Let me just start by saying that as I’ve grown older, I’ve had an increasing number of issues with books that portray non-human animals as really craving, and in fact gorging on, human (junk) food. I think this obsession with our food being OMG so good even caterpillars/frogs/cows/pangolin/etc. want to eat it is part of our national eating disorder.
Whew, glad I got that out of my system because that means I’ll talk a little less about that aspect of A Crazy Day at the Critter Cafe by Barbara Odanaka and illustrated by Lee White (2009). The premise of this book is that the morning at the cafe was devoid of customers — so both the server and the chef are asleep (the chef is sleeping in the cheese souffle, which seems like it might be a health code violation, and possibly the reason they have no customers). The chef, of course, is portrayed as fat because that’s the cultural stereotype and this book does little to be creative.
The critters enter the cafe after their bus breaks down, and of course “act like animals.” Notice my use of quotation marks. This is what we’re supposed to get out of their rude behavior (the first thing the critters say is: “Hey there, waiter. We need some grub. Our bus broke down. We’re starving, Bub.”). What I get out of their rude behavior is that they’re acting like entitled humans, and this isn’t a message I’d be particularly thrilled to share with children. The critters, naturally, order all sorts of human food and then send back their food, after complaining it’s too hot/cold/icky/sticky/etc., and then proceed to terrorize the server and chef and throw food all over the restaurant.
When the animals finally leave, after being kicked out, the server and chef are (understandably) thrilled.
What’s the message then? Don’t be a terror or you’ll get kicked out? Or, conversely, if you create enough of an inconvenience (purposely not using terror this time) for others they’ll try to exert their authority to encourage you out of a space?
After the other critters are gone, the server and chef discover that under a pile of food that’s been flung to the floor lays a cow (who snores). When the cow wakes, she’s excited to join the staff of the restaurant — except the chef and server flee.
The cow doesn’t let this deter her — instead, she turns it into her very own cafe.
Oh gosh, the message in this story just got complicated because now it has a critter turning an abandoned (even temporarily) building into something new and this sounds, to me, either like Occupation (think US in Iraq) or like a squatter turning a place around, rather than just allowing it to sit. In many states, after a piece of property has been empty a long time (emphasis on long), a squatter who can show that they were on the property the entire time can usually “earn” that property — particularly if they’ve made “improvements.”
How would you talk to a child about these conflicting messages? — That’s a real question for you, Lovely Reader, because I don’t have the slightest clue how one might talk about these in a coherent way.
One thing Odanaka does really well in this book is create fun and inventive rhymes. She doesn’t rely heavily on those same rhyming words that so many children’s books use, and pulls in a slew of unusual animals (including the pangolin).
Would I recommend this book to the children in my life? I’m feeling pretty neutral on it. BUT, you can check out the author skateboarding in a cow suit! And, if you are reading this book with children, you can have them find the skateboarding cow in the book (yes, there’s a skateboarding cow).