In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Enduring the unobjectionable

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I agree with you: it is full-on weird to return a book just because you didn't like it.  Your post got me thinking about my own responses to books I don't particularly like.  As I've mentioned before, I try to keep our shelves free of badly-written, overly commercial, or otherwise obnoxious books.  In keeping with Grandma Helen's advice, I have been known to throw a few clunkers out in the dead of night (or at least, after bedtime).

But what of the perfectly okay?  I'm talking here about books that my kids love, and that I think are...fine.  Totally decent.  Not bad or harmful in any way.  Enjoyable to read in small doses.  Just, well, not all that interesting.

Two series pop to mind: Little Critter, by Mercer Mayer, and the If You Give... books, starting with If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond.  Part of the problem with each is the sheer volume of the series.

There are more than 70 Little Critter books, and counting.  In each, Little Critter (an appealingly prickly little hedgehog-like person) focuses on one idea, and repeats it with variations: "When I get bigger, I'll...."; "I wanted to do X, but Mom wouldn't let me.  I was just so mad!"; "I can do X all by myself"; etc.  Each page repeats the same basic formula, and there's always a very slight twist at the end ("I'm not bigger yet!").  The Little Critter book we own is a collection of seven stories, and reading the same formula over and over (which is a requirement -- I have never successfully read only one story from the book and been allowed to put it down) can feel mind-numbing.

Mind-numbing, and depressingly literal.  One of my pet peeves about Little Critter is that Mercer Mayer doesn't do anything interesting with the text he includes in his drawings.  There are often labels on food or toys, or single pages of books Little Critter is reading.  Without fail, they are boring: a shopping bag reads "Best Food"; a toy duck is labeled "Duck"; a book is titled "Read This Book."  Compare this to the fantastic, old-school brand names on kitchen products in In the Night Kitchen ("Kneitel's Fandango," "Phoenix Baking Soda," "Hosmer's Free Running Sugar: It Pours"), or the psychology-related book titles Kevin Henkes sneaks into Chrysanthemum.  Is it too much to ask a kids' author to sneak in a little tidbit for the parents to enjoy?

In comparison to the Little Critter juggernaut, the 8 If You Give... books don't seem like so many.  Except that we own them all.  Again, here, we started with an anthology:  Mouse Cookies and More: A Treasury.  It includes four books (...Mouse a Cookie, ...Moose a Muffin, ...Pig a Pancake, and If You Take a Mouse to School), as well as song lyrics, recipes, activities, and a CD.  Again, individually, I like these books.

In each, a demanding animal asks for increasingly elaborate things from the boy (or girl, but mostly boy) he (or she, but mostly he) is visiting.  Many of the requests are domestic: they want a cookie, to draw a picture, to make puppets or a kite.  In the later books (...Dog a Donut, ...Cat a Cupcake, ...Pig a Party), they go farther afield, to the beach, and museums.  The child caring for the animal invariably winds up looking exhausted by the end of the story.  There's a nice wink at parents here -- the animal exhausts the child just as my own child exhausts me!  And Felicia Bond's illustrations are bright and bold, with lots of action.

But it's the same construction, every time: "If you give..., he'll want....  Then he'll ask for..." etc., all the way back to the original item given.

I know that kids love repetition, and that it's developmentally appropriate -- it gives both Eleanor and Isabel great pleasure to be able to predict what's going to happen on the next page, to essentially be able to recite these books.  There is good nature here, and well-aimed humor.  But oh, some nights, I would really rather be reading something else.

Love, Annie


  1. I can empathize Annie...having lived through years of the Mouse books with both children. But I do think those Mouse books make a terrific metaphor for life in the office (some co-workers are just so demanding....)

    My son Jack's second grade teacher used to emphasize to him the need for a "varied reading diet" meaning he should read many, many different kinds of books. Just as you wouldn't eat rich and indulgent food everyday, even though it's delish...sometimes you just want to eat a grilled cheese sandwich on plain white bread.

    Love your blog <3

  2. Isn't there a little grasshopper or cricket or mouse or something hidden on every page of the Little Critter books? I don't remember much of the text, but I do recall searching furiously for that teeny guy on each page...