"The Little Grumpy Cat That Wouldn't" is a Grumpy Cat You Won't Want to Put Down.
A few weeks ago, I was searching for a new book to read to my son. I stumbled across a “Little Golden Book” called The Little Grumpy Cat That Wouldn’t, a cute little tale exploiting nerdy parents’ love of internet cats. The story follows a cute and furry cat who, in big, broken, purple letters, is “GRUMPY,” and wears a permanent scowl on her face. Heading outside in search of some alone time, Grumpy Cat is instead accosted by several happy creatures who all urge her to join in their games and enjoy the beautiful weather. But Grumpy Cat is not interested in fun, having tried it once and finding it “awful”. Finally, Grumpy Cat is convinced to join in a race, but when the other racers speed off, Grumpy Cat merely stays in place, finds herself alone, and is pleased – though she still does not smile about it.
Amazingly, my two-year-old was immediately fascinated by this vague satire on the simple, low-stakes problem-and-solution formula of many picture books. We’ve been reading it every night, multiple times, and he asks for it by name randomly even when it is out of sight. I have no definite explanation. Perhaps he just enjoys it because it is new; after all, he’s gone through similar obsessive phases with plenty of other stories. Maybe that permascowling cat tickles his toddler fancy in just the right way. Maybe he likes my Grumpy Cat voice. I like to think that he identifies with the message that a person need not jump on every bandwagon, be popular, or be part of the crowd in order to find fulfilment. Maybe Grumpy Cat is a symbol for the narcissism of toddlers, who lack the ability to effectively negotiate and compromise, instead believing that their capricious desires ought to be law, even when those desires are overtly antisocial. It’s probably just the cute cat and funny voices. We can’t really know what a kid thinks.
In this example, Grumpy Cat is symptomatic of the phenomena both of adults projecting their childish desires onto children and of marketing childish things to adults. Grumpy cat’s popularity has its roots, of course, in internet culture, a venue we may say is typically dominated by people who are neither very young nor very old: i.e. parenting aged. The idea that a thing we think is cute and hilarious online might have appeal to toddlers is itself narcissistic – we’re all narcissists – and indicative of pervasive childishness in adults, including those raising children. This is by no means a condemnation, since childishness can be a very positive trait that enhances sociability, and it is especially useful for parents who must find ways to relate to and understand their children.
That parents ought to retain some degree of their own childhood is by no means a belief held only by modern generations. The premise in fact forms the concluding sentence of Alice in Wonderland, a book now over 150 years old:
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
The wistful, nostalgic tone of this passage is all the more striking when read in isolation from the rest of the novel, reading more obviously as the projection of an adult writer longing to relive a carefree youth than as the thoughts of a maturing girl. Given Carroll’s bachelor status and dubious relationships with young girls, perhaps there is room for some hesitation with embracing his idea of celebrating the adult child. Still, as Carroll suggests, being able to see things as my child does, or at least to make the attempt, and to participate in his games and in his babbling, allows me to better communicate and relate to him, and to show him that we are partners in navigating the world.
Since one of the ways people communicate is through sharing stories, Grumpy Cat is also valuable as a lesson for demonstrating that there are multiple and surprising inroads to happiness. The story says joy, fun, and participation can sometimes become oppressive responsibilities, and therefore obstacles to happiness and identity formation. Like the introverts who have made grumpy cats a moneymaking operation, the Grumpy Cat of the story gives voice to alternative ways of connecting and appreciating others. Grumpy Cat needs her space, and that tells children that it is ok for them to be a grumpy cat sometimes.