I grew up with Mercer Mayer books, which, for the most part, are not the books he is best known for today. There's A Nightmare in My Closet and Where the Wild Things Are remain the two most influential books of my early childhood (followed, a few years later, by the discovery of my mother's copy of Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight). And, while it's slightly less nuanced and elegant, I think that Mayer's There's A Nightmare in My Closet hits the same deep chords that resonate with small children and their fears. The first Little Critter book, Just for You, debuted in 1975, followed by Just Me and My Dad in 1977 and I think I still have my younger brother's original copies of these books somewhere in my bookshelf. Now, almost 40 years later, Mayer has refined the look of Little Critter and his family a bit and published hundreds of books featuring this furry, brown, indeterminate creature, the titles of which almost always begin with the word, "Just." With Valentine's Day at hand, the publication of Just a Little Love, and the fact that Mayer, a resident of New England, dedicated this book to the children, teachers and families of Sandy Hook, it feels like a good time to feature this picture book author and illustrator I grew up with, as well as the books that he is still creating.
While Mayer is still adding new Little Critter titles to the original 8 x 8 square paperback picture book format that started with Just for You, Little Critter has also ventured out into leveled readers that are part of the fantastic I Can Read imprint from HarperCollins that includes classics like Arnold Lobel's Frog & Toad, Russell Hoban's fantastic Frances books and, of course, Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia. The charm of Mayer's well meaning Little Critter, besides the fact that he "just" does a lot of funny things that kids can relate to, is the charming world that he has created for Little Critter and his family. A small town that is brimming with nature and friendly neighbors, Critterville has a lot going on and endless stories to tell.
In Just a Little Love, Grandpa calls to say that Grandma isn't feeling well and Little Critter and his family decide to cheer her up by making things to take to her. From a handmade card to egg salad to a hand picked bouquet, things don't go as smoothly as one might hope but they do unfold in a way that will feel all-too realistic for anyone who has ever tried to get anything done with a toddler or two in tow.
One thing I have always appreciated about Mayer's representation of Little Critter's parents, now that I am a parent, is that he is not afraid to show them frustrated, sad and even angry at Little Critter and the mishaps and mischief that shadow him. Equally, he shows Little Critter responding to - or being oblivious to - the emotions of his parents in ways that feel genuine for small children.
Disasters dealt with, alterations made, and hugs shared all around, Little Critter and his family finally arrive at Grandma and Grandpa's house to find Grandma waiting on the porch and feeling better. Turns out she just needed a little love.
Even though I feel like Mayer has strayed a bit farther away from the original Little Critter than I would have liked, I find that the original heart and understanding of the way small children think shines through Mayer's books to this day and they are still worth buying and reading with your little critters.
Mercer Mayer favorites from my childhood: