Of the many things that no one should have to tell you not to do, lighting a firecracker next to a sleeping tiger is probably near the top of the list. It's also the first thing that you see when you open P.M. Neist's new children's book, Barely Behaving Daughters, as one of her wayward girls begins the alphabetical journey of mischievousness. Above her is the quote, "Disobey often and well. It is a sad little child that only plays by the rules." From Catherine De La Pelissa Douce. The idea of beneficial rowdiness is the theme of the 26-page book.
The book follows a simple, but delightful pattern. Each page features a girl, an animal, and an unruly action. My 4-year-old daughter's favorite was "H is for the Hannahs, who halved a hyena" featuring a grinning set of twins in front tall grass hiding the front and back end of an impossibly long hyena. It's a devilish little scene, as are the rest of Neist's creation. Everything from wallpapering a whale to boiling beavers is covered.
In many ways, the book echoes something like Neil Gaiman's The Dangerous Alphabet, though Neist trades surrealism and fantasy for a more upfront morbidity like you'd get from Charles Addams. Throughout it all, though, is a continued sense of girls going their own way in their own unique manner. Neist says so much about each of her characters in sentences of fewer than ten words, leaving us to fill in all manners of adventures from characteristics embodied in their momentary transgressions.
"I do think it is both important and very tricky to learn to break the rules," said Neist via email. "Creative work, whether it is artistic, scientific or political, requires us to think critically and break from convention. It's difficult, it requires a lot of courage and it's not likely to be rewarded, with good reason. We depend on rules to be safe and get along. Our educational system is geared toward obeying rules, not breaking them. How do we reach the right balance?"
If there is a downside to the otherwise delightful book, it's that so much of the action does in fact involve what could be considered cruelty to animals. I doubt even the most vehement member of PETA would feel too bad for Annette eating ants or Josslyn jostling jellyfish, but Mona muting monkeys and Yanicka yanking yaks sometimes comes across as a bit mean and a trifle unnecessary. Then again, that may be decades worth of political correctness eating away at my ability to enjoy a good dark laugh.
"I do worry that some people might take the text literally, which would not be good," said Neist. "A story is a playground. There is a lot of cruelty in classic tales: big bad wolf are routinely killed by hunters, children are threatened by witches and ogres, princesses are abused by their stepmothers. Make-believe worlds are places where we safely explore what is either forbidden or scary in the real world. We pop in and out the story and let our imagination and curiosity explain to us what happens."
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That in and of itself is sort of the point of Barely Behaving Daughters. It's a book for parents that are more keen on the idea of allowing children to explore beyond "good" behavior in hopes that they learn how important it is to occasionally be willing to be bad. As me and the kidlet went through the book, I did make it a point to remind her after each page that if Olga really did overturn an okapi on her moped then in all likelihood it would have done severe damage to the vehicle and Olga and the animal itself could have been gravely injured. Being a good parent means sometimes being really, really boring.
All in all it's a daring and terrific book from a writer and illustrator Houston can be very glad decided to transplant here from France. Her art has shades of Addams and Sendak, with a pointedly feminine bent that is perfect for the modern age that tries so hard to return girls to docility. On top of that, we have to thank her for finally putting a realistic animal in place for X, which I have frankly been waiting for since I was reading alphabet books as a child 30 years ago. No, I won't tell you. Go read the book.
Barely Behaving Daughters is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.