From Little Red Riding Hood to Maurice Sendak’s Pierre to William Steig’s Doctor De Soto, the risk of being eaten has long been one of the most persistent threats in stories for children—although it’s also a fate marked by astounding reversals. The lion regurgitates its prize or a woodcutter cuts a grandmother from the wolf’s belly, letting readers glimpse the darkness at the heart of the forest, yet escape knowing that all is not hopeless in the end. While being gobbled up isn’t precisely the biggest danger facing most kids these days, it represents something primal about living in a world that can chew you up and spit you out if you forget to pay attention.
This life lesson has, sadly, yet to be learned by unworldly Lenny the Lobster. When his fancy dinner party invitation arrives in the mail, he’s elated. Lured in by the prospect of an elegant party like the trusting fly into the spider’s parlor, his inability to read the room quickly leaves our hapless lobster at the mercy of a ravenous, lobster bib-wearing horde. Luckily, Lenny isn’t alone! He’s brought the reader with him to this ill-fated soirée (and a knowing narrator to nudge things along).
With the reader in the driver’s seat of Lenny’s decisions through a choose your own story format, the ruthless among us can keep him perched on the brink of destruction, determined to sabotage his own best interests and blithely oblivious to his fate. The more tenderhearted, on the other hand, can spare themselves the extended will he / won’t he tension and jump right to the escape plan. It’s a clever recipe for a deviously twisted lobster stew of a tale.
But Lenny shouldn’t feel too bad about falling into this (pretty obvious) trap. In truth, the annals of children’s literature are littered with foolish souls destined to slip down the gullets of whales and foxes and spiders. Personally I love the black humor and endless vegetable massacres of Matthieu Sylvander’s The Battle of the Vegetables, although sometimes it’s fun to watch adversaries who are more evenly matched, as in the frenzied power struggle in Taro Gomi’s The Crocodile and the Dentist. And of course, it’s not only the victims with stories to tell. From the subtle “who me?” insouciance of Jon Klassen’s vengeful hat-seeking bear to the sweet (toothless) malice of the baby crocodile in I’d Really Like to Eat a Child to the charming confessions of A. Wolf in The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, a wily predator can prove awfully hard to resist.
What’s the moral of all this, you ask? I don’t know. But if you ever find yourself in a children’s book, my advice is to keep your wits about you, don’t try on any pots or ovens for size, and watch for the gleam of sharp white teeth.
My desk display for February is “Friends Don’t Eat Friends” and the book that inspired it all was “I Just Ate My Friend” by Heidi McKinnion. It’s been a real conversation starter!