Can You Find My Robot’s Arm? – Chihiro Takeuchi

Robot CoverFirst Published: 4th July, 2017
Genre: Children’s Science Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Two robots search for a missing arm.

There’s nothing unexpected about the plot. The robots look for the missing arm, as well as trying out other possible alternative arms. It’s a story based on repeated actions (going to a location and trying a new arm), where the fun is seeing where they go and what they try next.

It’s set in a world populated by robots. The narrator searching for their robot’s arm is also a robot. It’s unclear if “my robot” means literally owning the robot or a family member. However, the pictures suggest it was intended in a family context. They live in a family home, search together, and one doesn’t act as though working for the other.

Some of the animals also appear to be robots or cyborgs, as they have gears inside. Others have bones and appear to be biological animals. I don’t know why the robots need a sweet shop, and other food items, but maybe some of the robots are powered by biofuel or they’re also cyborgs. These are things I would have asked about when I was five, so the biofuel/cyborg answers might be useful when reading this to a science-minded child.

The art is paper cutouts with dark shapes on a light background. Some of these scenes are very detailed, so there are a lot of little things to find. I liked the variety of places searched, including a factory and aquarium. This also means the possible alternative arms are all sorts of things, many of them very silly. The arm’s fate is shown, though not mentioned in the text.

Most of the language is easy, so it would be ideal as a book for learners to try reading themselves. It would also be a good book for reading aloud, though the story is likely to be a little too simple for older picture book readers.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Project Mc2 (Season One)

Project Mc2 LogoGenre: Children’s Spy / Television Series
Main Cast: Mika Abdalla; Ysa Penarejo; Victoria Vida; Genneya Walton; Danica McKellar; Melissa Mabie; Antonio Marziale
First Shown: 7th August, 2015
Available: Netflix

A space launch is threatened, so teenaged spy McKeyla McAlister (Mika Abdalla) is sent to investigate. When some of the girls at her new school figure out she’s a spy, McKeyla is forced to work with them.

Project Mc2 (Project Mc-Squared) aims to promote S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) among girls. The series is linked to its own toy range, including fashion dolls, science experiment kits, and fashion dolls that come with science experiments kits. I’m all for encouraging girls to blow things up (in totally safe ways) but my review focus will be on the programme side of it. However, I think it’s useful to know the full context of the series.

The characters are the core of the series, so I’ll start there. McKeyla is the lead spy. I liked that she was a generalist, rather than a specialist. Her focus is learning to be a leader, as she’s used to working alone. She’s the most serious of the girls. I’m pretty sure she’s intended to be read as white.

The two girls who initially notice something is odd about McKeyla are best friends. The first is Camryn Coyle (Ysa Penarejo). She’s into skater fashions and carries her skateboard around. She’s also the engineer of the group. Not a lot is discussed about her background, but the actress is Filipina-American. Her hair is dyed red (in an obviously dyed way), which I presume was to make each fashion doll have somewhat different hair.

Bryden Bandweth (Genneya Walton) is the computer expert and is very into social media. She talks in hashtags and posts everything to social media, even at times when she really shouldn’t. I did find this a little difficult at first, as she speaks very quickly. Bryden is black with wavy hair.

When the two girls realise they don’t have all the skills they need to figure out what McKeyla is up to, they approach Adrienne Attoms (Victoria Vida), a culinary chemist. Adrienne is very feminine, wearing skirts and heels, and carrying all her stuff around in a handbag. She’s the only character who has her background really expanded on in this season. She’s from Spain and speaks with a Spanish accent. I’m noting her as a Latina character as I’ve seen the actress say that’s the case (the actress is Latina herself). This is where I didn’t like the styling, as Adrienne has bleached blond hair. Though the initial thought may have been to have a doll range with different hair colours, much like Camryn’s hair dye, it also serves to make Adrienne look whiter. That didn’t sit well with me.

This is a short season, coming in at only three episodes. It tells one long story across the episodes. The space flight in question is a publicity thing for Prince Xander (Antonio Marziale), who is teenaged British royalty. I wasn’t too keen on this as the central plot. I never did the celebrity crush thing, so this has always been rather outside my experiences. Swooning over hot British royalty is more of an American thing, so I had a certain amount of eyerolling as a British person. It’s not that anything is wrong with this as such, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Fortunately, the plot focuses more on the girls learning to work together, so there is something there for people who aren’t interested in the celebrity crush angle.

The science ranges from things that are somewhat improbable to things that are rather simple. For example, Bryden’s hacking is mostly shown with her typing quickly without showing the screen. She is improbably fast at hacking things like this. Later, she hacks a security code with a simple number generator, which is a project most viewers could code with a little training. This may not be science realism, but it did work for the concept of the series. It means some of the science shown could be done by viewers, without being science geniuses. I also liked that The Quail (Danica McKellar), the woman who oversees the girls, is played by a real mathematician.

This season doesn’t push science at the expense of feminine girls. Adrienne is taken seriously from the start, as the other girls approach her for help. There’s a running joke of people not knowing what culinary chemistry is, but it’s more that this is a rarely represented field, rather than the practise of it being funny. I did enjoy the moment where she adds a dash of cinnamon to fingerprint powder, and no one else really knows enough about the subject to question it.

In general, this isn’t a “not like other girls” story. The leads are supposed to be the smartest, but there isn’t criticism of other girls and women. It’s adult men who are their main obstacle, as they don’t take the girls seriously. This is handled in a light way, but is unfortunately a very real thing that girls are likely to face if they go into science.

The girls are quite diverse when it comes to race. However, the show is weaker in other areas. Everyone is relatively thin, there are no disabled people, no QUILTBAG characters, and so forth. It wasn’t negative in those areas. There wasn’t fat-shaming or similar, and I’m glad they ate the baked goods Adrienne made without any comments on calories or diets. But I’m always pushing to see more representation in shows for this age group.

I think this series mostly hits its targets. It’s very colourful and bubbly. The central focus is on friendship and awesome science experiments. The girls don’t face more than some mild peril, so it’s not going to be scary for anyone but the youngest of viewers. It’s targeted very well at the tween and younger market, particularly for those looking for something fluffy and silly, rather than serious. My biggest issue is I’d like to see them broaden out who is included.

The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.

When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]