Why I Effing Hate Little Critters (it’s for literary reasons)
This is basically a short rant concerning a part of parenting.
If you are a parent you can probably understand how it is easy to come to loath perfectly good children’s books. They can be wonderful, sweet, interesting, beautifully illustrated stories and after the 300th reading you want to burn the fucking things but it wouldn’t matter because you will know every word until the day you die. Green Eggs and Ham is the classic for this. My father swears that even after 30 years and several strokes he can still recite Elephant Goes to School. At present I can get through Zog in my sleep and about 95% of Slinky Malinki. I get a sinking feeling in my gut when my kid comes toddling over holding out these books because I’m not sure if I can get through them one more time without screaming. Parents understand this. In truth there is nothing wrong with Slinky Malinki and I rather like Zog which carries an important message about persistence, bucking gender roles, and carrying a first aid kit.
Then there are the Little Critter Books by Mercer Mayer.
I fucking hate these things. They make my teeth ache. At first I thought it was just the usual response to multiple reading but then I realized that I hadn’t actually read them all that many times. It took me a while to work it out but recently I realized that what gets me is that the voice is all wrong and the narrator is unreliable but not in an interesting way.
If you’re not familiar with these they are a set of picture books about a family of… things. They’re anthropomorphic and live in a recognizable modernish world with animals as people. The family is a group of not anything specific furry things. If you stuck a skinny bear on its hind legs and make it into a rodent of some sort you might get close.
The family is a mom (who is always dressed in a late Victorian style), dad, little boy about 7ish who is the narrator, little sister, and baby brother.
The books are written, like many children’s books, in first person past tense. I’m guessing it’s supposed to read as though it was written by a little kid but it’s just wrong. There is a snotty passive aggressive tone and little lies that contradict the illustrations. I’ve worked with kids and spent time as a substitute elementary school teacher. Yes children are aggressive, and lie but at seven they are blunt and if you ask them to write a story about what they did with their mom on the weekend you get things like-
“Mommy and me went to the park. I pushed my brother because he was mean. Mommy yelled a lot. Daddy stayed at home with Mike his special friend and they have a thing that looks like the thing mommy puts flowers in but daddy never puts flowers in it.”
And you better believe these gems get passed around staff rooms.
Little Critters read like Mommy was standing over the kid’s shoulder saying “Just write that you played with your brother, and I didn’t yell”. Mike never gets a mention. But then the kid gets to school and is asked to draw illustrations and there is mommy yelling and daddy with his special friend.
I’ve tried to sell picture books and never managed it, and I get that it’s hard to write a story that will appeal to kids that parents will actually buy, and they are arguably cute stories but on a literary level the things just drive me nuts.
It’s like the difference between the teenaged dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer verses Juno. Teenagers never actually spoke like the Scobby Gang but there was just enough slang and reference that you could believe that teenagers somewhere actually did speak like that. Juno on the other hand has dialogue that seems to be nothing but slang to the point of alienation from the audience. I get about five minutes in before I want to yell at the television ‘we get it she’s cool but weird move on’. And while we’re there what kind of parents let their kid drive around in a very unsafe serial killer van? Probably the same kind who don’t explain condoms.
Back to Little Critters.
Kids don’t talk like that. Kids don’t write like that. I can’t buy that some hyper-intelligent furry bear rodent thing talks or writes like that. I recently finished The Rum Diary and was talking with a friend about The Hobbit. In both cases Paul Kemp and Bilbo Baggins were writing from a distance and probably trying to cover their own sins to a certain extent giving them the position of the unreliable narrator. This is a fine literary choice when you’re writing from the point of view of an adult for adults, or at least older children.
When you’re going for the POV of a child for a child it just doesn’t work. I was honestly surprised to learn that Mercer Mayer has his own children because the books read like someone who has never met a child tried to imagine how a child might write.
(Insert scholarly paper/self-righteous blog post/angry tumblr rant about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to write what/gaze/representation/assimilation/post-colonialisum/fitishiztion/cultural appropriation/isums/phobias)
Anyway I could be completely wrong. The bloody books have sold about a billion copies and I’ve got 60 rejections for my story about a Martian child making friends with a human child.
Or it could be an example of first person story telling done wrong that only bugs a handful of people and not enough of them to hurt sales numbers.
Whatever it is I’ll end this post here. I’ve got a shit-ton of laundry that needs to be folded and some books I need to hide before I’m forced to read them again.