Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Mercy Watson' and Nonsense

I know that I spend a lot of time on this blog, particularly in this column, talking about how certain things are problematic or frustrating or generally not as nice as you remember them being when you were a kid. I know that it would be very easy for this column to come across as negative or bitchy or super duper serious all the time. So with that in mind, I'd like to highlight today a series of books that are, well, the opposite of that. Sure, they don't have any real deep meaning that I can find, but they're fun. That's it. They're very fun books that make you feel all nice inside, and even I can appreciate that this is something worth having.

The books in question are Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books, a series of transitional books for early readers who are just about to start getting their feet wet with chapter books. The series follows the wacky adventures of Mercy Watson, who is a pig. Not like an anthropomorphized pig, either. Mercy Watson is just a straight up pig who lives with Mr. and Mrs. Watson and is their pride and joy. The Watsons treat Mercy as something in between a child and a pet, and they cater to her every whim. Usually these whims involve food.

The basic premise of each book is different but the plots usually work out in roughly the same way. The Watsons are living their weird little lives when Mercy gets into a little bit of trouble. The trouble snowballs into a big bit of trouble, pulling in neighbors and friends and sometimes police officers and firemen. Eventually the trouble is resolved. Mercy never really gets punished for her part in whatever happened (because she is a pig and therefore not considered morally responsible), but it's more that by the end of the book, everyone has made up with everyone else and they're all sat around the Watson's kitchen table eating hot buttered toast.

That's it. That's basically the entire series.

So on the surface, it doesn't even feel like this series is the kind of thing I would pay much attention to. I'll be completely honest and admit that my usual tastes in media, for children or otherwise, run more to the dramatic. I like stories with deep, overarching themes. I like stories that break your heart and reveal some inner truth about humanity. I like to have to sit in silence after watching or reading something so that the meaning can really sink in. But the thing is, I get that this is just me.

Most people do not particularly want that out of a media experience. And just because I prefer being punched in the face with existential angst when I read a book doesn't mean I can't appreciate books that manage to tell good stories without doing that. Which is why we're talking about Mercy Watson today. These books might be frivolous little confections of nothing, but they're really well made.

Look. I respect competence. No, there is no real deeper philosophical whatever in the Mercy Watson series, but they're still darn good books. The plots are engaging and fun to read. Kids adore them but they're not so annoying that you as an adult will want to gouge your own eyes out before reading it again. The situations are wacky but endearing. And the endings are always just heartfelt enough, without becoming overly sticky and sweet.

In other words, we're talking about Mercy Watson because these are books without a whole lot going on, but what they do have going on is going very well.

For starters, the characters in each book might be relatively thinly drawn, but they're still really interesting. Mr. and Mrs. Watson are hilarious in their over-earnest appreciation for everyone and everything, which makes readers want to find out more of what they do. They aren't some crazy couple who decided to just go off and adopt a pig - or, well, they are, but they're also absurdly nice. They're the kind of adults we all want to be. Whimsical but still capable of holding down a job and a house. Loving and fun, but still functional. And completely and totally immune to anyone else's opinion.

Mercy is a pig and therefore doesn't have much of a personality to speak of, but there is something very satisfying about reading her adventures. Because she is a pig, Mercy Watson also does not care what anyone else thinks of her. She is mostly concerned with eating buttery food and finding somewhere nice to sleep. I can relate to this.

As for the side characters, the Watson's world is populated with characters just as silly and absurd as they are. Their next door neighbors, for one, are a pair of elderly spinster sisters*, Babe and Eugenia. Babe is sweet and thinks that the nonsense going on next door is delightful, while Eugenia is constantly in throes of frustration that no one else seems bothered by the pig next door. 

Some of the fun of the books is in how Eugenia is only saying what a reasonable person would say in her situation - namely that the Watsons are insane and that adopting a pig is not a thing that people should do - but no one listens to her. So the books have that going for them too.

But mostly what the books have going for them is nonsense and whimsy. The plots are good, but they're pretty thin. In one book, Mercy goes trick or treating in a princess costume and hijinks ensue. In another one, Mercy comes downstairs in the middle of the night and catches a burglar in the kitchen by sitting on him. In still another, Mercy and Mr. Watson go for a drive and Mercy decides to sit on Mr. Watson's lap while he's at the steering wheel. There's nothing emotionally intense or involved, they're just nice.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't expect to like the Mercy Watson books. They're really not my usual thing. What won me over was how they never took themselves seriously. No, these books are fluff, but they know they're fluff. They're not pretending to be anything else, and I appreciate that.

When it comes to children's literature, it feels like a lot of what you get is taking itself very seriously. Some of that I like. When it's done well, I think that kids should definitely have the opportunity to read books and watch movies about really important, serious topics. But there is also room for the opposite. There is still room for silliness in children's media. It's worth having books like Mercy Watson that remind us all of the value of fun and nonsense.

So I approve of the Mercy Watson series. Sure, the books don't say anything deeper about the world we live in and society today, but that's really all right. Our problems will still be here when the book is over, but they might seem just a little bit more manageable.

*Or "sisters". It's unclear.