That’s not a usual setting for a kids’ book series. Its assumptions are too strange. Its ethics are too dubious. That’s my argumentby Sam Leith / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
“That’s not my puppy. Its coat is too hairy.” Know what I’m talking about? If you have children under ten, you will. The That’s Not My… series of board-books are the air you breathe—along with sinister Justin from CBeebies, the freaky yoga monkey from Waybuloo, and the bizarre thumb-sized College of Cardinals living at the bottom of the Night Garden.
The format is unvarying. Each is a square, hardwearing book on thick cardboard. The cover and four subsequent double-page spreads each show a pleasing cartoon picture of, say, a wildebeest. A cut-out section of the picture is filled with a textured insert: glossy, shiny, squashy or what have you. “That’s not my wildebeest…” the text reads. “Its eyebrows are too fluffy.”
Through these spreads you go—your infant scratching and grabbing at the touchy-feely pages—discounting the excessively rough hooves, the over-shiny eyes, the dismayingly squashy nose and so on, until you alight on the sixth and final scene. Triumph. “That’s my wildebeest! Its tail is so hairy.”
So stuck in your head do the words get that they enter daily conversation. “That’s not my daughter. Her screaming is too annoying,” for example or—with a sigh of post-bathtime satisfaction—”That’s my drink! Its ABV is so high.”
The books are written by Fiona Watt, the editorial director of children’s publisher Usborne, and illustrated by Rachel Wells. When the idea was first tabled, the company’s founder Peter Usborne didn’t think a children’s book with a negative in the title would work. But the first title, That’s Not My Puppy… (1999) has sold 900,000 copies. The next, That’s Not My Donkey… will be the 33rd in a series which has shifted 8m books worldwide. (In French, perhaps because of the unwieldiness of the negative construction, they are “Ou est mon…”)
I am obsessed with these books but then, they’re an important part of the culture. As Whitney Houston declared—in a phrase that becomes ever less profound the more you think about it—”I believe the children are our future.” With these books, we are shaping the future. What shape are we making it?
Consider the enthrallingly strange assumptions that underpin them. In the first place, we have a collector of fierce ambition, and no small carelessness. He has a portfolio of objects ranging from the theoretically possessable (trains, cars, kittens, rabbits, dollies and so on) via the evanescent (snowmen) and the nonexistent (dinosaurs, dragons) to the sentient (pirates, babies, princesses, Santa). Can you own a pirate? So it seems.
We meet this collector in a state of bewilderment. He is perpetually misplacing his trophies, and searching for them by land, sea and air. Each book sees him checking six tactile characteristics. It’s always the excess of these qualities he objects to (too shiny, too rough), until he finds the abundance of a quality he approves (so soft, so glossy).
He has an odd attitude to categories. In search of a fugitive blue stegosaurus, he dons scuba gear and feels a pink plesiosaur’s slippery flippers before realising it’s not what he’s after. It’s the softness of its spines—not its size, colour or land-dwellingness—that identifies the right dinosaur. Triceratops is dismissed because “its horns are too rough”—not because it has horns in the first place.
And who is this collector? It’s unclear. Is it you, the reader? The baby, the read-to? Or is it the mouse? Yes, mouse. In every panel of every book (bizarrely, I’ve met parents who’ve never noticed) there’s a little white mouse, looking on. In winter scenes it’s outfitted with a woolly hat; underwater, goggles and flippers.
Fiona Watt declines to identify the mouse. It has no name or determinable sex, she says. Though she knows from her correspondence that many regard the mouse as the implied collector, she insists on leaving the question open. I get the impression that she doesn’t think the mouse is the owner, though—just an onlooker.
She leaves other things ambiguous, too. What about the ethics of “owning” a pirate or a princess? She points out that nowhere is the possibility ruled out that these are toy pirates or toy princesses—but she certainly doesn’t say they are.
There’s a quirk of personalisation in That’s Not My Bunny…, which is the only one in which the collected object is a “him” rather than an “it”: an experiment they decided not to repeat. Watt says this was a preference for gender neutrality, rather than objectification. Again, though, the implications multiply.
When Baudelaire wrote his line about the “hypocrite lecteur” he had not copped a load of That’s Not My Santa… Imagine if he had. Absent-minded, acquisitive, anxious, sensual, heuristically eccentric, arguably slave-owning, and existing in an unspecified triangular relationship with a mouse—is it any wonder pre-schoolers are confused?