When Zoe and Isaac were little, we had a Ladybird book of nursery rhymes in which appeared Goosey Goosey Gander - do you remember it? - "Where shall I wander?.....There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers so I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs." I so disapproved of that last sentence, on so many levels, that I glued the pages together.
Last year I came across a well-reviewed picture book called The Worst Princess by Kemp and Ogilvie. Readers on Amazon loved its feminist message so I bought a copy to give to Lux and Cece. But when it arrived in the post I was disappointed. It was funny and the pictures were good, and I loved the story of the princess ditching the male chauvinist prince and flying away with the dragon. But then in the last few pages the princess sets the prince's shorts alight and goes on to make mischief with the dragon, mischief wrought on "royal twits and naughty knights." It was a let-down. I wanted the princess to fly off with the dragon and be courageous, not to behave badly. She turned out to be just as bad as the prince, but in a different way. I didn't give the girls the book. It sits on my shelf, unwanted and unloved.
Lately I've been reading Allan Ahlberg's learn-to-read Happy Families books to Lux and Cece. If you haven't come across them, seek them out. They are wonderful. My favourites are Mrs Lather's Laundry, Mrs Wobble the Waitress, and Mrs Vole the Vet. The children and I laugh every time we read that last one (which is a LOT of times) and catchphrases from the book now pepper our conversation.
After I got home I wanted to check something about the book and went on Amazon and found myself reading the reviews and was amazed and appalled. Readers found the book to be a BAD THING. They thought its messages were that professional women can't get by without a boyfriend, that absent parents should be forgotten about, and that having a lot of money is a necessary requirement of a good boyfriend. None of this had occurred to me. I felt challenged, but after careful thought I have decided that the problem is that these reviewers have no sense of humour and are not reading the book with sufficient subtlety. (I asked a children's-book-loving friend what she thought of the book and she said she loved it because of the way the children do their best to look after their mum.)
Let me set the scene. Mrs Vole has one son, two daughters, three cats, four dogs and no husband. She is a vet who works day and night in every season, and her three children worry about her constantly because she works so hard. When she comes home exhausted they look after her. They also decide that what she needs is a boyfriend. The absent Mr Vole (who appears on the second page only) has three stepsons and (I think) eleven rabbits and after telling us this, the author says "We will forget about him." He is obviously too busy to help the beleaguered Mrs Vole, even if he wanted to. He is therefore irrelevant to what happens next. The children say to Mrs Vole "What you need is a boyfriend, Mum." Then they give their spec of the ideal boyfriend.
Suitors then appear and are dismissed for various reasons, some of which are hilarious. The greengrocer, for example, is deemed by the kids to be "too cabbagey." Mr Aargh the Actor (who is pictured talking to a cucumber) is seen as too embarrassing. Mrs Vole ends up happily with Mr Lamp the Lighthouse Keeper.
The messages I draw from the book are that the kids love their mother a lot, do practical things to look after her such as getting her breakfast, making her cups of tea, and finding her slippers (I am working from memory here as the book is now in Boulder) and in trying to find her a boyfriend. The children's requirements of a good boyfriend are possibly questionable but they are children's requirements. Who can take seriously the requirement of good football boots? That sets the whole thing up as a joke. One of the Amazon reviewers is appalled by the book, and one reason is because the children dismiss "unsatisfactory candidates for the most arbitrary reasons, in a rather judgmental manner." Oh dear.
I feel very sorry that such a wonderful book has been given such dire ratings. Authors are at the mercy of every reader who chooses to express an opinion online. Shall I write a review of The Worst Princess? Perhaps.