The narrative style of the story doesn’t include a lot of dialogue.  But there are two named female characters that interact meaningfully with each other.  And their characters are developed beyond the ways in which they relate to men.  I’m counting it.  It’s my list, so I can do that.

I love this book.  The story is great.  The illustrations are adorable.  There is an obvious moral – be kind – but the story is playful and imaginative, so it doesn’t feel preachy.  I love everything about this book.  

My No No No Day
Technically this one doesn’t count either because the women who speak aren’t named.  But, as far as my kids are concerned, my name is Mom.  And since that counts as a name in my house, I’ve decided it counts as a name in this book too.  Also, Miss Louisa, the Ballet teacher, is named and does speak.  It’s just not really part of a conversation with another woman.  

I think every parent can relate to this book.  We’ve all lived through days where our kids are contrary from the moment they wake up until they go to bed.  This book is like Reasons My Son is Crying, but from the kid’s perspective.  I like this book because it doesn’t tell kids to get over it and be happy (I might have said that to my son today.) Mom sits next to Bella and tells her “We all have those days sometimes, but perhaps you will be more cheerful tomorrow.”  Good advice for adults and kids.  

Olivia Forms a Band
(See above note on using “mom” as a name)
I picked this book up because I was looking for something with a musical theme.  I was happy to see that I inadvertently picked a book that could also go on this list.  This book was my first introduction to Olivia.  I’ve been aware of the character for a while, but this is the first book I’ve pick up and read.  I like that Olivia thinks that there should be a band, so she makes one.  I like it even more that her friends aren’t interested in doing it with her, so she finds a way to do it herself.  I love that at the end she dreams of being on the Supreme Court.  I’m not sure this is a favorite though.  The humor was a little too complex for my kids to understand.  I felt like I had to do a lot of supplemental explaining.  They are still pretty young.  Maybe older kids would like it better.  The book felt more like a day-in-the-life than an actual story.  When we were done reading it my kids wanted to know how it ended.  

Madeline – Series
I’m not sure if every book in the series passes the Bechdel test, but it follows the spirit of the law.  There are times when the conversations between Miss Clavel and Madeline are summarized or implied rather than detailed.

I gave this book bonus points because the main character is a redhead.  They are useless bonus points, because I have not actually given any of the books a score, but bonus points nonetheless.  I vaguely remember seeing a preview for a Madeline movie at some point in my life.  I never saw the movie.  I don’t know if it does the books justice, but these are excellent books.  I like the character.  My kids like the familiarity of the rhymes across the stories.  They get really excited to say “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines” and “The smallest one was Madeline” with me.  

I’m always impressed with an author that can tell a story in meter and rhyme.  There is some French thrown in, and the illustrations depict some actual landmarks in Paris, so I feel super cultured when I read these books to my kids.  When my three year old can point to a picture and say “that’s Notre Dame” it warms my nerdy mother heart.  

The Dot
My son picked this book up at the library because he wanted a Halloween book.  He thought the orange circle on the cover was a pumpkin.  Yes, my kids are thoroughly confused about seasons and holidays.  He was looking for Halloween books in May.  This is not a Halloween book.  It is, however, a fantastic find.  I have yet to encounter a book published by Scholastic that I do not like.  This one is no exception.  We sat down to read it, and I was quite excited that after one page it qualified to go on the list.  I found all of the characters very relatable.  I smiled about a little girl who refused to do a project because she didn’t think she would be good at it.  I also laughed when her teacher framed her attempt at defiant resistance and hung it on the wall.  I’ve been on both sides of that encounter before.  I especially liked that Vashti learned that she could be an artist, even if she started with nothing more than a dot.  My kids were not even a little bit disappointed about the lack of pumpkins in the book.  As soon as we were done reading it they all wanted to paint.  Somehow my little boy stumbled on exactly the kind of book I was looking for.  I guess I’ll keep taking him to the library with me.  

Hello Kitty – Series
These books aren’t going to win any literary awards, but my daughter likes them and they pass the test.  I don’t know if every single one passes the test.  I don’t enjoy reading them enough to go back and check, but I know most of them do.  I believe in literacy.  I want my kids to enjoy reading.  I want my boys to know that they can enjoy stories about girls.  So, even though I don’t enjoy these books, I’ll read them when my kids pick them.  

Red Wagon
Renata Liwska is brilliant.  This story makes sense as stand-alone text.  But when combined with the illustrations, the text suddenly means something entirely different.  I fudged a little bit on the Bechdel test here too.  I’m assuming that when it says “Lucy asked her mother” that means Lucy spoke.  I love this story for the way it promotes creativity and divergent thinking.  I also like that it subtly suggests to my kids that they can work and have fun at the same time.  

Bread and Jam for Frances
I have fond childhood memories of this book.  I remember checking it out of the library repeatedly.  I remember being disappointed if it wasn’t there and I had to pick a different one.  I even remember where on the shelves at the library I would look for it.  When my parents were cleaning out their bookshelves a couple of years ago and asked all of us what we wanted, I was quick to claim this book.  Although the fact that they had it kind of confused me.  I’m really sure I remember this being a library book.  Perhaps all of my memories of kneeling on the floor to find the book on the bottom shelf – second set of shelves from the right on the row furthest from the window- are all just made up.  Maybe I checked it out so many times that my parents bought it.  But, whatever the case, a book from my childhood is now part of my kids’ collection.  

I think Frances is endearing.  The point of the story is to encourage kids to eat a variety of foods, and that’s a message I can get behind.  I hate it when my kids ask me to read them this story.  It’s soooo loooong.  I don’t think I ever noticed or cared about words per page before I read books to my kids, but this book has way too many.  It’s right up there with the Berenstain Bears books.  So. Many. Words.  It’s a good, well written story.  It’s awful to read aloud.  I look forward to the day that my kids can read it to themselves.  I don’t mind it as much during the middle of the day.  But at bedtime, I hide this book.  

The Aesop for Children
This book spectacularly fails the Bechdel test.  I don’t think there is a female character in the entire collection.  And that’s 145 fables.  But my kids can’t read yet, so sometimes I cheat and switch up the pronouns.  It’s pretty easy to do in this book because most of the characters are unnamed animals.  I see no reason why Lion and Ant and Fox can’t occasionally be “she”.

Minnie Mouse – Scaredy Cat Sleepover
See Hello Kitty

A Bad Case of Stripes
This book is published by Scholastic so, as previously noted, I love it.  This was part of my book collection long before I had kids.  (Because I’m the type of person who had a collection of picture books long before I had kids.  I’m also the type of person who would read a picture book to a high school history class if I thought it would help.  Dr. Seuss was good for that)

This book approaches the line of too many words per page, but all of the words contribute to the enjoyment of the story, so it doesn’t ever feel like reading the story that will never end.  The Illustrations are great.  They make my kids giggle.  I enjoy the subtle satirizing of the doctors and specialists.  This book does a great job of striking a balance between a story that is straightforward and clear enough for the kids to understand without me needing to explain it to them, but also complex enough for an adult to find it interesting.  That is probably why, even though it almost has too many words per page, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read about book.  It also promotes vegetable consumption, so bonus points there.  (Yes, I know lima beans are not vegetables.  But my kids don’t know that, so the point remains)


Strictly speaking, this book probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test either.  A handful of women converse with Camilla, but Camilla is the only female who is named.  I decided to include it anyway because there are at least four female characters who are important to the story.  More importantly “the old woman who was as sweet and plump as a strawberry” is a mysterious character, and her lack of name is important to her (very significant) role in the story.  I think her anonymity is an intentional device.  Other very minor characters are named.  They are knowledgeable, self-important, and ultimately useless.  This woman is the only one who can help Camilla, and she comes and goes without anyone knowing who she is or where she comes from.  Although she is not named, she is central to the story. I’ve decided it counts.  Once again: it’s my list, I can do that.  

1 comment:

Jordan @ForeverLostinLiterature said...

This is such a great and much-needed post! I also love children's books, and I definitely think it is important to have some books that highlight strong female characters in order to encourage everyone and have some great representation. Great post, I will be sure to check many of these out!

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