Happy Birthday to Mercer Mayer who celebrated his 77th Birthday on December 30th!
Mayer is well-known for writing and illustrating the Little Critter series (since 1975), in addition to other children’s books. The series features the titular Little Critter, an anthropomorphic character whose stories center on his adventures and mishaps with his family. With this in mind, you may be wondering why are celebrating Mercer Mayer as an author of challenged books? While Little Critter has been a household favorite due to its humorous artwork and pleasant stories, not all of Mayer’s books have been viewed the same way.
Mayer’s books came under fire during the 1990s in the Northwest. A Special Trick, first published in 1970, tells the story of a young boy who decides to help a magician in order to learn a few tricks of his own. The boy, Elroy (yes that’s his name, and yes I thought of the Jetsons while typing that), accidentally summons monsters after reading from a magical book and knocking over a table of mystical artifacts. He eventually experiments with a variety of magic spells until he can get everything back to normal before the magician returns. While many consider this an innocent story about a child using magic to get out of trouble, in 1991 a group of parents in Eugene, Oregon claimed that the book contained satanic art. The book was accompanied by a tape which encouraged readers to look closely at the artwork. While the book was retained, the tape was removed from the school library.
The titular Liza Lou has to venture out into the dangerous Yeller Belly swamp to bring items to her family members in Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp. Originally published in 1976, the book was challenged in 1988 at the Douglas County Library system and again in 1997 in Spokane, Washington’s School District 81. In the story, Liza Lou has various frightening encounters, most notably with a swamp witch who attempts to boil her alive. Parents challenged the book because of scary pictures in addition to alluded-to acts of boiling children and a devil stealing souls. Spokane parents argued that the book gave their children nightmares and contained evil ideas. Supporters of the book frame the story as an empowering tale. Liza Lou is not frightened and is able to outsmart all the swamp creatures, thus providing kids with a clever and brave role model. The book was retained in both situations. The Associate Superintendent of District 81 added that the book was retained because of the empowering message it sends to young girls.
So what has Mercer Mayer been up to recently? While having published several children’s books over the years, he is mainly focusing on Little Critter, steadily publishing over the past few decades. In 2007, Mayer was awarded “Artist of Year” at the National Book Festival.
Whether the books are stand-alone or part of a series, it is clear that Mayer weaves stories which teach children about responsibility, courage, and much more. Thank you for all the books you have written and illustrated over the years!
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.