Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Not Scary Story About Big Scary Things

By C.K. Williams
Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A boy stares down his biggest fear in the forest by refusing to believe it's real, in this clever, remarkable book.

With subtle, artful cues, award winners Williams and Swiatkowska show readers that monsters can only get to us if we think they can.

Once upon a time, despite all of the scary things he'd heard about the forest, a boy decided to walk through it, though we don't know exactly why.

Maybe he was on an errand or he lived nearby or he just wanted to go from here to there. But it didn't really matter because there he was.

He was in the very place everyone said had big, dark trees that block sunlight and cliffs that he could fall off. You know, a regular, ordinary forest where there are probably bears who growl and wolves who howl.

And how does everyone know this? "Because if you listened very hard you could almost hear them," Williams writes.

And don't forget big snakes that slither right next to where people walk.

For a scary forest, it was pretty typical, except for the fact that it also had a monster. At least that's what people said.

They said the monster was huge and it was green…or was it blue?

"Or maybe it changed colors. It had long, sharp claws, for another thing," Williams writes, and big teeth, fangs, and a prickly tall so much bigger than a porcupine's.

And, of course, its favorite thing to do was scare little children. Really scare them.

But the boy wasn't like many people. He didn't believe any of it. Well, most of it he didn't believe.

He knew that the scary things people worried about and the things he'd been taught about the forest were not the same.

For one thing, though he was pretty sure he could hear bears growl in their caves, he knew for a fact that it was just the sound bears make.

And though he was pretty sure he could hear wolves howl, he knew they didn't like to go near humans.

He also knew that snakes avoided humans, so if he did see one, he'd just stop and wait for it to go away.

But the monster -- the one they said goes, "RROWWWL" -- that fear was a little trickier to sort through.

Deep inside, the boy knew that the monster wasn't any different than other make-believe fears. And it didn't even exist.

Still, those kinds of fears can be the hardest to shake and as the boys walks, he feels them nagging at him.

At one point, he notices tree trunks look like big stocky legs with claws, yet even as he imagines the monster creeping closer, crashing its fangs, the boy refuses to give in to his fears.

But how do you convince yourself that something's not real when it starts talking to you?

Well, that's exactly what this monster did. Maybe now the monster could finally rattle the boy!

"Hey," the monster calls out to the boy, his green toothy snout now the size of a full page, "you'd better watch out, because if you're not careful I might eat you up!."

Once again, the boy fights off the urge to run. Even though he's walking a little faster, he tells himself it's because he's hungry and wants to get home sooner.

Meanwhile, the monster has grown indignant and does everything he can think of to prove he's really real. He offers to change his colors and even make his teeth longer and sharper.

Even when the monster gives the boy his sob story about how he'll be out of work if kids stop fearing him, the boy holds his ground.

"I'm sorry," he tells the monster. "I can't believe in something that's not real."

Finally, the monster becomes desperate and pleads with the boy to believe in him just a little bit, and something begins to happen.

The monster starts to shrink and soon the monster is too small to keep up with the boy.

This time the monster doesn't want to be left behind and calls out to the the boy to carry him.

So why is the boy scooping him up? Does this mean it's OK to believe in monsters just a little?

Fascinating to read, this is one of the smartest books I've found for helping children conquer their fears.

It breaks apart in a logical way some of the things children worry about and shows them more then tells them why these fears are unfounded.

With a surprising twist at the end, the story beautifully underscores how easily our minds can fool with us if we let them.

I loved how Williams inserted conditional words when talking about fears, saying that the forest "probably" had animals who cried out and how you could "almost" hear them.

Then when describing the monster, he pokes fun at how everyone's perception of this beast is a little different, therefore no one has probably seen it.

Some people think it's blue, others green, and of course it has to have all the standard things that make monsters scary, such as a spiky tail, though again there isn't just one idea of what that looks like.

With wit and wisdom, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner elevates the storybook premise of a child overcoming his fears to something almost philosophical and yet the story remains completely accessible to a child.

Equally clever and fascinating are Swiatkowska's illustrations. Swiatkowska, who won the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for My Name is Yoon in 2004, uses various art styles to punctuate how fears creep into our thoughts, often before we even know we have them.

One of my favorite scenes occurs as the story opens. As Williams describes preconceived fears about the forest, Swiatkowska shows the forest as people fear it on one side of the fold and the forest as it truly is on the other side.

First, the forest is sketched in black-and-white, then on the next page, it's depicted in gentle acrylics. As a bear walks across the fold, half of it is drawn in pencil and half is painted to suggest how perceptions and reality can be so different.

Then something very interesting occurs. Though the monster is introduced to the story, it is never fully formed as a picture. It appears as swatches of things shown up close, such as claws or teeth, and none of these traits really look as though they could come from the same creature.

Later, she pieces them into a monster-like creature, though it's very disjointed. Then we see the monster's legs depicted as tree trunks in the forest and ultimately, in the only coalesced image of the monster, it appears as a faint sketch near the end of the story.

In this picture, which occurs as the boy starts to conquer his fears once and for all, the monster looks more like a cross between a bear and wolf than a monster, and you can see through it.

I was fascinated to watch Swiatkowska play out the boy's fear and see her art reflect how fears can be fed by bits and pieces of things people hear.

In the end, readers learn that if they look closely enough, they might find that perceptions of monsters don't quite match up.

Stunning and smart, this a book that, if any book can, could help your child conquer his fears once and for all, or at least long enough for a good night sleep.

So often we as parents feel as though nothing we can say can erase our child's fears and yet here is a book that might just make all of the logic we've tried to impart actually click.

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