Weekly Reads: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Hi, and welcome back to Weekly Reads! I didn’t manage a lot of new reads this week after running down that TMI hill, so today I’m just going to talk a bit about Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill.

Lullabies for Little Criminals cover

Have you ever read Catcher in the Rye? I’m guessing that if you’re reading a website about books that’s mostly about young adult books, you probably have. Here’s one of my signature unpopular opinions: I can’t stand Catcher in the Rye. 

A lot of teenage protagonists tend to be self-absorbed. I don’t say that to knock real-life teens or even those fictional ones; it’s a time of identity struggle and a lot of self-reflection is normal. (Plus a lot of YA has a lot of reasons for protagonists to be wrapped up in their own problems.)

But the self-absorption of Holden Caulfield was just too much for me. It was too easy to forget that his recklessness and loneliness were symptoms of his grief, because that was so sparsely dealt with. The book focuses a lot on him as an outsider and as misunderstood. I can completely understand the appeal of this as a teenager, but the issue for me was that Holden seemed to go out of his way to be misunderstood. He has a lot of privilege and a lot of opportunities to connect, but he tends to sabotage himself and then wallow in the fact that he’s no longer a child—while still desiring the trappings of adulthood without wanting to take any responsibility. He spends a lot of time complaining either internally or to others about the way the world works around him, but takes no steps and has no real ideas to facilitate change.

Holden is the archetype of the kind of teenager that older generations complain about. And while I can understand how putting that character at the centre of a story meant a lot for literature then and after, I’ve always been baffled why the book still feels relevant to people today.

Baby of Lullabies for Little Criminals is a very different character.

Why compare the two? Because when I started to think about how to review this book, I realized that the recklessness and loneliness of Baby, her inability to see through to the consequences of her actions, reminded me of Holden Caulfield. Even her ridiculous sense of style and the whimsical similes she uses to describe coming of age are reminiscent.

But where Holden is a boy from a middle class family running away from boarding school, Baby’s father is a heroin addict. Her mother is gone. She lives from apartment to apartment and wanders the streets in the worst parts of Montreal. And she’s a pretty girl starved for affection.

Baby is not a universally relatable character, obviously. While the trajectory of her story is predictable enough, it’s not something that happens to the majority of people. (Also, the book draws on its setting enough to feel specific and situated without being impossible to picture—one of its strengths.) But neither, really, is Holden’s story. What’s relatable is the loneliness and the feeling of being in between: in between childhood, when a certain lack of awareness and the way people treat you shield you from some realities of the world, and adulthood, when you have to take full responsibility for your actions.

And those feelings are made much more poignant by the fact that though Baby has every reason to be sad or angry, she instead looks for those snatches of belonging and affection she can find, the snatches of beauty that she can see in the people and the world around her. Even though she’s been socialized not to rely on or expect anything of anyone—except her father, who will almost certainly let her down—she still finds ways to form even temporary connections.

I don’t know if Lullabies for Little Criminals would be a great book to read in high school. It is, despite its beauty and Baby’s usually optimistic (or at least pragmatic) outlook, much darker than Catcher in the Rye and really most books from a teen perspective I’ve read. It was, so far as I know, marketed for adults, no matter how many people have shelved it as young adult on Goodreads. And I’m no authority on what’s actually appropriate for teens to read en masse. (Although, to be fair, Catcher in the Rye is one of the most banned books ever because a lot of people didn’t think it was appropriate for teens to read en masse, so who’s to say?)

What I do know is that Lullabies for Little Criminals, though sometimes grim and somewhat flawed made me feel the loneliness and stuck-between feelings of its protagonist in a way that Catcher in the Rye never has—that many coming-of-age books never have, really. (Flaw example: Baby occasionally flags in the narration that she’s looking back on the time we’re reading about, but all of the writing maintains a childlike whimsy in terms of description—I really dislike when authors do this, because it pulls you out of the story to question the authenticity of the point of view.) And I felt for Baby, even when she made her worst decisions, even when it seemed like she couldn’t sympathize with herself. I also know that there are people in high schools in a lot of places who would relate more to the world Baby lives in than they can relate to where Holden Caulfield comes from.

So this book has earned its spot on my shelf, and I’m willing to call it young adult if you are. Either way, if you enjoy coming-of-age stories, then I’d recommend this book.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you Thursday!

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