Library Lion, a book review

2 10 2011

Should a children’s book aim to teach important lessons to kids or just exist to entertain? This is a false choice and Library Lion shows just how possible it is to do both. I loved this book about a lion who falls in love with story time at the library, breaks the rules – by roaring in protest when story time is over – and is allowed to stay only on the condition that he obeys all of the rules from then on. Eventually there is a choice to be made between following the rules and roaring to fetch help for someone who is hurt, and the lion chooses to roar and face his punishment. This book is quite plain about the key lesson it is trying to teach – that even good rules may need to be broken for the right reason – but, although the story was clearly written with that lesson in mind, it never strikes a false note in playing to its theme.
Children often relish stories with obvious morals – some of Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and are still relished today, and the lesson of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is grasped again and again with glee as the story is enjoyed by generation after generation of preschoolers. But some stories with morals can be didactic or simply solemn, weighed down by the burden of an Important Lesson. This story, though, is anything but heavy and is completely natural and uncontrived. The illustrations make a fine first impression, drawn with such charm that they are certain to sway anyone even the slightest bit susceptible to such things: the lion manages to be both strong and cute (maybe even adorable, especially when he dusts the encyclopedias with his tail!) and the expressions of the people in the story are filled with life. The story is just as charming and lively, while also having more than a little drama. But almost every twist and turn has a kind of moral fiber in it that is enjoyable and fulfilling because it comes naturally out of the story and the characters.
I had fun mulling over some of the less obvious moral lessons tucked away in this little story. One is the basic moral choice behind civil disobedience: when the lion breaks the rules, he’s willing to take the penalty, in this case, never returning to the library. Another is the principle of judging people by their actions, rather than by who they are or where they are from. Mr. McBee clearly thinks that lions – just because they are lions – don’t deserve even the chance to be in the library; Miss Merriweather (a woman of some perspicacity) allows the lion to stay as long as he obeys the rules. There’s also, in the book’s final pages, a poignant lesson in empathy and treating others as you’d like to be treated. The lion is gone from the library and it seems likely that Mr. McBee is at least unconcerned by the lion’s absence –it never sat well with him to have a lion in the library in the first place. But one evening he stops by Miss Merriweather’s office on his way out:
“Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?” he asked her.
“No, thank you,” said Miss Merriweather. She was looking out the window. Her voice was very quiet. Even for the library.
(Never mind how delicious I find that fragment “Even for the library.”) Mr. McBee understands Miss Merriweather’s pain and knows what will make her happy so, instead of going home, he goes in search of the lion. It’s a moment of sweet redemption for the previously unlikeable Mr. McBee and in the end there are no “bad guys” in this story. That’s another lesson and, although it may not always come true, I find nothing wrong with the idea that anyone – or everyone – may be redeemed in the end.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of this book – I love it because it is adorable, exciting and emotionally fulfilling. I love it in my gut, because it is fun and because I just plain enjoyed it (and because the pictures are so charming), not for its moral clarity. But the fact is that, just as in life, the lessons in this story are impossible to separate from the story itself.

Library Lion