Children's book parodies may just be the grilled cheese trucks of the book world these days. Easy, tasty, but sometimes a little lazy, these whimsical tomes have flooded the shelves since Adam Mansbach's wildly popular 2011 hit "Go the F — to Sleep." Fans of the genre can now choose between "The Very Hungry Zombie," "Are You My Boyfriend?" and "Bi-Curious George," to name a few.
Beyond simply updating a classic, such parodies tend to take aim at some absurd dimension of modern life, whether it's the proliferation of electronic devices skewered in "Goodnight iPad" ("Good night buzzing, good night beeps, good night everybody who should be asleep") or the spousal dissatisfaction outlined in "Pat the Husband" ("Judy does her best to remember who wears the pants in her house. Can you put the pants on Paul?").
"Ella," created by comedian Mallory Kasdan and illustrated by Marcos Chin, is the latest in a long line of such books.
Ella, 6, is the modern downtown version of Eloise, the popular children's book character created by Kay Thompson in 1955. Instead of hanging out at the Plaza Hotel, Ella lives in a hip urban lodge that's more like New York's Chelsea Hotel, featuring "crumbly old brick and recycled wood beams." Instead of saluting the doorman, Ella is friendly with Maverick, a bouncer from the rooftop bar ("I'm always like 'What's up Maverick?' And he's always like 'What's up girl how you feel?'"). Instead of a nanny, Ella has a Manny with tattoo sleeves who plays guitar and makes films and — appropriately enough — "might go in with some guys to buy a grilled cheese truck."
"Jojo the Night Maid folds down our sheets and leaves us extra dark chocolate caramels with sea salt," says Ella. "She's cool like that."
With "Ella," Kasdan takes aim at the colorful trappings of the urban hipster. Where Eloise played with her pet turtle, Ella travels by scooter, loves to text, and hula hoops on the roof deck. Ella is also into drum circles, rapping, mani-pedis, and pastries from Le Petit Bakery. She starts each day with "some energizing breathwork and yoga poses." Later, "Manny grabs his guitar and starts strumming and we figure out a vibe so we can get motivated."
Making fun of urban hipsters is nothing new, of course, as demonstrated by books like "Stuff White People Like" and "So You Think You're a Hipster." And hipster kids and their supernaturally liberal parents may be an even bigger, juicier target, if the popular Twitter feed of fictional ultra-progressive preschool "Los Feliz Day Care" is any indication. (Sample tweet: "Nugget referred to Tellulah's emotional support animal as a dog, but it doesn't identify as a dog, so that's problematic.")
Unfortunately, "Ella" is less often funny than cringe-inducing. Even though Eloise's enormous wealth and snooty naiveté were a big part of the joke of that series — Eloise's mother knew Coco Chanel, often flew to Paris and would send for Eloise if there was "some sun" – translating these old references into modern ones falls a little flat. Ella's privilege just comes off as irritating: "Judith is my tutor. She has a PhD from Harvard. My mother summers with the dean." Or how about: "Sometimes I walk the red carpet like my mom. She's in the Entertainment Industry. She knows Bono." Somehow knowing Coco Chanel feels a little more quaint and adorable than talk of red carpets and Bono.
"Ella" does capture the original angst at the heart of "Eloise." Who didn't wonder as a kid why Eloise wasn't snatched away from her neglectful parents by Child Protective Services? There was always a little shadow of loneliness to Eloise's free-range, rich-girl fantasy.
Likewise, even though a little kid might love to hang out at a rooftop bar with a gaggle of bartenders ("They give me a muddling tool to muddle mint. Muddle!"), there's still something depressing about it. And fist-bumping a bouncer or "chillaxing" with a Manny aren't just faintly sad, they also foreshadow the trust-fund DJ or endowed experimental filmmaker who lies at the end of this particular hothouse rainbow.
Maybe "Ella" is unnerving mostly because it captures our current cultural moment a little too well. Plenty of kids these days seem to lie in that nowhere land between overbearing parental expectations and device-enabled neglect. Or as Ella herself puts it, "Every morning I have to take my iPad to the Desk Clerk to see what's up with the Wifi." Then a few pages later: "My mother wants me to be well-rounded so I can go to an Ivy."
In the intersection between these two statements, a certain sadness sets in. At least Eloise was fictional. Ella, though? She's everywhere.
Havrilesky is author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness."
Mallory Kasdan, illustrated by Marcos Chin
Viking: 56 pp., $17.99, ages 5 and up