October 05, 2023


Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Sleigh! By Mo Willems. Union Square Kids. $18.99.

Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred. By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Anne Schwartz Books. $18.99.

     The huge-eyed-and-weird-eyed pigeon created by Mo Willems has been around for 20 years now, ever since Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! But it feels as if he has been around forever: he just seems to fit so well into the notion of a tantrum-prone 21st-century child who demands things that he really can’t and shouldn’t have and that really make no sense for him to want. But what does sense have to do with it? Willems’ demanding pigeon has proven adaptable to all sorts of problems, complaints and frustrations: school, a bath, a puppy, a cookie, a roller coaster, staying up late, and more. And now, in anticipation of a certain winter ho-ho-holiday, he is back to his original preoccupation with driving in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Sleigh! Like the bus driver in the original Pigeon book, Santa appears at the start of this one, explaining that he has to go wrap some gifts and leave his sleigh unattended – and it is not to be pigeon-driven. Of course, as soon as Santa walks off the page, the Pigeon appears, wearing a jaunty red-and-green tasseled hat and wishing readers “festive feathers & peaceful plumage” – then asking to drive the sleigh in the name of “holiday spirit” and “a Christmas miracle.” Getting nowhere with these and other seasonally seasoned appeals, the Pigeon descends glumly into “Bah. Also humbug.” And he sets about showing how well he can “do Santa stuff” such as eating cookies, delivering presents and being jolly. To prove how easy sleigh-driving is, he storms off to show readers the simplicity of it all – only to realize that he cannot find the clutch “or the steer-y thing” anywhere. “And phew! what is that smell?” he wonders. He soon finds out what propulsion method Santa uses – the two wordless pages of his realization are hilariously drawn – and away from the sleigh he races, even dropping his seasonal hat. Having quieted down, he then, like any resilient toddler, says he has “better things to do than drive some sleigh.” So he shifts his holiday focus – offering a basket of brightly colored eggs and, on the inside back cover and facing page, imagining himself hopping happily along wearing bunny ears and scattering the eggs everywhere. The Pigeon is so much fun because he is so over-the-top and also so relatable: he features an adorableness factor mixed with an amusement factor, all combined with a total lack of self-awareness that makes his inevitable frustration silly and funny and in no way mean-spirited. That is why he fits into the Christmas season, or the Easter season, or the school-bus season, with equal felicity.

     The Pigeon has not been around long enough to qualify as a fairy-tale character, but that may be just as well, since his personal characteristics are firmly established and not likely to be subject to societal whims. The situation is very different with a character such as Cinderella, who has been a part of tale-telling since at least the sixth century B.C. Back then, there was a story of a courtesan named Rhodopis whose shoe was stolen by an eagle and dropped into the lap of an Egyptian king – who took it as a sign from the gods, tracked down its owner and married her. Some 1,500 years later, a Chinese fairy tale from the ninth century A.D. has a young girl named Ye Xian granted wishes by magical fishbones: the fish is a guardian spirit sent by her dead mother. Ye Xian endures the cruelty of her stepmother and spoiled, lazy sister – and when they go to a festival, she wishes for and receives a beautiful gown and tiny golden slippers, one of which she loses before returning home. The shoe ends up with a king who eventually tracks down and marries Ye Xian. The pattern is already established. Indeed, Cinderella appears in literally hundreds of guises in many cultures, including a grim Grimm version called Aschenputtel that uses golden slippers like Ye Xian’s and includes scenes in which the wicked sisters cut off parts of their feet and birds peck their eyes out. Milder and better-known is the Charles Perrault version from 1634, which includes glass slippers, a transformed pumpkin, and a fairy godmother. What virtually all the Cinderella versions have in common is the notion of overcoming hardship and an unloving family, and marrying into a better social class. Deborah Hopkinson and Paul O. Zelinsky will, however, have none of this. The title of Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred, and Zelinsky’s amusing cover art, imply a big role for the mouse, who on the cover is about to be transformed as the fairy godmother waves her wand while Cinderella throws up her hands in joy and smiles a big happy smile. In fact, it looks as if Cinderella is going to develop a very close relationship with Fred – who, after all, shares the book’s title equally with her. But this is also not what Hopkinson and Zelinsky are after. What they want – and this is not revealed until the very end of the book – is an LGBTQ+ version, for children, of the Cinderella story.

     This is decidedly strange. Hopkinson creates memorable-for-kids interpretations of the fairy godmother (who is decidedly cranky) and Fred the mouse (whose transformation into a horse, to pull the coach that is changed from a pumpkin, is one of Zelinsky’s most-amusing illustrations). Throughout most of the book, the story follows the Perrault version with amusing female-empowered twists, including Ella’s enjoyment of gardening (but the prince hates dirt) and her strong dislike of the uncomfortable glass slippers (the second of which she deliberately breaks after leaving the first behind at the palace). Ella hides as the prince and royal courtiers seek the slipper’s owner, and they pass out of the story. The smashed pumpkin (the one formerly morphed to a coach) produces seeds that Ella eventually uses to grow a prize-winning pumpkin – and then, without warning or buildup of any kind, in the last couple of pages of the book, Ella falls in love with the young woman farmer with whom she competed in the pumpkin contest, and they “got married and moved to a small farm,” so it “was a fairy-tale ending after all.” It is also, unfortunately for families that may not want very young children reading books extolling gay marriage, a rather dishonest way to introduce the topic. Nothing in the earlier part of the book indicates that Cinderella has any interest in marrying another woman: she quite willingly goes to the palace ball, after all. And although Fred remains in the book at the end – he lives on the women’s farm – he slides into insignificance as the real point of the book, the assertion of female-female marriage as “a fairy-tale ending,” is pulled to the forefront.

     The whole approach would have worked if Hopkinson, a prolific author who knows how to create believable plots, had hinted anywhere in the book about its eventual outcome. “Cinderella wasn’t sure she even wanted to go to the tacky palace, much less dance with the arrogant prince or any of the other stuck-up men there,” or something like that, would have helped. But by springing the female-female marriage on readers at the book’s very end, Hopkinson invites disappointment (and possibly anger) from the far, far more common families that are not led by gay couples. In the U.S., 0.6% of adults are married to same-sex spouses (Gallup poll using data from 2020 surveys), and that includes male-male as well as female-female marriages. So the potential audience for Cinderella and a Mouse Named Fred would likely be a very, very small one if its plot twist were revealed or even hinted at early in the story. It might well be a teachable-moment book for families of any sort in which the adult or adults would want to use the conclusion to make a societal point. But that would not likely expand the book’s potential audience very much unless, again, Hopkinson were to have hinted in some way about the direction the story would eventually take. Cinderella and a Mouse Named Fred turns out not to have the focus its title suggests; nor does it take up the themes of innumerable prior Cinderella tales and give them a 21st-century twist. Or rather, it does give the story a contemporary twist, but in a way that constitutes virtue signaling more than anything else, and that comes across as if the book is designed to make families uncomfortable unless they are part of a specific limited demographic – or are strong advocates for a particular point of view on society, marriage, and happily-ever-after. The small audience that will applaud the unexpected, unprepared-for twist ending and its underlying advocacy will deem this a (++++) book; the much larger one that will consider itself misled and preached to will give it a (++) rating at best, and then solely for the amusing elements and illustrations that precede the ill-considered leap to the conclusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment