Monday, June 21, 2010

Eloise by Kay Thompson

33. Eloise
by Kay Thompson, drawings by Hilary Knight
children's picture book, 1955
library book
finished, 6/21/10

Maybe I am too literal minded. Maybe I took this book too seriously. But honestly, I didn't like it at all. And I can't understand why it has become a classic in the literature for young children. It is about a six-year old girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. She has a nanny.

Can you see the last line? 'She is my mostly companion' - and that's the truth. Her nanny and the various employees at the hotel are her only friends. Her mother makes an appearance in a section of the book when Eloise tells us she likes to pretend.
Sometimes I am a giant with fire coming out of my hair
That's perhaps a fairly normal child's imaginary situation, but then:
Sometimes I get terribly sick and have to be waited on
Sometimes I get so sick my head falls over and is wobbling until
it is loose

So, this thirty-year old mother 'knows an ad man' and then we find out:

Eloise has a tutor -

And these snippets are just about the sum total of the mentions of Eloise's mother. Achingly sad. I think it is all too clear that this young rich woman leads a jet-setter life in which there is no room for a little girl. Eloise's life truly is at the Plaza.

This book came out when I was little, but I never read it then and didn't read it to my kids. I wonder why? Since Kay Thompson is one of the authors to choose from in the You've Got Mail Reading Challenge, I thought this would be a perfect time to finally read it. I guess I'm sort of glad I did. At least now I know who Eloise is. But again, I just can't see how it got so popular. This is a children's picture book, not a juvenile or young adult book. I can't imagine a child understanding it as her mother or father reads it to her. The language is complicated and the references obscure to most readers. Hilary Knight is a well-known and well-respected artist, and though the illustrations were excellent, this little girl is not in the least appealing. Again, just so sad to me. When the children's librarian saw me with this book, she offered me three other Eloise books. After I finished Eloise, I knew I didn't care to read them, but I did skim through. Because in one she goes to Paris and in another she goes to Moscow, I thought, ah, maybe now she'll be with her mother, but no. Nanny is still her 'mostly companion.'

There's some information about Kay Thompson here.


  1. What a strange children's book. I like the illustrations though - perhaps the wit was popular with adults but it sounds far too sophisticated for children.

  2. Oh, I agree. I read this to my children once and that was it because I was rather saddened and even appalled by what I read. I too can't believe this is considered a classic picture book. Bleh.

  3. After reading through a few of the pages you posted, I tend to agree. As a size 10 shoe-wearer, I'm not sure I can respect a woman who only wears a size 3 1/2 like Eloise's mother. :)

  4. I don't know, Nan. I think this time you're reading this as an adult (and a responsible and loving mother) and not as a kid.

    Who wouldn't, at least some of the time, like their parents to go away and to be able to run wild -- especially with a whole staff to cater to your whims? Yes, the mother is irresponsible, and no child wants her parents to have pulled a disappearing act when you're sick. So you love and envy Eloise for the freedom she gets and then you conclude that you still get the better end of the deal because your mom and dad are there to tuck you into bed.

  5. I'm so glad I am not the only member of the "I Dislike Eloise" club. I remember taking my daughter to the book store when she was small and this book was one I had in my hand to buy. After I read a few pages, back on the shelf it went. I chose Miss Rumpheus by Barbara Cooney instead. I'm so glad I did!

  6. I think the book is popular just because it has nothing to do with the real lives of real children. And because Kay Thompson's striking personality shines a bit out of it. Of course, I haven't read it as an adult so I might have your reaction NOW. But I thought Eloise was the bee's knees when I was little.

  7. The book was written tongue in cheek, of course. The great lady who wrote it was quite an entertainer and very familiar with how the rich and famous treated their families.

    It is from a different time, when childhood and parenting had not become the competitive activity it is today.

  8. What a fascinating review, Nan. I read this book to my oldest once and it did not become a repeated request which I was thankful for because I tend to shy away from children's books whose main characters are, for lack of a better word, bratty. But you introduced a different perspective I hadn't picked up on before and I think you are spot on in your observations. I do find Thompson fascinating and felt quite lucky to attend a discussion panel which featured Knight but that seems to me to be the proper place for my interest in Thompson's an adult.

  9. It's not my cup of tea either Nan (I really disliked it)and I've been mystified why anyone should love it? there's no accounting for tastes sometimes

  10. Go Nan! Way to question the received wisdom. I often wonder why some things are so popular, like golf. I guess I just don't get it. I suppose a lot of kids are intrigued by the idea of having servants and living in a fancy hotel and not having to deal with their parents, or were once. These are pretty old fashioned now.

  11. As a children's librarian, I see a fair amount of books get popular because they are touted by the media and the parents come in asking and it really does become a sort of popularity contest - often with the sweet genuinely charming kid books left to find their own way to the hands of children (where I come in!). Granted, some good authors and illustrators do get noticed and rewarded and awarded, but lots of times it is the book written by the movie star or the book that is shocking and edgy that gets all the publicity (and meanwhile I am handing some sweet little boy a book on trucks he is blissfully looking through).

  12. I've heard of this book too but never read it either. Thank you for showing it to us. It's certainly a different sort of book.

  13. I don't think I've ever read this book either. I may have skimmed it here and there, but it's not one that I own and I don't think I ever read it to my daughter. It's not exactly an uplifting book, is it?

  14. I grew up with Eloise, with both my parents (who grew up in South Alabama) and my brother and sister and I just loving this book and its hilarious characters. My daughter, being raised in New York City, delighted in Eloise and was pegged as an "Eloise" herself by some of my friends. I think you just have to react viscerally and not worry about the "poor little rich girl" aspect, although it's certainly there. The drawings are funny, and Eloise is a mischievous and precocious imp, that's all. Never mind that the character may have
    been based on Liza Minelli, and missing mother Judy Garland. That never occurred to us, and I'm not sure I agree. Hilary Knight's art and Kay Thompson's text make this a delightful read for children and adults--if they happen to like it.

  15. I've never read it either and it sounds like I'm not missing a thing!

  16. I am endlessly amazed, fascinated, and delighted with the notes you take the time to leave me. Who knew that a little book report on a children's book would create the first controversy at Letters from a Hill Farm?! I absolutely loved reading all your thoughts. I've never read anything about Eloise in my whole life, and here are 16 people with very strong opinions. I love it!

    Susie, that's really what I thought too - it's a picture book, presumably aimed at a parent reading it to a child who isn't yet reading. It just seems so far out of the realm of anything *most* children could imagine.

    Beth, I was astounded to read you had the same reaction.

    Karla, very funny! What a great thing to notice. Do you suppose sizing was different in the 1950s? Maybe in the same way sizes have changed in dresses. I was a size 10 as a girl, and I weighed like a hundred pounds. :<)

    Sprite, I fear I wasn't clear in one aspect. The sickness was also a 'pretending' she did. I only put it in to illustrate this as a mention of her mother. I think you've made a very good point, though I do think it just might be incomprehensible to the average four or five or seven year old. I suppose it could create good conversations!

    Karin, as I said to Beth above, I am amazed to hear that anyone else has had the same reaction I did.

    Tinky, I think that even as a child I liked reading about 'real life' 'real families' etc. I never liked scary fairy tales. I think I took them too much to heart, just as I did this book. We never really change, do we?!

    Ernestine, as I said to Beth and Karin, I am so surprised to read that others had the same take on Eloise as I did!

    Loretta, I think you are right, but it still strikes me that the intended age audience just wouldn't get it. Maybe if it had been a chapter book?? I don't really know about the 'competitive activity' that you noted. I just felt it wasn't as warm and nurturing as most picture books for young children are.

    Book Psmith, I love the use of 'bratty' - in those days, I think it was taken more seriously too. behavior such as hers, I mean. She really did a lot of naughty stuff and I thought maybe it was excused because of the wealth in the family. Just a thought.

    Val, as I wrote to some others above, I am just floored that you had the same reaction I did. I thought Eloise was one of those beloved children's classics that everyone agreed on. :<)

    KSV, you always make me laugh! 'like golf' indeed! Thanks for the praise. :<)

    Susan, I was so interested to read your take as a librarian. And I know this is true of adult books, too. Thank you for taking the time to tell me about your experience.

    Kay, I don't think I've ever seen a picture book that was quite so 'different!' I'm not saying different is always bad, but in this case I just couldn't grasp its appeal to little ones.

    Les, not uplifting. And I think confusing for young children. Eloise seems much older than six, which indeed she would have been in that lifestyle.

    Mary Lois, I so enjoyed reading your experience with Eloise. 'If they happen to like it' is exactly it, isn't it? I didn't. Even without the objections I noted, I just plain didn't care for that little girl, in appearance through the drawings or in actions. Isn't it wonderful there are such strong feelings on both sides about this book!

    Staci, not in my opinion anyway, but you might want to read the other comments to get a more balanced view.

  17. It's interesting the different views - I should have mentioned also that without Eloise a lot of picture book characters would not have existed - she was the front runner of the outspoken child books of which there are now many. It's not such a hit with the little ones anymore - they have moved on to Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious - but without Eloise, you would not have had a Fancy Nancy. Personally, I will take Alice (in Wonderland) over any of them any day of the week (except the art was/is really fabulous). By the way, I loved this discussion as this is "shop talk" at my job - we love talking kid books :)

  18. Susan, I'm so very glad you came back to read all the comments, and to offer this take on it being a forerunner. I haven't read the series you mentioned, but I really should look into Fancy Nancy! :<) I just greatly prefer 'sweeter' sorts of children's books - the Frances series, Angelina Ballerina, the Jill Murphy books, the Shirley Hughes books, the Provenson books. I got tired of Berenstein Bears and their 'issue' driven stories. I'm not so big on satire or sarcasm.

  19. I bought Olivia for my grandson when he was about four. He loved it--and it reminded me and his mother so much of Eloise!

  20. Oh my goodness!!! The nanny is Mrs Bale!!!

  21. Mary Lois, I'll look into Olivia. That name became very popular for a while, didn't it?

    Rosemary, I thought so, too!

  22. Well, Nan, be warned: Olivia is a pig. She's even uglier than Eloise. But she's nicer and she loves the arts.

  23. Mary Lois, I am exceptionally fond of pigs! From Lord Emsworth's pig, the Empress of Blandings, to Poinsettia. Do you know her? I'm planning a book report on her soon; Poinsettia & Her Family - one of my favorite picture books. And of course, there is Wilbur. If I had more money and a special place, I would have a pet pig!


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