If you hope your kid grows up to be like the wine-drunk mom from Arrested Development, I can suggest no finer children’s book than Eloise, an outdated ode to self-indulgence, materialism, entitlement, and narcissism. Though Eloise is not the worst children’s book of all time (that would be “Dick, Dick What Did You Lick?”), cultist devotion to this 1955 “classic” — resulting in a 124% increase in girls given that name in 2016 alone and Lena Dunham’s worst tattoo — makes zero sense. When did we all decide this book was okay much less actually good?
For the contemporary parent, reading Eloise is like being submerged into some kind nightmare Sex and the City Carrie Bradshaw origin story penned by Neil Gaiman and shot by a painfully drunk Wes Anderson. (If that elevator pitch sounds appealing to you, great. Let’s never hang out.) I already hear the smarty-pants defenders of Eloise claiming that it’s a satire and a critique of spoiled bourgeoisie brats. Unfortunately, saying Eloise is satire is a little like saying Back to the Future is a movie about renewable energy. Sure, there’s some satire in there and some garbage powering the Deleoren, but that’s not the point. The point is that Eloise is an awful kid and Michael J. Fox has purple underwear.
For 64 pages (64!) a spoiled rich girl named Eloise narrates an average day at her home, in the Plaza Hotel. The prose is aimless and predictable (“I have two dolls which is enough”) and lacks any kind of rhythm to make you care. Check out this charming passage from pages 34 and 35:
“Here’s what I can do. Chew gum. Write. Stand on my head for the longest amount of time. Stand on my toes. Get dizzy and fall down. Make a terrible face. And here’s the thing of it. Most of the time I’m on the telephone.”
Riveted yet? Can’t wait to see what Eloise does next? Yeah, me neither. Not only is she bratty. She’s dull, too!
If there’s something Eloise isn’t supposed to be doing — pressing a bunch of buttons on the elevator, mutilating her dolls, inhaling second-hand smoke — she does it. There are no consequences and no storyline. Eloise’s misdeeds are performed with great zeal and zero consideration. She’s like if Curious George was just being a prick for the hell of it. And perhaps that’s not going far enough. If Eloise is the little-kid version of The Hangover, why isn’t it funny?
The virtue of the book, at least as it is read in 2020, seems to be that it’s quirky in the same socially acceptable and uninteresting way that, say, Zoey Deschanel is quirky. The actual philosophies espoused by Eloise — “Every night I call room service” or “I absolutely dislike school” or “Sometimes I have a temper fit” — are somehow both mainstream and horrifying. Nothing cute to see here.
Did I mention Eloise is long? It’s really fucking long. Also exhausting. Don’t believe me? Check out page 26 where we’re supposed to sing a song with Eloise and her Nanny that is actually just a weird thing about how Eloise’s Nanny is British. There’s shit about Buckingham Palace, and the Royal Navy and everything being “ZUP.” It’s kind of like if the children in Mary Poppins lived with the weird old guy with the canon then turned to face the reader and started shouting “We’re charming, right? RIGHT!?”The book is so sure you think this thing about the Nanny being British is fun that actual musical notes are included so you can sing the insipid song about the Royal Navy and Zup in the “correct” key. I’m sorry, but if this is all a clever joke, what’s with the sheet music?
Eloise’s parents are nowhere in sight. But unlike Oliver Twist or Lemony Snicket’s Baudelaires, Eloise is an orphan in spirit. Her mom is alive, she’s just absentee, materialistic and cruel (cool chauvinist cliche). And not only that, but Eloise’s mom’s boyfriends buy Eloises’s loyalty with gifts. So the child is taught this same abhorrent value system? Cool. Unsubscribe.
Let’s be clear, I’m all for a children’s book that lacks a moral or a lesson, but Eloise isn’t that book. It has lessons. They’re just shitty lessons. The book argues that privilege is funny because you can whack adults with it. I’ll grant the premise, but that’s not what I want to teach my daughter.
My theory is that this awful book has built such a following because the illustrations from Hillary Knight are remarkable. But the illustration is almost immoral in that it glosses the actual plot of the book. Remember when I talked about pages 34 and 35? The reason the book gets away with that shit is that Eloise is dancing “cutely” underneath all those banalities. Hillary Knight is bending over backward to try and make this boring rant of a book into something people can fool themselves into thinking is a real piece of art. The illustrations in Eloise are basically like a ton of triple sec, poured on top of a rubbing alcohol margarita. They make the thing go down a lot easier, but there’s a queasy feeling after.
The architect of this disaster — author Kay Thompson — tries to let herself off the hook by having the title page read: “A book for precocious grown-ups.” But precocious is not the same as obnoxious. Being a self-indulgent person doesn’t make you interesting — usually, it goes the other way. The problem with Eloise is less that she’s bad to the core and more that she’s so bored and undisciplined that negligence transmutes into bad behavior. Independent children in books — even bad children in books — should challenge the status quo, and make our own children want to change it. The book wants us to think Eloise’s tantrums and contrarian nature make her punk rock. In fact, she’s in love with both the status quo and her own status.
Kids being brats is one thing. Kids brainwashing everyone into being assholes for generations is something else. The “joke” of Eloise may have seemed funny during the time when baby boomers were being born. But, these days, on some level, spoiled people like Eloise are running the world. And when you realize that, you’ll want to check out of the Plaza Hotel faster than you can say “Skipperdee.”