A deconstruction of 'If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,' or how millennials became millennials
A look back at the beloved children's picture book that came into our lives 30 years ago.
Millennials. I loathe the word, possibly out of some anti-label revolt stemming from the fact that I am one. However it’s indisputably true that the millennial generation was raised on an assortment of formative characters and books which we call upon more and more in this explosively nostalgic time, often to explain how the ’80s and ’90s are responsible for the beautiful, terrible people we’ve become.
Among those seminally developmental stories was Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a 1985 picture book that, at least by my counts of nostalgia, is as fondly remembered for its gorgeous illustrations (by Felicia Bond) as it is for its circular message of stacked requests — which, on the book’s 30th anniversary, I posit is the reason why millennials are the way millennials are.
It’s no secret that my generation has been called entitled, impulsive, and spontaneously hyperbolic (we couldn’t even so much that now we can’t even). The critiques aren’t wrong. We expect instant gratification and are pretty furious when we don’t get it. We are Generation Notification, raised on increasingly faster Internet speeds and continually improved video game graphics, movie CGI, and television twists. We didn’t ask for Napster but drank its sweet file-sharing download nectar. As we reached puberty alongside digital culture, it became only natural that millennials learned to keep asking more from a world that seemed to have no problem giving.
Now it’s 2015, and my generation has evolved to ask for things even one step ahead of where we are in the zeitgeist. (If you give us an Apple Pencil, we demand an Apple Eraser!) We’re quick to speculate wildly beyond tomorrow. We’re eager to crack a joke about the fate of an ill-planned project or venture a thinkpiece about why something is immediately the best, the worst, or the most problematic. We ask for the axe to fall, and then we basically ask for another axe to replace it posthaste.
It’s all my way of saying that I blame the mouse. Much as my cohorts decided we wanted more, so too did the titular mouse in If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, a little guy who just wanted the world and didn’t see why he couldn’t have it. In reading the book as children, so many of us were told, “You’re the mouse.” And looking back 30 years later, that connection now means something far different.
The story of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, which is shockingly on Wikipedia because can you imagine how angry we would be if it wasn’t, begins as follows:
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin.”
It’s all sound logic — cookie to milk, milk to straw, straw to napkin. I suppose you can first wonder why the mouse was given a cookie in the first place: did he ask for it, or was it a charitable donation? You could argue that in both scenarios, the mouse was immediately rude in asking more from the hand that fed him, but either way, there’s nothing wrong with the mouse’s basic needs for milk post-cookie. He’s even polite about it all.
“Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.”
And then, vanity strikes.
“When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim. So he’ll probably ask for a pair of nail scissors.”
If you believe that If You Give a Mouse a Cookie jumps the shark, it’s here; everything goes downhill when the mouse is made aware of his own self-consciousness. Did he, like us, grow up believing he had to compare himself to other mice? Was he faced with a world teeming with unrealistic mice standards? The mouse’s attention slips from cookie to self-image, and he springs forward into a new set of identitiy problems which he has created entirely by himself. He is both the cause of and the solution to his distress. He loves drama. Sound familiar?
“When he’s finished giving himself a trim, he’ll want a broom to sweep it up. He’ll start sweeping. He might get carried away and sweep every room in the house. He may even end up washing the floors as well!”
Dare to say no to a child of the ’80s! We are ambitious! Coddled by years of hard-working parents telling us we can do anything, be anything, accomplish anything. So we do! We try to marry the opportunity we’re given (as simple as a broom) with our goals and ambitions (say, an entire house in need of sweeping). Are we crazy? Sure, a little. But we’re simply acting on being told that we have potential and need to rise, quickly, to make everyone proud.
“When he’s done, he’ll probably want to take a nap.”
Yes. Yes, this is right.
“You’ll have to fix up a little box for him with a blanket and a pillow. He’ll crawl in, make himself comfortable and fluff the pillow a few times. He’ll probably ask you to read him a story.”
Again, where’s the lie?
“So you’ll read to him from one of your books, and he’ll ask to see the pictures. When he looks at the pictures, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own.”
Then there’s the piece de resistance. “He’ll get so excited, he’ll want to draw one of his own.” I think it’s perhaps the most provocative line in the whole book, serving as the most beautiful reminder that those who were raised on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie may fill their lives with requests and expectations, but ply them in equal measure with creations and ideas. For all our flaws, millennials are activists, artists, engineers, start-up inventors, content creators. “So excited, he’ll want to draw one of his own.” Our Internet age has afforded millennials great license to grasp forward towards treasure we know is in reach — perhaps our bluntness in wanting that gratification is why we’re so maligned. Yes, every generation flexes that same ambitious muscle; consider a show like Aziz Ansari’s recent hit Master of None, which gorgeously highlights the sacrifices one generation of parents made so that their twentysomething children could safely fumble their way through their own. But the world’s not ending with millennials; we’ll keep this thing going, don’t you worry. We’re just so excited, we want to draw our own pictures.
“He’ll ask for paper and crayons. He’ll draw a picture. When the picture is finished, he’ll want to sign his name with a pen. Then he’ll want to hang his picture on your refrigerator. Which means he’ll need Scotch tape. He’ll hang up his drawing and stand back to look at it.”
Aaaand there’s your brutal reminder how much we love a selfie. The ego, the glory, the recognition, the pat on the back, the affirmation from the likes and the retweets. It’s right here, clear as day, magnetic as fridge.
“Looking at the refrigerator will remind him that he’s thirsty. So… he’ll ask for a glass of milk. And chances are if he asks you for a glass of milk, he’s going to want a cookie to go with it.”
Look. We want what we want. I can’t say that my peers are addicted to greatness or that we’re some noble breed whose only aim is bettering the world. That’s an obnoxious and hardly true generalization. But what I do think is that every generation wants and expects something more. Every generation invents and provokes and argues and theorizes and revolts against the world we inherited, and looks one step ahead.
Maybe, like the mouse, millennials look two steps ahead. Maybe that’s our big misstep, the thing that drives critics and pundits wild. Yes, we want a brunch table with no wait, but we also want equal rights for all human beings, all on the same Sunday morning. Is that so wrong?
When we were read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we were told, “You’re the mouse,” and it never quite seemed like a compliment. Maybe now, it does. I’d gladly take “never satisfied” as a defining trait of my generation.
I wish I could even be happy with just a cookie. Sometimes I wish that my most cringeworthy generational companions didn’t give that whole “entitlement” thing such credence. But if you must blame millennial entitlement on anything, blame it on how we were raised to believe that we could get a cookie and dare to ask for milk, too. Blame it on that damn mouse.