Laura Numeroff: Author Study Essay

Laura Numeroff: Author Study Essay

Biography

According to her personal website, Laura Numeroff was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1953. Her father and mother provided a home environment filled with love where their children (three girls – Laura and her two sisters Emily and Alice) were surrounded by art, music, dancing, and books. Though she enjoyed reading and writing (even writing and illustrating her own books as a child), she decided to go to university to study fashion design, following in her sister Emily’s footsteps. While studying at the Pratt Institute, Numeroff discovered that fashion design was not a good career choice for her and decided to broaden her horizons by taking classes in photography, animation, and radio broadcasting (Numeroff, n.d.).

In her last semester at Pratt, she took a class that would prove to be essential for her future career path. This class, on writing and illustrating children’s books, was taught by Barbara Bottner (Numeroff, 2009). Bottner herself is a well-known author of children’s books and books for young adults (Bottner, n.d.). Numeroff’s book for the class, Amy for Short, was bought and published by Macmillan (Numeroff, 2009).

In her biography for Scholastic Publishers (Numeroff, 2009), Numeroff mentioned some of the challenges she has faced in her career. Though her first book was published, Numeroff was not an immediate writing success. In fact, in the early stages of her career, she often had to work odd-jobs (running a merry-go-round, being a private investigator) in order to make ends meet. Her most successful book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, was rejected by nine publishers before being accepted for publication. These struggles, leading to ultimate success, have prompted her personal motto: “Never give up.”

Numeroff has achieved much success in the world of children’s literature. She has won the California Young Reader Medal (1987), Colorado Children’s Book Award (1988), Georgia Children’s Picture Storybook Award (1988), Nevada Young Readers’ Award (1988), Buckeye Children’s Book Award (1989), Quill Award (1996), and the Milner Award (2007). She has even received the distinction, rare for any author but especially for authors of children’s books, of appearing on the New York Times bestseller list (Richards, 2002).

Numeroff now lives in Los Angeles but travels extensively to visit elementary schools and to attend teacher conferences (Numeroff, n.d.). She is also involved with many charitable organizations and donates proceeds of some of her books to charities: First Book, Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Canine Assistance (Richards, 2002). These charities reflect two of her primary interests: children and animals. Indeed, on her website (Numeroff, n.d.), she list some of her favorite things – and these favorites include a lot of animals (horses, raccoons, otters, cats, pandas, etc.) While children’s books are her first love, Numeroff would eventually like to branch out to write screenplays and adult fiction (Numeroff, 2009).

Works

Numeroff’s first book to achieve success was If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (1985). This book, with illustrations by Felicia Bond, features a young boy and a mouse (also a boy). The story presents a series of causes and effects, beginning with what would happen if you gave a mouse a cookie. The mouse would, of course, want a glass of milk to go with the cookie, then a straw for the milk, then a napkin for his face, then a mirror, some nail scissors, a broom, a nap, a story, some paper and crayons, a pen, some scotch tape, some milk, and finally, another cookie. As Richards (2002) explains, this story, as it ends where it began (with giving a mouse a cookie), is an example of a circular story. The illustrations add a level of depth to the story that is not immediately present in the actual words. These illustrations show that the mouse is making a huge mess, and the young boy has to provide for all the mouse’s needs and clean up after his animal friend. In this sense, the mouse is taking on child-like characteristics, and the child is acting more like a parent or other adult.

The success of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie prompted Numeroff to continue writing books in this same manner, and these books form the If You Give A… series. If You Give a Moose a Muffin (1991), also illustrated by Felicia Bond, begins when a young boy gives a moose (also a boy) a muffin. The moose then wants some jam, more muffins, to go to the store, to wear a sweater, a needle and thread, socks, to make a puppet show, some cardboard and paints, a sheet, some soap, to wash the sheet, some jam, and another muffin. Like in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the animal in this story wants to do things by himself (sew buttons, paint scenery) but requires supplies (which the child provides) and makes a mess (which the child cleans up).

If You Give a Pig a Pancake (1998), also illustrated by Felicia Bond, continues in the same fashion, though the characters in this book (the child and the pig) are both female. In this story, a girl gives a pig a pancake who then needs syrup, a bath, bubbles and a rubber duck, a suitcase, some fancy clothes, some music, a camera, envelopes and stamps, a tree house, wallpaper and glue, maple syrup, and some more pancakes.

The mouse and his child-friend return in If You Take a Mouse to School (2002), illustrated by Felicia Bond. While this story is also circular, the structure is more complicated as each “if” statement has more than one consequence. For example, the first “if” statement (“if you take a mouse to school”) leads to the mouse wanting a lunchbox. The mouse then wants a sandwich and snack to put in the lunchbox. From there, Numeroff does not continue the story from the point of the snack; instead, she returns to the initial statement (“if you take a mouse to school’) with an additional consequence – the mouse will need notebooks and pencils. Another difference between this story and the previous mouse book is that, here, the mouse is much more independent than in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. He can often get things that he needs by himself: he packs his own lunch, and he can wash his own hands. However, he still needs the boy to take him places (to school, to the bathroom, back home). In Bond’s illustrations, the mouse is quite advanced in his school work. While the children are adding 2+6 on the chalkboard, the mouse is doing complicated algebra and is spelling advanced words like “onomatopoeia.” It seems that with this book, Numeroff wanted her original characters to mature as her readers had. It also appears that the purpose of this book was to introduce children to all of the activities that you do in school (use a locker, do math, spelling, science experiments, eat lunch, play with blocks, write books, wait for the bus, play games).

More characters return for If You Give a Pig a Party (2005). The main characters are the same as in If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and the mouse and the moose return as well. In this story, the girl decides to throw a party for the pig who then wants balloons, to decorate the house, to wear her favorite dress, to invite all of her friends, to find all of her friends, to go to a street fair, to ride the bumper cars, to eat ice cream, to change clothes, to play hide and seek, to make dinner, to have a pajama party, to have a pillow fight, to make a fortress out of blankets, to decorate the fortress with balloons, and finally to have a party.

In 1998, Numeroff teamed up with Lynn Munsinger (an illustrator who had previously worked with Numeroff’s teacher Bottner) on a new series of children’s books. The first book in this series is What Mommies Do Best / What Daddies Do Best. In this book, mother animals (bears, pigs, mice, elephants, porcupines) engage in domestic activities with their children: baking birthday cakes, sewing buttons, and holding her children. These moms also do physical activities with their children: building snowmen, playing in the park, and teaching their children how to ride a bike. When the book is flipped over, the exact same story is told, using father animals. The thing that both moms and dads do best is give “lots and lots of love.”

The next book in this series, What Grandmas Do Best / What Grandpas Do Best (2000), also featured illustrations by Lynn Munsinger. As with the previous book in this series, this book tells two stories, and the text for both stories is the same. Grandma and Grandpa cats, guinea pigs, pigs, gerbils, elephants, dogs, monkeys, and frogs amuse their grandchildren by playing games, making hats, going for walks, taking naps, dancing, and singing. Munsinger’s illustrations demonstrate that while grandmas and grandpas do the same things with their grandchildren, they do these activities differently.

The third book in this series is What Aunts Do Best / What Uncles Do Best (2005). In the first half of this book, aunts go to the fair, watch television, play piano, go for car rides, cook, go shopping, build clubhouses, tell jokes, and draw. When the book is flipped over, uncles engage in the same activities. The aunts and uncles in this book are, as with the previous books in this series, a variety of different animals. Another similarity with the other books in this series is that the thing that aunts and uncles do best is give “lots and lots of love.”

Characteristic Elements

Both of these series share some essential elements. First, the text consists of short sentences, and each page of the book has very little text. Some pages, in fact, have no words at all. The effect of this structure is that as much emphasis is placed on the illustrations, expertly done by Bond and Munsinger, as on Numeroff’s text. Also, both of these series prominently feature animals, one of Numeroff’s loves. An additional shared trait of all of these books is that they often contain references to activities that Numeroff herself loved when she was a child (drawing, painting, dancing, playing the piano, taking photographs, writing stories).

The books of the If You Give A… series share several characteristic elements. First, they are all circular stories that end in exactly the same place that they began. Second, the animals all have human characteristics, while the children act like adults. Third, the gender of the child and its animal are the same; though with respect to this characteristic, it must be noted that this is the result of Bond’s illustrations.

Similarly, the books of the What People Do Best series also prominently feature animals that have human characteristics. In these books, however, the animals do not interact with people. The format of these books, each containing two identical stories, reveals that men and women do the same types of things; though they might have different approaches to doing them. The essential message behind these three books – that families love their children unconditionally – seems to reflect the close relationship that Numeroff had with her own family.

References

Bottner, Barbara (n.d.). Barbara Bottner Books. Retrieved June 26, 2009, from

http://www.barbarabottnerbooks.com/.

Numeroff, L. (n.d.) Laura Numeroff’s (Very Own) Web Site. Retrieved June 21, 2009, from

http://www.lauranumeroff.com/index.htm.

Numeroff, L. (1985). If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. (Felicia Bond, Illustrator). New York:

HarperCollins.

Numeroff, L. (1991). If You Give a Moose a Muffin. (Felicia Bond, Illustrator). New York:

HarperCollins.

Numeroff, L. (1998). If You Give a Pig a Pancake. (Felicia Bond, Illustrator). New York:

HarperCollins.

Numeroff, L. (1998). What Mommies Do Best / What Daddies Do Best. (Lynn Munsinger,

Illustrator). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Numeroff, L. (2000). What Grandmas Do Best / What Grandpas Do Best. (Lynn Munsinger,

Illustrator). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Numeroff, L. (2002). If You Take a Mouse to School. (Felicia Bond, Illustrator). New York:

HarperCollins.

Numeroff, L. (2005) What Aunts Do Best / What Uncles Do Best. (Lynn Munsinger, Illustrator).

New York: Simon & Schuster.

Numeroff, L. (2005). If You Give a Pig a Party. (Felicia Bond, Illustrator). New York:

HarperCollins.

Numeroff, L. (2009). Laura Numeroff: Biography. Retrieved June 21, 2009, from

http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/contributor.jsp?id=3452.

Richards, L. (September 2002). January Interview: Laura Numeroff. January Magazine.

Retrieved June 21, 2009 from http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/primages/numeroff.html.

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