The Grumpy Pets

Image of The Grumpy Pets
Release Date: 
April 4, 2016
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: 

Since her first picture was posted on Reddit in 2012, the Internet has been substantially owned by Grumpy Cat. It’s hard to get through a day without seeing the irascible feline’s image on one meme or another. Her Facebook page has accumulated over seven million hits, and now she has a growing merchandising empire, too.

After a successful career in advertising, author/illustrator Kristine A. Lombardi surely recognizes that coattailing on popular trends can be an effective marketing strategy. Strategically timed or not, The Grumpy Pets should benefit from the Grumpy Cat phenomenon. Lombardi’s charming illustrations won’t hurt its chances, either.  

The Grumpy Pets’ plot, on the other hand, may be a hurdle—at least for some readers. On the surface, it can be simply summarized: Mom takes Billy and Sara to the pet store. Sara and the other customers delight in all the adorableness, but grumpy Billy is unmoved. Fortunately, he finds a cloistered collection of ornery dogs and bonds with a scruffy, scowling pooch. Everyone lives happily ever after. The message of the story, as spelled out on the jacket flap, is that “there is a perfect match for everyone, if you stay true to yourself.” Seems edifying enough.

But upon reflection one worries that this message is lost, or worse dangerous, in the context of the many questions left unanswered by the text. First and foremost, what’s wrong with Billy? Mom took him to the pet store hoping “a special trip would give him a reason to smile.” This makes Billy’s grumpiness sound like something rather more than a charming personality quirk. He is either chronically sad or something has recently gone very wrong in his life.

And while it’s one thing to stay true to a distaste for cloying cuteness, Billy seems quite possibly depressed. Maybe what he needs more than a dog is help finding out why he’s so grumpy. Maybe it’s no favor to teach him, like millions of children have been taught for a generation or two, that whatever you are, however you feel, you are perfect just the way you are.

And the reader may also fear for Billy’s physical safety. What’s wrong with those “crabby, cranky, and moody” pets quarantined in the dark recesses of the shop? That’s not normal is it? Perhaps Billy ought to have been advised not to go anywhere near them.

After a grumpy stare-down, both Billy and his new canine friend smile at each other in a swell of hearts and “stayed like that for a long time.” So perhaps they are only misunderstood loners looking for someone who understands them. But why doesn’t anyone understand Billy but a grumpy, banished-to-the-back-of-the-shop dog?

While pet therapy is a wonderful way to break through to children who aren’t able to express themselves—and finding the right pet is a crucial step down that path—there is no suggestion in Grumpy Pets that Billy needs to do any such thing.

After Billy and his new pooch exchange decidedly (but private) un-grumpy smiles, they join the others, immediately reverting to their grumpy personas. They are fakers, then? Softies who need to put up a tough guy front? If so, and yet again, why?

I don’t mean to go all Grumpy Cat on you, but sometimes children need to change—reinforcing their problems will only keep them in a cage.