I finished Heather O’Neill’s “Lullabies for Little Criminals” about fifteen minutes ago and this tragic and beautiful work of prose is one of the best things that I’ve read in a long time. This raw account of a twelve year old girl, trapped in that place between childhood and adulthood, is gut-wrenching and brutally honest. The protagonist, Baby, wants nothing more than to be considered an adult, however with her heroin addict father and the squalid conditions in which they live, Baby is forced into adulthood far before her time.
As a pre-teen and young teenager, Baby is raped, prostituted, addicted to heroin, and homeless. Her childhood is brutally stolen from her it is in these times of violation and desolation that she desperately clings to whatever she can of her childhood: memories of toys, drawings, singing. Throughout the novel and sometimes during her highs she often sees birds. These birds become a symbol of her lost innocence and the freedom which she does not possess. They circle her head or “burst out of the man’s hand like a magic trick” (199). Imagining these free creatures is a form of escape for Baby. She is mentally able to remove herself from the terrible situations and reach back towards childhood even if just for a moment.
Although I finished this novel in record time, it’s address of difficult subjects made it a real struggle to face. Each chapter brings on a new step in Baby’s downward spiral. She constantly seeks out motherhood in the adult figures around her. In her pimp, Alphonse, she finds the dedication and attentiveness that she wishes out of a mother. When staying at her friend Felix’s home, she finds the tenderness of a woman’s touch that is absent in her regular life. Reading her story, I wanted to reach out to Baby and pull her into my arms to give her a warm, safe place to be. There is nothing warm or safe about the life she is given.
Baby observes other delinquent children, but it is only at her lowest point that she realizes that they are all the same. Each of them seeks the safety of a stable home and loving parents. As she is pulled into prostitution and hard drugs, she recounts these “delinquents” in a way that is mature beyond her years. She sees the desperate need to help them and she becomes aware of how far removed from them she has become. She longs to play with them again, crying out for the childhood she no longer has.
The cover of the novel hints not at the devastation that lays within the pages, but at the childhood that we all experience and eventually move away from. The colours are vibrant and the image is of a girl skipping rope. I remember my own childhood, jumping high off the ground and the second I would take off, I’d be in another world.This image encapsulates Baby’s desire for innocence and her need to be the child she is. The girl, pushing off from the ground, is the symbol of becoming free of the world’s heaviness. I imagine the girl on the cover is or could be Baby, taking back whatever aspect of her childhood she can and for a moment, leaving the adult world behind to fly among the birds.
My decision to read this book was based off of the recommendation of a friend. It was moving and eye-opening to the harsh realities that exist in our world. It’s one that I could read again and again.