Thanks in part to our culture-wide embrace of instant communication, as well as the seemingly non-stop parade of narcissistic, depraved, and loutish public figures pushed on us by the media, the public realm has never seemed less civil. Thus, it has become imperative for young people to find healthy, balanced guidance at home. Two new picture books strive to help parents convince kids that manners still matter.
Mélanie Watt’s You’re Finally Here! takes a gleeful, engaging approach to the issue. The book’s titular “you” is actually the reader, who is greeted by a loveably cute (though extremely needy) bunny who has been impatiently awaiting the reader’s arrival. This may sound concept-heavy, but Watt pulls it off spectacularly. At first the bunny – looking like a kooky cousin to Watt’s ever-popular Scaredy Squirrel – rejoices at the reader’s arrival, dancing and exclaiming, “Hooray! You’re here! You’re finally here!” But its impatience soon shows through as it demands to know where the reader has been. The relationship devolves as the bunny points out how irritating it is to be kept waiting and how rude the reader is. It tries to force the reader to sign a contract to stay “forever and ever,” only to receive that arch-enemy of civility, a cellphone call, and proceed to ignore the reader until the final page.
Watt touches on all manner of manners issues here: the rudeness of pointing out rudeness, of being late, of being selfish, of being aloof and inconsiderate. She strikes a balance between the allure of the bunny’s hyper-enthusiastic joy at receiving the reader’s attention, and the offensiveness of its egocentric – if not psychotic – neediness. We want to be friends with this cute creature, but probably not on its terms. The ironic smack in the face when the bunny drops us for a phone call is both hilarious and instructive: selfishness is no basis for true friendship, after all.
Phone calls and friendly greetings are one thing, but nowhere are manners more important than at the table. If one hopes to engage with society, one had better understand the dos and don’ts of dinner etiquette. Monster Manners, written by Hazel Hutchins and illustrated by Sampar (a.k.a. Samuel Parent), sees a child visiting an ogreish monster’s house for dinner, and outlines the pitfalls of impolite behaviour in such environs.
Monster Manners is nowhere near as nasty as, say, Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter in its meting out of punishments, but still, how useful is it to tell a young child that a napkin might be used by bugs to strangle him if tied around the neck rather than laid in the lap, or that vines will emerge and grab you if you rest your elbows on the table? This old-fashioned technique of frightening children into behaving well should probably be retired. Creatures who visit suffering upon ill-behaved children do little more than foster nightmares and resentment.
Meanwhile, some of the instructions here are simply confusing and vague. For example, as the child eats corn on the cob with his hands – perfectly acceptable in most circles – he is told to use his fork and knife “or they might find something else to do.” That nebulous “something” manifests as either a dance or fight (it’s not clear which from the illustration) between the utensils, which hardly appears a cause for concern.
With illustrations that feel markedly dated – imagine a kind of manga Flintstones – Monster Manners is a double slap in the face, being both unimaginative and unhelpful.