Parents aren’t perfect, and children know this. Sometimes, within the pages of a picture book, child protagonists experience a reckoning with the ways in which their parents disappoint them. Three new children’s books on shelves address such topics to varying degrees—and, in one case, we have a parent coming to terms with his own frailties.
Let’s start with the most lighthearted of these books, Clémentine Beauvais’ and Maisie Paradise Shearring’s Hello, Monster! Beauvais is not only a children’s and YA book author; she’s also a scholar of childhood, education, and children’s literature. She makes her home in the UK, though she was born in France.
Hello, Monster! is a testament to the bold, persistent imagination of children. A young boy plays on his own in the park one day. His flight of fancy, the one that dominates this book, is prompted by a comment his mother makes to him. She is at the park with him and tells her son: “Go play with that little boy over there! The one in the sandbox with the shovel. He’s all on his own. Go say hello!”
The boy’s response—that he hates this forced introduction and that his mother wouldn’t like it at all if he did the same thing to her—made me laugh out loud. Because how many times do we hear parents doing this? How many times have I, myself, said something similar to my own children? (I have, however, often stopped and wondered how odd and/or awkward it must be for children and also have asked myself precisely why I suggest such things, which is why I appreciate that Beauvais addresses it in this book.)
The rest of the story is about a hypothetical situation that overtakes the boy’s imagination—essentially, the notion that the child he was told to approach isn’t actually a child but a “MONSTER in disguise!” That monster has kidnapped other children, too, all living underground, and they plan an escape—only to run into a black panther, who (fortunately) prefers “fresh monster meat” over human snacks. All of this is rendered via Shearring’s detailed, brightly colored illustrations, the story spun from the boy’s active mind until the end, during which the parents will have learned their lesson: “They’d never say ‘Go play with that little boy!’ ever again. We’d be allowed to play on our own if we wanted. And we’d make new friends when WE wanted to, and not just because our parents told us to.” Touché, young boy, touché.
Hallee Adelman tells an exponentially more intense story of parental shortcomings in My Quiet Ship, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, a story evidently borne from Adelman’s own experiences as a child. Here, we see on the very first spread that a boy is fleeing from his parents’ yelling. They are arguing, Sánchez depicting their loud voices as sharp, angular, scratchy zig-zag lines. The sounds hurt his ears and stomach; bring him heartache; and make him “want to shrink small so that no one can see me or remember that I’m nearby.” Living amongst this kind of persistent family fighting and strident yelling is a sad reality for many children, and Adelman doesn’t hold back here. It’s heartbreaking—but true and honest. And Sánchez expressively renders the boy as the tender, vulnerable being he is.
After he jumps into a cardboard rocket ship—what he calls the Quiet Ship, which he’s fashioned inside his room—he flies away in his mind’s eye and even meets friendly creatures on other planets, who “hug us and speak in nice voices.” But one night, the yelling is so loud that it “breaks” the Quiet Ship, and the boy responds with crying (for which he berates himself), followed by anger. He marches down the hall and tells his parents to stop yelling.
In the end, his parents calm down, speak softly to him, and appear repentant; the rest of the evening is quiet. Readers may wonder if the boy has had this experience before; if his parents were to respond violently to his interruption (a distinct possibility for some children), he would likely know—though he did have to work up the courage, mind you, just outside of their door before he interrupted their arguing. If you hold your breath as you read this, you’re not alone. Children who experience this kind of emotional trauma on a regular basis may find great catharsis in this memorable, sensitive story, one that will, in some cases, prompt necessary discussions—and, better yet, remind some children they’re not alone.
Finally, there is Mallko and Dad, written and illustrated by Gusti, an artist born in Argentina and currently living in Barcelona. In 2016, this 120-page book was selected as the Best Book in its year in the disability category by the Bologna Book Fair. It is a parent’s memoir of sorts—a diary, a confessional, a sketchbook, and much more. It was translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem.
This is the story (coming to American shelves this month) of Gusti’s second son, Mallko, born with Down syndrome. “When Mallko was born,” the book opens, “he laid siege to my castle with all his forces—his entire army.” In the next spread, Gusti, as the parent, sits alone in a chair. He is distraught and asks, “Why, God?” Mallko was born, Gusti explains, in a way he had not imagined him, and he simply “did not accept him.” In the striking spread that follows, laid out in a bold, very large font, Gusti repeats himself: “I DID NOT ACCEPT HIM.” This is a parent acknowledging faults in a raw and searing way. On the next spread, he writes, “Why wasn’t I able to see that Mallko was just fine?” The rest of the book is his earnest exploration of this concept; it is filled, much like a scrapbook, with photographs, notes, drawings, sketches, comics, his children’s art, and more.
There are moments in this book I won’t soon forget. There is Gusti noting that Mallko’s mother never had a problem loving her son whole-heartedly. (“That’s how moms are and there’s a lot we can learn from women,” he writes.) There’s the heart-shaped rock Gusti’s friend sends him, along with a poem, before one of Mallko’s hospital visits to check the health of his heart; the stone is “like the heart of the male imperial eagle,” his friend tells him. And there’s a spread in which Gusti draws himself and Mallko engaging in play, pretending to be vampires, Mallko’s beaming face and laughter so much sunshine on the page. This is as it should be: a parent accepting his child for who he is, not whom he was expected to be. Or as Theo, Mallko’s older brother, tells Gusti, “I don’t care if he’s green, red, blue, silver …. He’s always going to be my best little brother.” Gusti’s journey is a universal experience, one accentuated by the fact that some of the book retains its original Spanish notes with the English translations to the side or just below the original text.
In the end, Gusti returns to large font in a spread declaring that “’accepting’ is willingly and gladly receiving what we’ve been offered.” Wise words from an introspective, honest, and emotionally powerful tale of parent and child.
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.