I’ve read a lot of children’s books over the year. Some of them are very good, and I add them to the mental list of books I keep of titles I would like to read to my own future kids/nieces and nephews/next-door-neighbours/random children down at the library. At the top of this list comes things like ‘New Tricks that I Can Do’, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ (which I’ve read and recited so many times now I don’t actually need the book anymore) and ‘The Gruffalo’ (whose characters, in my mind now, all have distinct voices, personalities and back stories). However, there are also a lot of books out there which were clearly fished out of the bargain bucket at the local cut-price supermarket as stocking fillers or when you’re about to arrive at the house of a 2 year old on their birthday and you’ve forgotten to get a present. In this last category, I include books where even I can’t understand the plot, let alone my 3 year old charge; books which are written in verse, but the author is so bad at poetry you have to re-read every second line three times over because all the emphases are in the wrong places and the grammar is so poor; and books which are meant to be about familiar characters (‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’) but are clearly cheap rip-offs as the drawings are so bad that the little one you’re reading to is constantly pointing at the yellow bear character and asking, ‘Who’s that?’ when they specifically asked for a book about Winnie-the-Pooh in the first place.
This evening, I came across another category, which is ‘books-with-strange-underlying-messages-that-the-authors-possibly-didnt-intend.’ The book in question is called ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’. It has a picture of a happy little mouse on the front cover, holding a choc-chip cookie and looking delighted with himself. I saw this picture and thought, ‘Ah, yes. Delightful. Cute animals and cookies. Just what I feel like reading.’ I imagined that the book was about how, if you gave a mouse a cookie, he would give you a hug (as the mouse on the cover seemed to be wanting to do). And, then, if, perhaps, you gave a horse a sugar cube, he’d do a jig. And, if you gave a polar bear a blanket, he’d, I don’t know, catch you a rainbow, or something else ridiculously cute and saccharine. You know, a story in that slightly whimsical, slightly absurdly sweet vein, where all things in the world are good and kind, where polar bears don’t tear you to shreds and eat your innards because of over-fishing and the disappearance of their natural habitat, a book which basically hints to kids that, if you’re a nice person, and you do things for other people, you will get good things in return and nothing bad will ever happen to you, tra-la-la-la-la.
But, I was mistaken.
If I were slightly more paranoid than I actually am, if I were more serious about life and social equality and the evils of Big Business and all the rest, if, I were, in short, Naomi Klein, I could quite easily claim that this book was clearly written by and for members of the conservative right-wing. Members of the privileged elite, the 1%, the Rupert Murdochs of this world. I’m not even joking.
So, the basic storyline goes, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk to go with it. Then he’ll want a straw, then he’ll want to check a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk moustache, then he’ll want to trim his hair, then he’ll want a variety of other things, including a broom to clean up your house with, a piece of paper to do you a drawing with, and eventually, of course (and here’s the joke), he’ll wind up asking you for another cookie.
Essentially, the underlying message of this book is, don’t ever give anything to anyone, because if you do, they’re just going to ask for more. This book is actually a critique of social democracy and the so-called ‘hand-out’ of social welfare. I mean, the author doesn’t even comment on the fact that, actually, the mouse wanting to sweep your house is an extremely kind thing to do, nor does she mention that the painting the mouse creates is really quite beautiful and remarkable. No, no, its just all a really big pain in the ass for the kid who only wanted to give the mouse a cookie, and then have him go on his way.
But, really, is it the mouse’s fault? I mean, the kid makes a seemingly friendly gesture, the mouse takes it at face-value, thinks they’re friends, and wants to pay the boy back by cleaning his house, painting him a masterpiece. OF COURSE, the mouse then needs to take some time out for a nap, because he’s just painted the mouse equivalent of the Mona Lisa and the spoiled kid, who probably has no real friends and spends all his time indoors eating Doritos, and was actually giving the mouse the cookie only because he didn’t like it himself is all like, ‘Oh, Jeez, this is taking up all my afternoon, when all I wanted to do was play my Nintendo Playstation, and now I have to go and get the broom out of the closet for this annoying, clean-freak mouse.’
Actually, now that I’m thinking SERIOUSLY about it, the mouse cleaning the house is essentially like the work for the dole program, and the masterpiece? Is that meant to be some sort of comment on artists who sit around and get hand outs and don’t contribute anything to the real economy? I THINK IT MIGHT BE. And the kid is all, ‘Well, that’s great, Mouse, but I gave you a cookie, could you not have, I don’t know, created a business out of that? Maybe you should have analysed the ingredients of that cookie, like they do in Masterchief, and then made your own cookie proto-type, designed a fancy advertising and marketing plan and sold it on to all the other mice, instead of sitting around here in my house all day, decorating the walls with crappy self-portraits, because if you had done that, you’d definitely be a mouse millionaire by now, someone who could easily run their own mouse version of The Apprentice, if they wanted, and then you know, you really would have made it.’
It was the last book I read to Little Man tonight, and I ended up finishing it completely, even though he fell asleep half-way through, because I kept thinking there must be some twist at the end. That, eventually the complaining kid would get his comeuppance, or that eventually they would show the good side of giving a mouse a cookie (he won’t make a nest in your chest of drawers? He’ll leave your bread box alone? He’ll paint you a portrait of himself and his family that you could probably sell for millions of dollars, because, hey, it was a freakin’ mouse that painted it??). But, there was none. The mouse just ends up wanting another cookie. Because mice are selfish that way.
Putting on my, ‘I have a BA with a minor in English from the University of Sydney’ hat (and, lets face it, I don’t really find many other uses for that hat in my day-to-day life, so I should make the most of it when I can), I would suggest that the cyclical structure of the story suggests to the reader that the little boy is now trapped, Sisyphus-like, into a cycle of giving, from which he will only be able to escape when he has either given everything he owns to the mouse, or has died of exhaustion.
By the time I had reached the end of the book, I was truly confused and worried, feeling like, at its absolute worst, and if I wanted to push the message to its ultimate ending, the book could almost be a warning to children about the dangers of accepting refugees into one’s country, or homeless people into one’s neighbourhood. That they were essentially laying the groundwork for ‘policies’ like Malaysia and Nauru. I decided to laugh it off, tell myself I was just grumpy because I hadn’t had dinner yet and it was colouring how I was reading this book, BUT THEN, I turned to the front cover and the description of the story reads, ‘If a hungry little traveller shows up at your house, you might want to give him a cookie.’
See? SEE? ITS SO NOT ABOUT MICE AND COOKIES.
Its TOTALLY right-wing paranoid propaganda.
I mean, it doesn’t even MENTION mice!!
So, then I went and checked the author’s Wikipedia page (she’s extended the series, showing that you can also be pestered by an overly-demanding moose if you offer him a muffin or a high-maintenance pig if you give him a pancake), trying to find some redeemable features to put up here, and just as I was scanning through, thinking, alright, this is a silly post, I should stop writing it in case I insult a fairly decent human being who I don’t know at all, but just as I was coming to the bottom of the page, just as I was about to dismiss all my fears and paranoia, there it was.
The author was invited to an event honouring American writers by none other than LAURA BUSH.
So, I don’t know what you did with your evening, but I totally uncovered a deep and systematic right-wing conspiracy in children’s literature.
One day, everyone is going to thank me.