Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.

 

Child Reader, Adult Author: Talking to Kids Through Story

In the past two days, I’ve read two takes on the creator/audience relationship when it comes to children’s books from two very different sources. The first is from Leonard Marcus’s introduction to Ways of Telling: Fourteen Interviews with the Masters of the Art of the Picture Bookhis book Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book. Marcus describes the picture book not only as a dialogue between words and pictures but also, “a dialogue between generations: between the artists and writers who create the and the children who compose their primary audience.”

The second is an interview with Dav Pilkey on NPR (the complete interview is here).

It was this bit of the article/interview that struck me the most:

 In the new Captain Underpants book, he writes: “If you’re like most kids you’re probably reading this book because some adult wanted you to stop playing video games or watching Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-BoxersTV.” Pilkey says that when he writes for kids, “it’s really an ‘us and them’ type of situation. It’s like me and the kids versus the grown-ups.”

Once I got shook of the bristling-type feeling I got from the “us and them” language Pilkey used, I realized while they’re clearly expressing themselves quite differently, in essence, both Leonard Marcus and Dav Pilkey are saying the same thing. And they got me thinking about the nature of writing for a young audience when you are, inevitably, a grown-up. I’ve always rejected the idea that you need to have children yourself in order to really write for kids. Equally absurd to me is the idea that the people who write for children somehow still are children themselves. Was Maurice Sendak really just an overgrown child a heart? Why would we even want him to be?

Maybe all you really need is to strive to create this dialogue between the grown-up creator and the child. Reading books with my daughter that have sly adult references always get my goat. Picture books—and even early readers, chapter books, and beyond—aren’t really for adults. They’re for and about the young readers.

There are so many ways to write for young children and create a dialogue with young readers. You can do it through loving, comforting stories. And you can do it through telling a really awesome fart joke. My approach to writing is much, much different from Dav Pilkey’s. But I completely appreciate the sense of empowerment kids can get knowing that the author of a favorite book is on their side, writing for just them, parents be damned. It’s why the Captain Underpants books are so well loved. It’s the dialogue every writer for children, in myriad different ways, is trying to create.

And anyway, who doesn’t love a good fart joke?