Anushka Ravishankar has never met a monster or a ghoul. Disappointed at her boring and monster-deprived childhood, she decided to make life exciting by creating strange creatures - humans, animals and monsters - in her books for children.
Monsters Under Your Bed, Monsters in Your Head
The wonderful Dr Seuss, creator of creatures like the Grinch and the Lorax, has had a new book published recently. The text and illustrations were discovered in a long-forgotten trunk, and, to the delight of Seuss fans everywhere, we have a new Dr Seuss book after a twenty-five-year hiatus. It is called What Pet Can I Get? Two children go into a pet shop to choose a pet. It starts tamely enough with the usual options like a dog or a cat. But the possible pets get weirder and weirder, and the book ends with the children leaving the pet shop with a basket. We don’t know what they’ve got, we can only see two eyes peering from the darkness under the basket’s half-open lid. I will bet my cat’s hat that no child reading it will think it is a dog or a rabbit. I can just imagine young readers going wild with delight at the idea that the children have gone home with some kind of monster as a pet.
What is it with monsters and children’s books? Why is it that children’s literature is peopled with so many monsters— from the rakshasas of myth and the ghouls of folktales to the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s picture books, the odd creatures in Dr Seuss’s books, and the many monster-under-the-bed stories for little children? And let’s not forget the monsters in many forms in tales of fantasy like The Hobbit and Harry Potter.
You might say I’m a fine one to talk. My first ever chapter book for children is called Moin and the Monster. When I was asked to write a children’s story for Puffin many years ago, a monster under the bed was my knee-jerk response. Having given in to this massive cliché, I then proceeded to de-monsterise it by making it a banana-eating, silly-song-singing ridiculous creature. But I can never escape the biographical detail of being the author of yet another monster book for children.
The fact is that monsters abound in children’s literature, and ever since I wrote Moin and the Monster, I’ve been noticing books about monsters all around me. At Duckbill Books, the publishing house that I work with, we have published three books with ‘monster’ in the title in three years. One would think that would be enough for any publishing house. But, lo and behold, come December, we will have another monster book out!
Children seem to find books about monsters, ghouls, genies and rakshasas delightful and exciting, and I’ve never understood why. Take the whole dinosaur obsession. Why on earth do children like these monstrous and, frankly, ugly creatures? A friend recently described going to watch Jurassic World with a bunch of kids. One of the dinosaurs was tearing humans apart limb from limb with its horrible teeth, and the little girl who sat next to her kept saying, ‘He’s so cute!’
Entire industries and, I’m pretty sure, fortunes have been made on the strength of this obsession with dinosaurs. (And we will not get into a discussion of dinosaur porn for adults, thank you very much.) But really, what is it about the extreme Other that so appeals to children? Not all these monsters are loveable. Tyrannosaurus Rex, for instance, would not make a good cuddly toy. Some of the monsters in children’s books would give any sensible adult sleepless nights. I wouldn’t want to encounter Shelob, the giant spider in The Lord of the Rings, in my dreams. But children, it seems, love horror and like being terrified out of their wits.
But even as they give children that exciting frisson and frighten the happy daylights out of them, monster books make useful tools for parents as well. Many of these books are about children’s fears — both the specific, as well as the nebulous ones of darkness and things that go bump in the night. The monster is often a metaphor. Sometimes it is the personification of darkness itself, and sometimes it stands in for the unknowns that the darkness hides. Metaphorical tales about the conquering of monstrous villains give the child the reassuring message that he can, with a little luck, a little wisdom, or a little help, conquer the foes that threaten him.
Children play pretend to replicate adult situations and test out roles and possibilities. In the same way, books about monsters help children to play out their fears and test out scary scenarios in a place that is safe – the inside of a book. Even the monsters that aren’t scary—the ones that are cute or funny — help the child feel braver. A stupid monster makes the child realize that a clever child can outsmart the scariest of monsters, and a cute monster allows for the possibility that not all monsters are dangerous.
The illustrations in children’s books help hugely in de-monsterising the monster. Take The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson’s wonderful book. While it is clearly meant to be a scary monster created by the mouse to scare away potential predators, Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo, when we see it, is such an endearing combination of grizzly bear and buffalo that it is clear that the child reading the book is meant to feel awe, not terror. And the fact that the mouse outwits this huge monster is what makes the book such a success: imagine the sense of empowerment at outsmarting a scary creature!
The monsters in children’s books might be external ones, like the Gruffalo, or internal ones that are meant to be manifestations of aspects of the child’s own mind. For example, in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s imagination transports him to a land full of “wild things”. These bizarre creatures represent Max’s wild side and his dark emotions. The book created quite an uproar when it came out because it delved into the child’s psyche, and what it revealed was not the pretty, sanitized idea of the child that we were used to but the raw, untamed inner world of a real child. Children, naturally, took to the book in droves. As Sendak said, “If I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are, impolitely, lovingly….”
Similarly, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has many magical and mythical creatures, but the most frightening of them all (in this author’s opinion) are the Dementors. The Dementors take the form of their victim’s deepest fear and worst memory. The victim is helpless with terror. The Dementor then kisses the victim, rendering him mindless, his soul sucked out. Thus it is fear itself that gives the Dementor its power.
Sendak’s monsters and Rowling’s Dementors have such power over the imagination of children precisely because they delve deep into the mind of the child. So the monsters are not just creatures out there: they are in the children’s head, taking the shape of their inner demons and their deepest fears. These are monsters that lurk within all of us. When children read about them, they also, in a sense, confront the monsters within. The stories help them play out various ways of slaying these inner monsters, conquering their fears or dealing with their wilder instincts. Do these monsters drawn from the psyche affect children differently than, say, dinosaurs or the Gruffalo, which exist outside of them, and have a different kind of fascination? I suspect that, just like the Dementors represent your particular fear, every monster one encounters will have a specific significance, depending on who you are and what moves you. When I see Max’s monsters, what I feel is not fear, though there is a slight revulsion. The very thought of the Dementors, however, makes my blood drop a few degrees in temperature. Of course, the books are meant for different age groups, which goes some way in explaining the varying effect.
But we must never forget that each child is an individual, too. Though they have less experience of the world than adults do, thus making it easy for us to lump them into a single generality, they each have their own unique DNA, their personal bogeyman, and their private insecurities. While one child might fear something small and external, like a spider, another might have deeper, more psychological fears, like the fear of being abandoned. The child’s perception of a monster will be refracted by his or her own particular lens, and it is quite possible that while one child shouts ‘Cute!’ at a triceratops, another child sees this lizard-like creature as the manifestation of his nightmares.
Monsters in children’s literature might also stand in for more real-life, yet abstract, concepts that seem threatening to the child: the relationship between the child and the adults in her life, or sibling rivalry and resentment, for example.
The Girl Who Cried Monster from the popular Goosebumps series deals, in many ways, with the relationship between a girl and the adults in her life. In this book, the librarian is a monster. (The gloom and vastness of a library makes librarians particularly easy authority figures to turn into monsters!) But alas, no one believes Lucy Dark because she cries monster much too often. So the book also highlights the helplessness of the child trying to convince the adults in her life that there is something threatening in her environment. Finally the threat (the librarian) is decimated in a most satisfactory manner. (Spoiler Alert: Lucy’s parents eat him. Yup. Because they are monsters, too.) In Outside over There, another Maurice Sendak book, goblins come in through the window and steal the child’s baby sister. The goblins are the manifestation of the jealousy and resentment that the child feels for her sibling, but when the goblins strike, she has to go out of the safety of her home to get her baby sister back.
There are also books that help children understand ideas that they do not have the vocabulary to express, through the visual use of monsters. Glad Monsters, Sad Monsters, by Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator Ed Emberley, does a direct match of monster to mood. The idea is to help children identify and understand their emotions, and what better way to do it than through monsters? Using masks, the book helps children go through a range of emotions that they might feel and be unable to express, each one acted out by a monster that represents them.
By contrast, we have the Boojum, a special kind of Snark that Lewis Carroll wrote about in his marvellous book The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. What is a Snark, you ask? Well, a shipload of people who went looking for it didn’t quite know what it was. And the only one who did see it had the misfortune of encountering a Boojum, so he “softly and suddenly vanished away” and no one heard his account of it either. The fact that Carroll’s Snark is so completely nonsensical does not take away at all from its effect on one’s imagination. If I had to name a list of monsters that I’ve encountered in literature, the Boojum would top my list, simply because of the power of these words:
“’But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
“It is this, it is this that oppresses my soul,
“It is this, it is this—” “We have had that before!”
“I engage with the Snark—every night after dark—
“But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
Monsters in literature are as powerful as the words that create them or, as in Sendak’s case, as the illustrations that give them shape. In Moin and the Monster, I set about subverting this relationship between the words and the monster they evoked:
Eyes like flames and nose like pails
That’s how the monster describes itself, but as it has to depend on Moin, the boy it found, for its actual form, it ends up looking comical and pink. Of course, the monster sees itself in fairly clichéd terms—it is fearsome, it has all the physical characteristics that are supposed to evoke awe and terror, it hides under the bed, and so on. But, you see, we don’t really know where monsters come from, what they actually are, and why they do what they do. (Or even what they do, for that matter!) So I began to make up rules as I went along. For instance, why must monsters always be under the bed? No one knows, not even the monster itself. It’s a monster rule. The monster has no gender and cannot be gifted away. It can eat bananas, but might go crazy if it’s given a laxative … I did what all authors are told not to do: I made up stuff as I went along, instead of having a plan of what the character could or could not do. Eventually, the reader begins to suspect that the rules are made up by this moody, silly, vain monster, who likes to sing nonsensical songs and grow its hair.
I wrote my monster mainly as a joke, as a sort of anti-monster, just because one must poke fun at clichés. But people have given me many interpretations of this: the child can control her monster (read fears, wildness, whatever, who knows?!), the child learns the value of friendship (never mind that the book ends with Moin and the monster barely tolerating each other), and so on. I think this is significant.
Adults don’t seem to be able to read children’s books without looking for moral, meaning, and metaphor. So a monster in a children’s book is much more than a monster because adults write these books. We make the monster represent all the important things that we want to talk to the child about, or that we want the child to learn and understand. We can’t just let monsters be monsters. But that does not explain why children love monsters. So I come back to my original question: Why? Why do children find dinosaurs cute? Why do they like stories about ghosts and ghouls? I toyed with the theory that it’s only adults who think that children like monsters. Maybe children actually prefer reading about real, normal people going on picnics? But my outings to schools with Moin and company belie this. Children love hearing about the monster, and they love drawing monsters. Given paper and crayons, they enthusiastically come up with monsters that range from frightening, bloodthirsty ghouls to comical multi-coloured creatures.
So while parents and teachers and writers are busy finding deep, psychological metaphors for monsters in children’s literature, children, I think, just like weird stuff.