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Book Digest: December 4, 2006

Children's book battle: When your daughter only wants My Little Pony: The Novella, is it wrong to steer her hand towards more charming selections?

Last month I was in New York for a week and among the many small humiliations I endured—my husband and I were auditioning our family for preschool—was this one: I had to ask a clerk in a very famous children’s bookstore if they carried any of the My Little Pony books. I did this because my daughter, who is three, likes them, and as the week was hard on her, too, I thought she needed a treat. My daughter knows I’m not particularly good at locating things in stores and so she expects me to ask for help. In fact, she orders me to if the item we are looking for happens to be for her. I found a friendly-looking clerk, the most Meg-Ryany of the ones on the floor that day (we were in the bookstore used as a model for Ryan’s shop in You’ve Got Mail). But still, her answer, “We do not,” implied everything she meant it to. Then the clerk with the cute short haircut looked at my daughter as if she had a fresh young mind I was trying to fill with garbage, and so I did what any parent would have done. I said it was my daughter’s idea.

Later I told the story to a friend and he took the admirable position that the clerk had been an elitist snob. A book is a book, he declared indignantly, and how I wish I could have agreed! The problem is, the My Little Pony books really aren’t books. They’re marketing confections, perfectly designed and executed to appeal to the three-year-old girl who likes—and these things appear to be largely universal—pink, horses, and cats, in that order. Put bright pink and baby horses together and you have something irresistible, the book equivalent of Banilla yogurt. As if to prove the point, they’re frequently displayed in “spinners,” metal racks more suitable for the sale of spices or stickers than literature.

But here’s the real crime, here’s what makes me mad: For all their slick promotion the My Little Pony books rely on a familiar formula—the codification of friends. Children love stories with multiple characters whose names and personality traits can be sorted and memorized. (I guess we never grow out of it. How else to explain the longevity of Ross, Rachel, and Chandler? ) The Little Ponies have names, all right (Pinkie Pie, Cotton Candy, Bumblesweet), but personality has been replaced by color (it’s not confusing: pink, pink and blue, honey yellow).

Put bright pink and baby horses together and you have something irresistible, the book equivalent of Banilla yogurt.I do not exaggerate. Pinkie Pie is pink, she knows she’s pink, she likes that she’s pink. That’s it. All her friends are the same. My Little Pony doesn’t just rely on the formula, it is the formula and nothing else.

Now compare this multi-hued disaster to the characters in a set of books originally published in the 1940s, now beautifully reissued by The New York Review of Books imprint: Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill. The eponymous heroine, a black cat named Jenny Linsky, and her feline friends have parties and adventures, learn to cooperate and be brave, just like all good children’s book characters, but they live in a real place, Greenwich Village, and the cast is quirky. You’ve got Jenny, who always wears a red scarf made for her by her owner, an ex-sea captain who knits; Florio, who lives in a nice apartment building and often wears a feather (I swear he’s meant to be gay); Pickles, who works for a hook and ladder; Madame Butterfly, who plays a nose flute; and Concertina, who scratches the minutes of the club’s meetings into a tree branch in the garden where they meet. There are two fighters, Sinbad and the Duke, who know their way around the docks; the twins, Romulus and Remus; the sweethearts, Arabella and Antonio; and Solomon, a wise cat who always sits on a stack of books.

Now I ask you, is it fair that a collection of eight My Little Pony stories has an Amazon ranking around 9,000, while Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club hovers around 26,000?

I am glad to say that my daughter loves Jenny Linsky. I wouldn’t necessarily want to ask her if she’d choose her over Pinkie Pie if she could take only one book to a desert island (the question would scare her anyway; she’d worry about sharks), but it does seem a good sign that for Halloween she wanted her favorite stuffed animal to dress up as Jenny. A neighbor made a red scarf out of felt and we tied it around the animal’s neck. When people asked her why she was carrying a be-scarfed leopard under her arm, she held her up and cried, “Jenny Linsky!”

But no one knew what she was talking about.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane

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