Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary
I met bestselling author David Sedaris in 2008 at a Barnes and Noble book-signing event for When You Are Engulfed In Flames. While he seemed more than a little uncomfortable with the kind of feigned intimacy such an event requires, he was still charming, professional, and idiosyncratic throughout our brief encounter.
He asked me if I liked turtles, as he set about doodling a smiling cartoon turtle on the title page. I nervously replied that well, I'd never eaten one, so I didn't know if I liked them or not.
“Why would you say that?” he asked.
I went on to tell him about a short online video I'd seen earlier that week. In it, an ancient tortoise was filmed trying to eat the boot of some Australian hiker, who still happened to be wearing said boot at the time. For some reason, I explained, that made me think of eating turtles. Quick as you please, Sedaris drew a jaunty pointy-toed boot just above his byline.
“You see that? That's the shoe where Mother Hubbard lives. And you see that turtle down there? He's going to murder Mother Hubbard.”
My eyes lit up like a little girl on Christmas morning. “Oooh! And the children?,” I asked excitedly, clapping my hands together.
“AND the children,” he replied with a tiny smirk, before sliding my newly signed book back to me across the table.
Based on that interaction, it seems safe to assume that Sedaris had been thinking for quite some time about the many (humorous) perils of viewing beasts through a humanizing lens. Indeed, with “April In Paris,” one of the stories featured in When You Are Engulfed In Flames, Sedaris writes:
I've often heard that anthropomorphizing an animal is the worst justice you can do it. That said, I'm as guilty as anyone. In childhood stories, the snail grabs her purse and dashes out the door to put money in the meter. The rabbit cries when the blue jay makes fun of her buck teeth. The mouse loves his sister but not that way. And we think, *They're just like us!”
Sedaris tackles the multifaceted human experience via anthropomorphized animals, to hilarious effect, in his latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Sedaris' stories are punctuated by illustrations from Ian Falconer, who is best known as the creator of “Olivia,” the Caldecott Honor-winning series of children's books about an adorable anthropomorphic piggy. These sixteen stories almost sit like a challenge to our instinct to see animals as being “just like us.” The book also calls into question that parallel inclination by humans to pretend that somehow we're not animals. With every story, I could practically hear Sedaris' feisty voice defiantly shouting, “So, you want to see animals act like people? Here you go. Just be careful what you wish for. You might not like everything you see.”
Take, for instance, “The Migrating Warblers,” a story of two condescending migratory birds who, with their glib dismissal of other countries as inferior, embody the "ugly American." Meanwhile, “The Mouse and the Snake” directly addresses the perils of trying to claim that an animal is “just like us”—not to mention the willful ignorance it takes to keep exotic/dangerous animals as pets. “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” skewers the smug supposed power of positive thinking, and ends with one of the most morbid limericks I have ever read. In “The Vigilant Rabbit,” vigilance is synonymous with vigilante justice, as one rabbit humorlessly protects the borders of “his” forest with a ruthless ferocity. A few poignant tales also appear, such as the title story, which tackles miscommunication and lost love, and “Hello Kitty,” about the unusual circumstances of a combative alcoholic cat in an inter-species prison
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is for every human whose bosom has swelled—in delight or empathy—when watching a movie featuring CGI-animated talking hamsters, or upon seeing photos of a chihuahua whose people think it's cute to take pictures of the poor creature dressed up in a pink tutu. Sedaris' book reminds us that, just as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all humans are animals—but animals are most decidedly not human.