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.