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Columns

‘Casein’ Point: The Hidden Messages of ‘Geronimo Stilton’

By Nour L. Khachemoune, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nour L. Khachemoune ‘22-‘23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.

People often speak of words jumping out at you on a page, but how many series really exhibit this besides “Geronimo Stilton?” The books are immediately striking for their unique typeface, if nothing else. Each page is in full color, with author Elisabetta Dami playing with fonts, sizes, and tiny in-line illustrations. The visual presentation of the books captures children’s attention immediately, drawing them into Geronimo’s world of New Mouse City.

Our protagonist mouse and his murine friends live in a world that never lets you forget its inhabitants are rats, yet, this world also seems so human, reflecting the inner workings of our own society. Geronimo enjoys curling up after work with a hot drink just as us humans do, although his is a steaming cup of hot cheddar. He is also a writer and runs a newspaper, despite having paws, and is purportedly the true author of his own stories. Perhaps the series’s wordplay seems a bit more logical when it is supposed to be written by the mouse himself.

Incessant references to cheese are sprinkled throughout the stories, making it clear what the true author, Dami, imagines mice would have on their minds at all times. She humorously refers to two mice always being together “like cream and cheese,” and even includes darker references that demonstrate the mice know their place in this strange world, saying ideas can stick “like a mouse in a glue trap.” She also plays with the line, or lack thereof, between rats and mice, although the phrase “slimy sewer rats” is still used as a common insult.

In Geronimo’s society, a rat or mouse can be almost anything its little heart desires, and yet, surprisingly humanoid aspects of life are still omnipresent. There is still somewhat of a class system looking down upon sewer rats in this interesting world. Common tropes such as the snobby butler are also found throughout the “Geronimo Stilton'' books, yet their usage never seems contrived. The cheese-related puns that frame them render these tropes digestible to the children encountering them for the first time on their literary journey.

The series’s absurd style, especially its concentration of cheese-related puns, makes it humorous to all ages. The attention-grabbing typesetting satiates the reader’s eyes (and perhaps their stomach as well through its abundance of cheese), and allows them to overlook the more subtle references that are often included in normal fonts.

References to the outside, very human, world are twisted throughout the narrative, often as asides that fly over young readers’ heads. Geronimo encounters a giant pet cockroach named Kafka curiously living in a one room house, and thinks nothing of this oddly specific name. Young readers wouldn’t, either, until they might happen to read “The Metamorphosis,” a classic by Franz Kafka, where the tale of a giant cockroach might suddenly seem familiar. In the same story, Geronimo finds himself snout-to-snout with his friend’s grandfather, Professor Frankenstein, a mad scientist presumed to be dead but later found to come back to life. These highbrow references are presented with little fanfare compared to the heaps of cheese-related jokes, yet still take hold in the minds of children only to be drawn out later in life, perhaps in English class.

Literary references may intentionally whet children’s appetites for classics and the world around them in a subtle way, or may simply be included for sport. But there is no doubt that they are significant and serve to prove that wording and references to the outside world can have deep implications for children.

The references in “Geronimo Stilton” are decidedly harmless and even positive in what they expose children to, but not all children’s literature ages (like cheese) in the same way. In this case, we praise subliminal messaging, but it reminds us above all of the impact that dropped-in lines have upon children. In one instance, Geronimo’s boorish cousin Trap references pouring boiling oil on enemies in medieval times, and Geronimo remarks that he is impressed by his cultural knowledge. Trap scoffs in response and reveals that he learned that from a cartoon. How self-aware of such a rough-edged mouse. Like Trap, we readers inadvertently learned so much about the world from the references melted into “Geronimo Stilton.”

Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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