Aldo is the Harvey-esque imaginary best friend to a little girl. As is often the case with John Burningham a lot of the story is told through the illustrations rather than the text. We learn that she is bullied, her parents argue and that above all she is very lonely. But whenever she is at her darkest Aldo comes to whisk her off on an adventure: playing on the swings, ice skating, tightrope walking across the city at night…or simply to read her a bedtime story when she can’t sleep.
The heroine is never named and I’m only guessing that she’s a she because she wears a skirt (if the main character is actually a cross dressing boy then Burningham gets even more points!) Her gender is not relevant to the story which, as I’ve said, is often my favourite heroine.
I’ll have to wait a few years to see if my son warms to Aldo but I suspect that it is a story that appeals more to adults then children – which is no bad thing, we’re the ones spending our evenings reading them aloud. I also like that it is slightly maudlin, I think that children shouldn’t just read hyperactive fun books (although they definitely have their place.) And it has a wonderful message: that if you have imagination you will never be alone because “Aldo will always be there.”
Heroine rating 4/5
In my past life as an independent adult who knew nothing about children I was familiar with Posy Simmonds in The Guardian and her excellent female characters (Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery) so it is wonderful to discover that she has also written lots of children’s books.
Lulu is an independent toddler who, quite rightly, gets annoyed that the family now revolves around the needs of her new baby brother. When she’s taken to the museum (against her will, she wants to play in the snow in the park – top feminist points in her hardiness and desire for rugged play) two cherubs (the flying babies) come to life and together they enter the worlds inside the paintings. And the best bit is that in the end *spoiler alert* we discover that this isn’t just in Lulu’s imagination, the museum usher also sees the flying babies.
She’s a fantastic character and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Lulu and the Chocolate Wedding.
Heroine rating 5/5
In some ways Beegu is my favourite type of heroine. She’s an alien and nine times out of ten these anthropomorphic characters are male. But not Beegu. And there is no special attributes because of her gender: she doesn’t want to be a princess or like ponies. The story would be just the same if she were a he, which is what makes it so refreshing.
The tale is conventional enough – alien crashes to earth, feels alone, befriends children, goes back home – but the familiar narrative is spruced up by arresting illustrations by Alexis Deacon. And the reader identifies with Beegu, even though she in turn has a rather pessimistic view of human beings.
Beegu was named after of a dog of Deacon’s but he says he also likes its alien ‘beep beep’ connotation and that it sounds like bijou – a little shiny jewel. Beegu is a simple creature, drawn with few features (three eyes, two antennae, long ears) which makes her desire to fit in all the easier to identify with.
Heroine rating: 3/5
My son and I love the first two of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things trilogy. We’re forever roaring our terrible roars (Where the Wild Things Are) and I can’t bake a cake now without howling ‘milk in the batter! milk in the batter! we bake cake and nothing’s the matter!’ (In The Night Kitchen.) Those books both have little boys, Max and Mickey, as the central characters so when I discovered that the third book in the trilogy – Outside Over There – has a female heroine I ordered it straight away.
OOT might not have the immediate appeal of the other two books but it is not without charm. It is a more sinister tale – my husband finds it terrifying and says it will have to be banned when our son is old enough to understand it. (E Duthie writes very eloquently about this reaction to the book in the excellent blog We Read It Like This) Ida is looking after her baby sister when goblins come and steal the baby leaving a changeling in her place. Sendak was a young child at the time of the Lindbergh Kidnapping which had a lasting impression on him, and this story draws heavily on that event with the baby resembling Charles Lindbergh Jr.
The tale has three female characters: Ida, her younger sister and her mother. Ida’s father is away at sea and he instructs her to look after “the baby and her Mama.” In some ways Ida is a traditional female character: caring for other people. She also saves the baby by playing a jig on her horn and thereby making the goblins dance “so fierce, so fast, they quick turned into a dancing stream”, following the mythology of a dangerous female musician (sirens et al.) But she is also brave and bright – she saves the baby herself rather than calling for someone else to help her. And she’s illustrated in wonderful powerful poses.
Heroine rating: 4/5
TTWCTT has not one but two central female characters: Sophie and her mother. It even almost passes the Bechtel test as it opens with them having a conversation together at the table (unfortunately all the visitors Mummy suggests are male but still, pretty close.)
If you haven’t read it you really should. It is lots of people’s favourite picture book and it is easy to see why. It is such an absurd premise with such vibrant pictures. (I personally am a bit more of a fan of Mog – review to come in the future.)
It may lose a couple of feminist points on the very heteronormative family. Sophie’s mummy is a housewife and her daddy goes out to work. It is also daddy who comes home and solves the problem of what to eat for dinner. However, you could also read the book in a way which reflects the spirit of second wave feminism (it was published in 1968.) The tiger could be an imagined excuse that Mummy tells Daddy to explain why she hasn’t conformed to her role and gone shopping and prepared dinner… but that may be a bit of a stretch.
Michael Rosen suggests that the Tiger might represent of a much darker threat. Judith Kerr grew up in 1930s Germany. Her father was a Jewish intellectual and on a Nazi death list and they managed to escape to Prague in 1933, something that she later wrote about in the semi-autobiographical (and excellent) When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. So she knows a thing or two about dangerous people coming into your house and ruining the happy home.
Heroine rating: 3/5