When I was young, I’d have what I can only describe as night terrors. I don’t know precisely what they were, but that’s my best effort to ascribe a name to them. I was fully awake. My bed and body felt as if they were made of stone. And it was not unlike someone said: Find a needle in a haystack NOW. (Oddly, after we were both grown, my brother told me that he experienced the same thing as a child.)
Now, this is more information than you need to know about my nightly psychological well-being as a kid. Hey, I was fine. I was healthy. I was happy. But nighttime isn’t easy for some children. It’s more than merely a fear of the dark, yet parents have a tendency to easily dismiss these bizarre fears and worries as such.
And there exist plenty of picture books that deal with this—the fear of the dark, that is. But what about those deeper, larger and weightier feelings, the ones so hard to name? Along comes Liniers’ What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story, coming from Groundwood Books next month. Ricardo Siri Liniers, who goes by Liniers, is an Argentine cartoonist, whose endearing Fall 2013 title from TOON Books, The Big Wet Balloon, I mentioned here at Kirkus last year. In this, his new story, he captures the terror (as the book’s sub-title and black opening endpapers hint at) that some children feel when the lights go out—the kind of terror that comes from…well, visions of one sort or another, not merely from just the absence of light.
On the title page, we see a child’s bed. It’s empty, but reaching toward and grabbing for it are the stark, empty branches of a tree. YIGGEDY! “It’s the same every night,” the first page tells us. A young boy is put to bed. After his parents say goodnight and turn off the light, “something incredible happens.” You see, there used to be a ceiling above the boy’s head, but now it’s gone. A black hole has replaced it, “black and infinite.”
Let me stop here to say that I love the use of “infinite.” I know children (and—not surprisingly, given what I said above—I was one myself) who marvel over the notion of infinity. I used to sit and wonder if there were an end to the universe—and, if so, what was there. It was fascinating, yet terrifying, to think about (making me feel as big as a dot). Safe to say this black and infinite hole in the boy’s ceiling probably falls solidly into the terrifying category for him.
Suddenly, small and bizarre creatures descend from the ceiling. They’re not particularly frightening, mind you—that is, not in the way that Liniers depicts them. They have black umbrellas for transport, à la Mary Poppins. They simply stand at the end of the boy’s bed and stare. (YIGGEDY! again.) More and varied creatures appear, even what appears to be an adorable cat. The mute staring commences.
But then the boy “starts to feel scared because he knows what is coming next. It comes every night when the ceiling disappears. It is dark and shapeless. Blacker than blackest darkness.”
Suddenly, from the ceiling comes a black mass with slits for eyes and branchlike appendages snaking across the room. The boy cowers under the covers, and the mass whispers in a very low voice, “I AM WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE.”
Let us take another look at that: I am what there is before there is anything there. I mean, RIGHT? This is terrifying stuff. But it’s what many children face and fear and think about—arguably, at various times of the day (not just night).
The boy’s solution is to run to his parents’ room. They are relatively dismissive of his fears, telling him that his imagination is a healthy one. And most picture books would stop there, but on the final page, even though he’s snug between his parents, another creature descends from the ceiling and lands on his parents’ bed.
And that’s that.
As Travis Jonker has written, this book’s cyclical ending “dares to leave things creepily unresolved—something you don’t see much in picture books.” And is he ever right about that! Open endings aren’t exactly embraced in American picture books, but here we have a book originally published in Argentina (back in 2006). How it will be embraced by the American market in this translated U.S. edition remains to be seen, but I know the child version of me would have found great solace in this book, had it existed when I was a kid. It would have felt like someone just got my nighttime fears.
Unsettling and bracingly honest, it’s an unusual and noteworthy import for young readers.
WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE. Text and illustrations copyright © 2006 by Liniers. First published in English in 2014 by Groundwood Books. English translation copyright © 2014 by Elisa Amado. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
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.