“I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza.”
Thus begins a series of books (3-5 depending on how you count publication history and what’s currently in print at the moment) about a singularly anarchic force of nature in the form of a mischievous six year old girl named Eloise. The first book, Eloise, was published in 1955 and covers Eloise’s escapades in the Plaza Hotel. She rides the elevators up and down and down and up1, checks in at the front desk2 and with the bell captain, breezes through all the events being held in the various meeting rooms of the hotel, orders in Room Service, and creates involved melodramas with her two dilapidated battered dolls–curiously unluxurious toys for a child who lives in the Plaza. This was quite popular when it came out, inspiring Thompson and Knight to produce several sequels, which fortunately have survived to be republished and a clothing and toy line, which little girls should probably be grateful did NOT so survive.
Subsequent books, Eloise in Paris, Eloise in Moscow and Eloise at Christmas not surprisingly cover Eloise’s travels abroad and her holiday plans. Keep an eye on the secondary characters interacting with Eloise in Eloise in Paris; Knight worked in several well known figures of the 1950s…and no, I’m not telling you who they are. Eloise in Moscow was interesting, at the time and for decades after its publication, for its depiction of Moscow during the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s barricading itself against Capitalist Corruption of the Outside World; all too easy to forget that separation in this post-glasnost era, Moscow might as well have been on the moon or the depths of the sea for all kids, and even adults, of the 1950s knew. Admittedly, the book is told from the perspective of the terribly precocious (even preciously so) Eloise, and the equally sardonic Knight’s illustrations emphasize that viewpoint, so I’m not sure how seriously we ought to take that now…but the two did travel to Moscow to research this book, so I’d guess that they based the book on their experiences.
There are several stories about how Thompson’s creation of Eloise came to be and I’m not quite sure I believe most of them; they range from childhood imaginary friend to alter-ego allowing Thompson to make sardonic social commentary and give the answers to outraged questions that she could not give as a presumably polite adult bound by the rules of adult etiquette. I suspect that the protagonist of Eloise is to no small degree a wish fulfillment on Thompson’s part; she did live in the Plaza for some time and I’ll confess that I too have had the fleeting desire to do just what Eloise got away with. Thompson was an interesting woman; she sang, she danced, she performed in Vegas, she coached singers on the MGM payroll and (what modern readers will most probably recognize) she befriended Judy Garland and stood as godmother to Garland’s daughter, Lisa Minelli. It’s very easy for me based on what little I know of Thompson to think that she might take a certain irrepressible glee in allowing Eloise the freedoms she wished she had.
If it’s any comfort to parents and children’s librarians, as a child I did clearly understand that Eloise was not a particularly well behaved child, even while I envied her the freedom to roam such a large and luxurious hotel all on her ownsome. I think it’s much the same reason why I so enjoy the chapter in Josephine when the protagonist mistakenly goes to a hotel restaurant to await her father and orders one of everything on the menu. Kids like to imagine what it must be like to do what adults do, or indulge their own whims without the consequences incurred when the adults in their lives discover what they’ve done.
As with many picture books, regardless of the intended age group of readership, the text of the Eloise books alone cannot convey the charm (or lack of it depending on your opinion!) of the books themselves. Thompson’s text really does need Hilary Knight’s illustrations to complete Eloise, whether an illustration of the elderly fur-coated and decoratively hatted ladies in the Plaza lobby conversing with one another or that of the perplexed and outraged reactions of guests as Eloise sklanks down the hallway on her skates to the long-suffering staff who must deal with the aftermath of Eloise’s attempts to keep herself occupied. One has to wonder just what Nanny is doing through all this; Eloise seems to have pretty much a free run of the hotel. I can see parents being concerned about this aspect of the book…though I’d suggest giving your kids a bit of credit for their innate common sense and desire to please you when reading this book. Chances are they already know better.
1preferably when the cage is already crammed full of busty matrons and luggage carts–it’s more fun to pretend to lose your skate key then)
2the angle of the illustration shows the desk clerks hiding around the corner, peeping out to see if Eloise has gone