It’s a good time to be a fan of Mary Shelley and the story that brought her lasting fame, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The book celebrates its 200th birthday this year, and there’s been more than one children’s book in 2018 bringing Mary to life, including Lita Judge’s Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein from earlier this year — books that also bring to life the circumstances surrounding the creation of this classic tale. Late August and early September bring two more books, both picture books — Lynn Fulton’s She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, illustrated by Felicita Sala, and Linda Bailey’s Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, illustrated by Júlia Sardà.
Shelley lived a troubled and complicated life, and I can’t imagine it’s an easy task to capture it in the 32- or 48-page world of the picture book (though, to be clear, Bailey’s book clocks in at an ambitious 56 pages). Both books are for younger readers and manage to find accessible entry points for the audience at which they’re aimed — both emphasizing particular influences in Shelley’s life (her feminist mother, her relationship with Percy Shelley, her desire to write a ghost story) but each laid out on significantly different frameworks.
Fulton’s framework is a “wild, stormy night,” one during which Shelley and her friends stayed in a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland with the famous poet Lord Byron. Whereas the second half of Bailey’s book is devoted to this spectral night-time gathering, Fulton stays here for 48 pages, with just a few spreads providing flashbacks to Mary’s childhood. At Lake Geneva, she and her friends read frightening tales aloud to one another, and Lord Byron declares that each should write a ghost story. “In a week,” he announces, “we will see who has written the best one.” Mary, Fulton writes, was unsure how to begin her story, but — after hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley and her other male friends talk about scientific experiments that night, ones in which dead frogs kick their legs, and after remembering a chilling story from her childhood of a scientist who makes a corpse move by using electricity — she is sufficiently spooked and inspired to write her own tale (but not until after a fair amount of tossing and turning in bed).
Fulton puts a satisfying female-empowerment spin on this literary origin story, writing about how, during Mary’s struggles to write her own ghost story, she fondly remembers her deceased mother, an 18th-century advocate of women’s rights. “Women the equals of men?” Fulton writes in the voice of the surprised men of the age. “What a monstrous thought!” (See what she does there?) Fulton also describes how Mary eavesdropped on the men in the house at Lake Geneva that evening, men who discussed how triumphant it would be to “give life to lifeless matter.” Mary, however, wondered at the morality of it all. Fulton writes,
“Mary shook her head as she listened. ‘Nature might have very good reasons for keeping her secrets,’ she thought. ‘Besides, what would happen to that “lifeless matter” once someone had given it life?’ The men did not seem to care. They only asked if something could be done — never if it should.”
Bailey kicks her story off much differently, asking of child readers: “How does a story begin?” Here we see, from a delightful aerial view, Mary as a girl, lying on her bed with a book in her lap. The book is face down, and Mary is thinking, staring right at readers with intense, thoughtful eyes. Mary, we learn, is a dreamer.
We read about her mother’s death, and we are right there with Mary as a child, watching her grow. Bailey peppers the story with questions (“Can you miss someone you’ve never known?”) and directly addresses readers (“Remember now, who is in this room”), and with a quick but never overwhelming pace arrives at Mary’s departure from home, running away with her stepsister and Percy. Soon, we are at Lake Geneva and that “night made for … ghost stories!”
Bailey devotes four dramatic spreads to Mary’s attempts at Lake Geneva to sleep and her struggles with developing her own ghost story. She has “a kind of daydream. She sees a hideous monster, made of dead body parts ….” In my favorite picture book spread thus far in 2018, we see Mary sit up in bed, trying to forget what her mind’s eye has brought her. Leaning over her is the monster himself. It is at this point that she understands she has finally found her ghost story.
In her most stirring direct address to readers, Bailey notes toward the book’s close how people refused to believe a woman had written this story. How could that be? she asks. “But maybe you know,” she says to readers, adding that writers “dream stories, awake and asleep.” It’s an empowering ending for young writers everywhere whose daydreams may inspire their own stories.
Felicita Sala and Júlia Sardà (who live in Rome and Spain, respectively) are two illustrators more than capable of matching the macabre spirit of Shelley’s story, as well as the gloomy, spectral tone of five friends giving themselves a ghost-story challenge on a wild and stormy night. Read these books in a hurry and you may assume they have more in common, stylistically, than they really do. To be sure, there are similarities, but look closely to see how Sardà fills her spreads with spectacular atmospheric details and textures; Sala uses uncluttered compositions and altogether eloquent lines to give a fine-tuned focus to mood. Her spread of the monster peering at Mary through the bed curtains is deliciously creepy, half of the spread devoted to the peering eyes of his ashen face. It is a fascinating thing to see these two talented artists at work on stories of the same subject.
Two compelling books by four talented women, both are well-crafted introductions to Mary and her iconic character. They are birthday books like no other.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
MARY WHO WROTE FRANKENSTEIN. Text copyright © 2018 by Linda Bailey. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Júlia Sardà and used by permission of the publisher, Tundra, New York.
SHE MADE A MONSTER: HOW MARY SHELLEY CREATED FRANKENSTEIN. Text copyright © 2018 by Lynn Fulton. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Felicita Sala and used by permission of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.