Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Best Book About Monsters To Teach Kids That Monsters, and Books, Are Nothing To Be Afraid Of.

Because I read to the twins, Mr F and Mr Bunches, almost every day, I've noticed something I never realized when I was a little kid: A lot of kid's books break the fourth wall. A move that was seen as innovative and wacky and crazy when Ferris Bueller did it is, in fact, something that kids who read or are read to will think is common place.

I probably didn't notice this, when I was a kid, because I had no idea what the "Fourth Wall" was. I just knew I loved reading and loved books -- I taught myself to read at age two -- and didn't give much thought to the techniques the writers used to pull me in as a kid.

Now, as an adult, I can read books like The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog or today's nominee, The Monster At The End Of This Book, and see how unique and creative they are, and how the little tricks that authors use more and more frequently in kid's books -- little asides and scribbles and putting the names of the dinosaurs onto the furniture in the room (in the book How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?) or the incredibly detailed drawings combined with the advice on the inside covers of What Are YOU So Grumpy About?, little tricks like that, help encourage kids to read.

They do that, encourage kids to read with those little gimmicks and fourth-wall-breakers, by making reading fun and sneaking reading into the pictures: when a kid reads How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight and examines the picture of the dinosaur roaring around its room and sees the name of the dinosaur written on the bedpost, that kid has just learned something (and read). When a parent lingers on a page in What are YOU So Grumpy About? to read the hilarious names of the cereals mentioned in that book, the kid gets more drawn into the book and learns that pictures and words combine into an image.

And when the pigeon turns to the reader and asks Can you believe this guy?, kids are pulled right into that story as quickly as if they were a Jasper Fforde character.

All of those little tricks are great methods for getting a kid to like a book even more -- even more than he or she would on its own, even more than he or she will when you, mom or dad, read the book to that kid and do the voices and draw them in.

And The Best of those books, books that draw kids in through literary techniques that kids love, is also the earliest of all books that I can remember that broke the fourth wall and drew me into the world of the book -- and the book into my world.

Books when I was a kid were, early on, pretty sedate. The Poky Little Puppy, the Berenstain Bears, Doctor Seuss - -these were good books, but they were just that -- books. Even the Dr. Seuss books, as entertaining as they were, sat there on the page and had to be read.

Not so with The Monster At The End of This Book, starring loveable old Grover. In The Monster At The End Of This Book, the differences between that book and others started right with the cover. Grover was right there, talking to me. Who ever heard of a cover talking to people?

Then, I opened the book and immediately Grover is talking... to me. He's asking me what was on the cover and talking with me and working with me, telling me not to turn the page and not to get to the monster at the end of the book because monsters are scary, right?

[SPOILER ALERT! IT'S OKAY IF YOU'RE AN ADULT TO READ THIS SECTION BUT DON'T RUIN IT FOR THE KIDS!] As the book goes on, Grover became more and more desperate to stop me from getting to the end of the book -- making me both apprehensive, the first time I read it, and excited. How great, how scary, would the monster at the end of the book be? Grover's desperation grew more and more dramatic: roping off pages, boarding them up, constructing a brick wall.

With each page, the wreckage of the earlier attempts to stop me mounted up and with each page Grover became more insistent that I not go further, and also continued talking directly to me -- telling me not to turn the page, and saying to me, after I turned the page blocked with bricks Do you know that you are very strong?

I liked that.

The reader gets to the end of the book and it turns out the monster is... Grover; there's even a neat little coda there to wrap it all up.

The lesson is obvious, and also broad -- don't be afraid of things just because of their labels; Grover is a monster and we shouldn't be afraid of him, right? A second lesson: don't jump to conclusions.

But the more important thing that The Monster At The End of This Book taught me was this: books have no limits.

The art in The Monster At The End Of This Book didn't end at the borders of the pages; there were no borders. There was no white space that I remember. The book took up the entire page, and in doing so entirely filled up the world; it made me forget that this was a book and instead made me think that this was a world, a world I was invited into because I was there with Grover, trying to get to the end of the book, talking with him, fighting against him.

The Monster At The End Of This Book, as is the first book I can remember that became more than just words on a page; it became an experience, and it is a sterling example of how a book can engage the reader, can draw the reader in, can become something you live, if only in your imagination. It is The Best Book About Monsters To Teach Kids That Monsters, and Books, Are Nothing To Be Afraid Of, and it does teach them that. And it teaches kids that books start on the page, but end in the world of the mind.

And it teaches kids that they are very strong.

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Children tormented by demons. An old man accidentally killing people. Witches who live hundreds of years and escape from Hell repeatedly. An astronaut drifting through space... these and other great stories can be found only on AfterDark: The scariest things, you CAN'T imagine.

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