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Lit Crit: Mouse Cookies and the Uninvited Animal Visitor

Lit Crit: Mouse Cookies and the Uninvited Animal Visitor

The conspicuous absence of parents in much of children’s literature is a point of curiosity, and for many it is a point of alarm. Most people see this absence as a relatively healthy way of fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity in the child, independent of parental urgings or direction. Some critics, and parents alike, have pointed out how, with particular children’s books, the omitted parent is coupled with a message of proposed duplicity and deviousness that could, as parents like to say, end in tears.

Case in point, the beloved Dr. Seuss classic, The Cat in the Hat. While most reasonable people would argue that this is a timeless fantasy of how to turn the limitations of a rainy day into a fantastical flight of the imagination, a few parents have protested some of the more subversive aspects of the story. In this particular story, the parents (or the mother who has stepped away to go shopping) have abandoned their two children, leaving them wide open for home invasion from strangers with unknowable intentions (in this case it is a cat in a hat), encouraging and reinforcing messages like, it is ok to keep things from your parents and that “fun things” always happen once parents have left the building. Some of the more vocal opponents of this story have even gone to lengths linking some of the actions of the cat in the story to be not just subversive, but borderline pedophilic (and still there are more extreme, and hilarious, interpretations of this classic).

The parentless-child cavorting with animals of questionable intentions seems to be a theme that runs in more than a few titles, and is ever-present in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. While seemingly more benign and less susceptible to the sort of criticism lobbed at The Cat in the Hat, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (along with the many follow up titles in the series about the repercussions of being charitable to animals) is essentially about how giving into one desire will necessitate that you give into all the subsequent desires of your animal guests. As the title states, the book starts out simply enough with what happens when the protagonist boy offers a cookie to a mouse, which leads to the mouse asking for milk, and then a napkin, and then so on and so forth, until his whole endless list of wants, whims and desires leads him back to his original quest–a cookie. Some of us that are more enlightened would see this as the never-ending cycle of unyielding desire.

The remarkable thing about this particular book, at least from a parental perspective, is how the relationship between the mouse and his amiable host (in this case the nameless boy) deftly mirrors the dynamic between an accommodating parent and a ceaselessly demanding child. Throughout the book, the boy is not only providing for the mouse’s every whim and wish, but also frantically cleaning up after the mouse and offering comfort when needed. It almost reads like just desserts for the needy child. It is difficult to say if this is an attempt to generate a little sympathy for overworked and overtaxed parents, or just simply having a bit of fun with the concept of waiting on the limitless desires of another.

Not that this is a review, but all in all If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is simple and benign pleasure for children, and ostensibly without any hidden agendas or nefarious intentions.

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

16 comments

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10:27AM PDT on Jun 19, 2009

thankyou...
Kabin
Konteyner
mega kabin

11:46AM PDT on May 27, 2009

Why so angry Roger Engelk? Afterall, we're just talking about kids books here.

I personally appreciate this thoughtful discussion of the topic.

2:07PM PDT on May 25, 2009

It's pretty funny that on the very page I am adding this comment, there is an ad for preventing forest fires, with a pcture of Bambi and his DAD. Ever notice how many movies for kids, especially Disney movies, have a main character with no MOM? Or the MOM dies? Or the MOM is evil? As a MOM, THIS disturbs ME! THAT kind of thing, I assure you, kids notice.

6:08PM PDT on May 23, 2009

As a former kid, let me assure you that children do not worry themselves with hidden messages and possible social implications. A story is a story. Adult paranoia must never be allowed to damage make-believe.

8:22AM PDT on May 20, 2009

I think this is nonsense......adults reading into the stories their own somewhat questionable thoughts. By taking those books away you force the children to think in the same warped way...that is where the problems will start....reading into everything more than it means.Better take away the Bible,too. It is full of rape,murder,sex,etc.and then people try to justify it all. Leave children their imagination,creativity,and their love for life. Stop analysing every little thing.

2:07AM PDT on May 20, 2009

following on from my last comment, I just got Eastman's Are You My Mother? out of the library for my 3 year old daughter. I loved the story as a kid, but was horrified reading it to her last night. It scared me. But she loved it and asked some very good questions. So it will stay on our reading list too. As do the Grimm fairy tales, Dr. Seuss and soon more of the 'questionable' books too. The books are old, classic and have stood the test of time. If they have been acceptable for so long before, why shouldn't they be acceptable now?
I'm enjoying reading all your other comments!

5:18PM PDT on May 18, 2009

My grandfather sang us silly songs and old-fashioned limericks. Aesop's fables were some of my favorites when I was little. And then there were Grimm's fairytales: full of violence and death and evil and pain. (My goodness, the poor little match girl freezes to death!). The limericks were full of sexual innuendo, and Aesop's fables would villify some animals as jealous or greedy and grasping (remember the fox and the grapes?). Oh, and the horror, the horror: all those moral messages winking at me as I read! And, those dreadful nursery rhymes--anorexic Jack Spratt and his obese wife. Then there were 'game' songs like "Ring around the Rosie, a pocket full of posies... ashes, ashes we all fall down," which actually was a chant from Europe's Black Plague. Young children read to escape, to laugh, to play, to make sense of their worlds. Just as one child can pick up a big stick in the front-yard to pretend it's a gun for shooting, another can stick it into the top of a "snow castle" and pretend the stick is a glorious orange flag which will invite all his friends to build snowmen in the surrounding moat.
I'm not suggesting parents shouldn't provide structure or discuss things with their kids, but just as free-form play can lead to creativity and inventiveness, so, too, do kids' books like The Cat in the Hat(and other 'subversive' lit) foster a sense of humour, a love for words, and the ability to perceive and process ideas, thus helping to form each child's unique personality.

1:19PM PDT on May 18, 2009

kids get enough of parents in real life. let us read about a world without. they ruin all the fun anyway.
for example, if any of the main characters in nickelodeon's iCarly had a parent in the way all the time, other than freddy of course, there would be no fun to be had. Lucky Carly for having parents who leave the country and leave her with her eccentric brother. Though it wouldn't happen in real life, its great for tv. its also fine for childrens literature. i can say that ive never thought of the cat in the hat on any strange terms, definitely none close to that of joshua in that essay thing.

12:15PM PDT on May 18, 2009

These persons who have nothing better to do then criticize a classic children's book like The Cat and the Hat and others need to get a life! It's amazing how they can "read into" something and twist and distort the basic message of the story into whatever "floats their boat" for the day. Children at such a young age would never come to their warped conclusions and the hidden meanings of those who over physco-analyze anything and everything. It is just these types we don't need in our society today who go out of their way to try to spoil any small amount of fun that a child might get while growing up simply by MIS-INTERPRETING a classic children's book that has been around for years. You people need to get a life and let it be!

10:44AM PDT on May 18, 2009

I appreciate the article because it points out the stupidity of an entire section of our society.

All Dr. Seuss books are Morality Plays. Children learn lessons from them. The article talks about the "fanciful" nature of the stories but misses the point; luckily, children don't. Morality Plays have been a stable for our society in general and religious cultures in particular for centuries. Sometimes for thousands of years.

Christianity has used Morality Plays to teach right from wrong in very blatant ways. Most musicals are Morality Plays. Aesop's Fables. Stories from Chelm; the entire Judaic customs and ceremonies history. Buddhism and Islam are rife with Morality Plays.

Many of the great authors of the past provided us with Morality Plays. Oscar Wilde particularly comes to mind.

Anyone who comes from any of these cultures and makes negative comments about our current Morality Plays has some serious problems. Children are more willing to learn from their peers than their elders; never trust anyone over 30!!

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