Here’s the Thing

I was going to title this “What Was He Thinking?” Or “Was He Thinking?” But I’ll let my heroine Eloise speak for herself. I had intended to post a serious essay on the 2010 Medicare manual that came for someone who hasn’t lived in this house for more than 20 years. But just before dinner I read Bruce Handy’s “Where the Wild Things Weren’t”  in the NY Times Book Review of October 11. (Yeah, I’m behind, again.)

The bulk of the essay discusses why children don’t like Maurice Sendak’s book. The pullout says it all: “Sendak’s classic may be one of those books that are appreciated more in theory, or by adults, than by actual kids.” I disagree. Critics do this same faux analysis with children’s TV, and I don’t see what purpose it serves. (RIP, Soupy Sales). But I was going along with the program until I arrived at the penultimate paragraph in which he denigrated Alice in Wonderland “(too druggy, too much knotty wordplay; Alice herself is a drip)”; Winnie the Pooh (“too twee”), and Eloise. I went ballistic. In fact, Larry ducked because he thought I was going to throw something.

Here’s the screed in place of a missile aimed at the wall. I can forgive the Pooh snark, after all Handy doesn’t have to admit that literature for children has changed any in the past ninety years. Nevertheless Pooh kept me sane when I was small. I remember being terrified of the dark and of all sorts of other stuff. If I drifted off to sleep with Mother or Daddy reading to me about Christopher Robin and friends, I was safe. Twee, indeed.

And then there’s Eloise. Handy says: “girls love the idea of Eloise, but has anyone ever made it to the end of Kay Thompson’s long bossy, punishingly fabulous text?)” Yes, of course. And more than once. And with pretty much every book because after I read them for myself, I’d read them to my babysitting charges. We all loved them. Handy missed the point of Eloise entirely because he neglected the subtitle of the first volume. “A book for precocious grownups.”

Even at age six or whatever, I got it. Eloise was my hero. She was not pretty. She was somewhat overweight with hair that looked like she wouldn’t sit still long enough for anyone to make it “neat.” And she had great energy.

When I first discovered her, she had been on the scene for some years, but she will always be six and she will always live at the Plaza Hotel, except for side trips to Paris and Moscow. She has a nanny, but her parents lurk in the periphery. Her mother “sends for her.” But Eloise is self-sufficient, and her aim in life is to avoid boredom. And boy, does she. She slides down the banisters at the Plaza and keeps the help and the guests on edge. Most of Hilary Knight’s drawings capture frazzled bellhops and door men with dog Weenie in tow – or carrying pet turtle Skipperdee (as I recall he usually traveled via bird cage). My favorite episode: Eloise was in Paris, and Skipperdee became ill. (How did anyone know?) Anyway, Eloise shipped Skipperdee home by diplomatic pouch. Now that’s power.

Handy says the books are long and bossy. Of course they are. And I wanted more. How could Noel Coward, Bennett Cerf and his own magazine be so wrong? Maybe he’s just upset since Sendak himself described Eloise as a “brazen, loose-limbed little monster.” Amen, sister.

Advice to Mr. Bruce Handy: Don’t over analyze kid lit. Oh, and remember to put the first name of anyone you mention in your essay. It’s Spike Jonze, not “Jonze” on first reference. I hope Eloise dumps some water in your mailbox and torments your wimpy, unimaginative kid.

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