If you don’t have something nice to say, chances are that someone else will probably need to say it for you. There is dignity, but also an equal measure of self-preservation, to be gained from not pointing fingers or otherwise making a spectacle of ourselves, still what if the object of all our restraint should meanwhile be permitted to evolve from an insignificant little trifle to an abominable scourge? What then? Is it too late to sound like we mean it?
Every season there are countless insipid books that probably do not rate criticism, because we know they are doomed to vanish in very short order, and anyway, being for children, the author’s intentions are presumed to be right. And yet nowhere in my browsing have I ever encountered a picture book at once so proudly insipid and manifestly the result of tone-deaf corporate synergies than a series of titles (there are four of them now) allegedly derived from Greek legend. Hercules and his labors? Apollo in his golden chariot? Pandora’s chickens come home to roost? Ladies and gentlemen: we give you Loukoumi, that woolly little wanderer of continents, and seeker of perfect gifts, and dreamer of perfect professions, and conqueror of superstores and probably many other entities besides; if another blog does not appear in this space by November 20th, then you will know to carry on without me.
There are banners and store-sponsored events to herald the arrival of this long-lashed phenomenon at major chains, and Jennifer and John Aniston (her out-of-work brother?) narrate a CD that comes stuck in the cover. For the uninitiated then, who are fewer than they probably should be: Loukoumi is a sheep that, owing to some kind of mix-up at the animal airport, gets lost returning home from a trip spent gamboling among her Hellenic family origins, lands in Paris, in Italy, in Africa and New York, where she meets, respectively, a cat, a dog, a monkey and a bear, named, respectively, oh never mind, who anyway teach Loukoumi the value of friends, and diversity, and many other lessons, and who apparently also consent to move into Loukoumi’s suburban American neighborhood for three sequels. Some entity called iParenting Media awarded the last of them, Loukoumi’s Good Deeds, the outstanding children’s book of 2009.
Feh. All together now: Feh. And shame on you, Ernie Anastos (anchorman) and Olympia Dukakis (Oscar-wielding actress) and Melina Kanakaredes (whoever you are) for lending your blurby-sounding blurbs and namely-sounding names to this nonsense, and shame on you, Gloria Gaynor, for contributing an original song. Really, how hard up do you have to be?
“A little treasure book that deserves a big hug!” reports Anastos. Shame on you all for pretending not to know the difference.
The author, Nick Katsouris (who is not the illustrator; that labor befalls someone named simply Rajesh, who, if he is actually human, looks like he has cut and pasted animations from 1970’s Iranian cartoons) is an upstanding young guy who identifies himself as General Counsel for something called the Red Apple Group (doubtless worthwhile), and who looks a little uncomfortable, to his credit, posing in a suit and shiny tie for the introduction. I’m sure he’s well-meaning, but if any single person is responsible for contributing even a syllable to verses like “A gift is a thought your heart creates, and need not cost a penny,” then they should probably need to surrender some kind of license – as a lesson. (The gift, by the way, is gold cufflinks.)
I find no joy in shooting at the very wide target Katsouris has helped to present, still here is a case where the sheer acreage of shelf space he is nominally occupying simply demands some accountability - either that or a corporate disclaimer. Because this franchise finally owes its continuing existence - whether it’s bought or it’s not - to whatever secret handshake has also guaranteed that these hardbacks CANNOT BE RETURNED TO THE PUBLISHER. Ask any sales person. These books keep on coming. And there’s nowhere a plan for their exit.
This is lamentable, not least for all of the books it manages to crowd out. When I was a kid, I used to imagine writing a great, or mediocre, piece of fiction that would nevertheless assume a position beside works of Mikhail Bulgakov and William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, owing to nothing but the spelling of my name. Here Katsouris’s alphabetical neighbor is potentially the formidable Maira Kalman, author of Max Makes a Million, which does not, however, appear on those shelves, yet which happens to be a pretty extraordinary book about rummaging around Paris (as long as you’re already there with Loukoumi). And if you want to read a story about somewhere finding your perfect profession in the world, you could not do better than Kalman’s Chicken Soup, Boots, which is also nowhere generally in evidence, and if you want to read a book about finding the perfect present, you would choose well to try Patrick McDonnell’s The Gift of Nothing, which is incidentally exactly what you’d be giving if you went and bought Loukoumi – for fifteen dollars - in the hope of enlightening a child. And so on. I did not actually suffer through the installment where Loukoumi applies herself to Good Deeds (it’s the pink one, I think) but suppose you could probably do better with just about every other book in the store.
Still, finally no less punishing than all of the effort of looking under, and around, and askance, is the potential initiation of a parent, maybe new, or maybe “developing,” who does not know what the heck they’re looking for. And they find this. Imagine. And they go home, and turn on the television instead, because it’s free, with a standard cable subscription – plus look. The sheep. She’s moving.