Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'NeillI’ve been hearing about Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill for a few years now in the Canadian Lit scene as it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and won the 2007 Canada Reads. When it popped up again in the recent Top 40 Canada Reads books, I decided to go pick up a copy. I’m certainly glad I did.

At 12-years-old, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby’s gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap.

But her blossoming beauty when she turns 13 captures the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore.

You know that nagging feeling you get when you’ve forgotten to finish something, but can’t quite place it? That’s how I felt whenever I wasn’t reading this book. It’s beautifully written, well-told, compelling, and sometimes painful.

Baby, the main character, is so innocent and sweet and you can’t help but love her. Baby’s coming-of-age story is saddening because no one should lose their childhood the way she has. Yet it’s impossible not to fall in love with Baby, her continual optimism and her hope, despite her situation.

Written in first person, the narrative is often poetic as it details life on the streets, drug abuse, crime and poverty, and prostitution. Baby is funny, intelligent, resourceful, quick-witted, but also just wants to have a ‘normal’ life and to be loved. You want to protect her from life in the red light district of Montreal, but it’s nearly impossible.

My only complaint would be the portrayal of Montreal. Heather O’Neill grew up in a rough inner-city neighbourhood in Montreal, and the story takes place in a similar type of neighbourhood in the 1980’s. “The novel isn’t autobiographical, but it does come from things I observed as a kid and what and who I was attracted to as a kid,” O’Neill said in an interview.

But for me, having only visited Montreal once — and not had a particularly wonderful experience — it made me sad that the city was portrayed that rough. I could probably say the same if I read a book placed in Vancouver’s downtown east side, but I just wanted to give Montreal another chance, both in the book and in real life. I do plan to go back to Montreal one day and have a fuller (and better) experience.

I’m going to end my review on a high note by sharing this quote from an interview with Heather O’Neill. She was asked why she chose to write in the first-person from a child’s perspective, and here is her brilliant answer:

“There’s this resilience that kids have….They can stay innocent and keep reinventing themselves despite a lot of appalling stuff. I find the juxtaposition of the innocence of children and the cruelty of the urban world really inspiring. Even when they are in the most horrible of circumstances, their world view is still magical and is informed by talking crocodiles, super heroes and agoraphobic monsters who live in their closets. Kids are all philosophers, processing the world. It also allowed me to describe adults in a different way. The qualities in adults that attract, impress, and disgust children are different than those that their peers notice. So a child’s voice allowed me to create portraits of demimonde characters from a different perspective while shedding of a lot of societal preconceptions.”

  • Listen to’s Prosecast of the first chapter of Lullabies for Little Criminals
  • Quill & Quire Author Profile — Heather O’Neill
  • Winner of Canada Reads 2007 — CBC Book Profile
  • Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award 2007
  • Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2008
  • Shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award 2007
  • Shortlisted for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2007
  • Shortlisted for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal 2007