Brow Beat

How a Classic Children’s Book Got Hijacked by the Culture Wars

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie has been criticized, and lauded, as a parable of the welfare state. Both sides have it wrong.

A hungry mouse from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
One cookie, ideology on the side. Scholastic

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask you to shut up about the welfare state. Or at least, that’s what I imagine every time I read another reference to how a beloved children’s classic is a not-so-secret warning about the perils of handouts.

The classic children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a circular tale of adventure, friendship, and the comforting safety of ending up where you started. It has been a celebrated favorite of Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Oprah Winfrey, and a particular comfort to autistic children who cherish its embrace of returning home.

But after 30 years of being ecumenically embraced, Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond’s charming story was challenged in 2015 when the Washington Post wrote about the book’s “secret political agenda.” The Post’s sources were neither children nor the book’s creators, but instead an economist from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Ron Haskins, a former congressional staffer who helped design federal welfare programs during the Clinton administration. If you give a mouse a cookie, Haskins warned, the mouse begins to expect the cookie, and next thing you know, you’ve created a culture of dependency and he’s sleeping in your bed.

For the record, the mouse never sleeps in his host’s bed; instead the little boy makes him a tiny napping spot out of ordinary household objects. Nonetheless, Haskins’ message has become a meme, and a go-to metaphor for the slippery slope of unintended consequences. Ishani Ganguli, a Harvard Medical School professor writing in the Washington Post, invoked the book last month to describe “the downstream consequences of a single, seemingly innocuous decision,” leading to painful long-term damage. Don’t accept the cookie, Ganguli warns. Stop after the glass of milk!

This gets the story and its moral all mixed up. Numeroff and Bond were not telling a “for want of a nail”–type story about an endlessly slippery slope. They just wanted to entertain children and enjoy the absurdity of animals eating human food.

Numeroff says the idea for the book came to her on a long car trip in 1981. In a bid to stave off boredom, she imagined the mouse and his cookie after first considering a zebra eating Cheetos and a gorilla eating pizza. The zany progression took off from there.

“I’ve heard that kids love repetition and they find it comforting that they know that at the end they’re going to be back at the same place,” Numeroff said in an interview posted on her publisher’s website. She recounted how parents and educators have praised the book for its reception among autistic children: “They feel safe when they get back to the first place that they were.”

This is the special joy of a circular journey, especially for younger children. It offers a place to push boundaries as well as the return to a safe haven. The tale of the mouse and the cookie also invites kids to think creatively about what comes next and how to design their own entertainments.

Friendship and helping your neighbor were core American values in the 1980s, so it’s strange to think that the mouse and the boy would be acting out the moral hazard implicit in the nanny state. In the actual book, our interspecies compatriots negotiate cookies, haircuts and housecleaning without any adult supervision. The mouse gets a cookie and asks for milk, yes. He also cleans his host’s house, top to bottom. He borrows supplies to draw a picture, then donates it to the family fridge. The little boy who provides the cookie is never resentful—instead, he’s a mix of solicitous, amused, and contented. At the end of the book, new cookie in hand, the mouse and the boy look to be better friends than ever, both enriched by their joint endeavors.

I could argue that a better reading of the book would focus on the autonomy and exchange of the book’s progression. While it might seem that the mouse is doing all the asking and the boy is doing all the giving, the mouse’s actions tell a different story. Yes he mooches the scissors to give himself a haircut. But then, abashed by the mess he creates, he cleans the whole house, sweeping and then mopping, in record time. By the time the book is done, the little boy and his whole family get a cleaner house and a new work of art in exchange for two cookies and two glasses of milk. Less than minimum wage!

I could argue that. But I probably shouldn’t. I’m not a little kid either. In fact, most of the moralizing linked to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is adults talking to other adults, many of whom have never even read it. This seems an unfair burden to put on a children’s book, which already has a job to do. Adults do need to read kids’ books with an eye toward society. It’s a travesty that so many classics default to all-male environments, and so that many of the books that are about women and people of color focus primarily on their struggles. But when it comes to the mouse and the cookie, adults who focus on politics rather than the adventure are just getting it wrong.

For my 3-year-old, the beauty of Numeroff’s book is in the multitudes encountered along the journey. When the little boy goes to look for a straw for the mouse’s milk, all sorts of treasures emerge. Muffin cups! Soda cans! A box of ice cream cones! When the mouse draws a picture, my son likes to count the crayons and name all the colors, and then we admire the mama mouse, papa mouse, and sibling mice who emerge onto the page. My son assigns his own relatives to roles in the mouse’s family portrait. He wants me to see that the little boy’s sink has pipes where the water goes.

These are the truer consequences of the mouse and the cookie: capturing children’s attention and giving them a place to explore safely, possibly leading to a lifelong love of reading. As Numeroff herself would say, “If you give a kid a book …”