May 18, 2010

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Children’s Book Review– Not So Scary After All

Children’s Book Review– Not So Scary After All

Not too long ago, my five year old had a major meltdown when he found out he’d have to spend a few minutes in after-care before I could get to school to pick him and his siblings up. For some reason he is terrified of the after school care providers. “They’re scary!” is all he can say. Maybe they yelled one day, or looked tired or scowled, but for whatever reason, that impression left a mark on him, and he has never wanted to return, even though he has friends who go every day and watch movies or play on the playground when their schoolwork is done.

So I thought of him when I found The Little Bit Scary People by Emily Jenkins at the library. This story follows a little girl with red hair as she walks around her urban neighborhood meeting people who on first glance frighten her. She initially feels scared when she passes by a skateboarding teenager, a grumpy bus driver, a whistle blowing policeman, and meets at school a strict cafeteria lady and a grim school nurse. But then she imagines each character doing something that contradicts her initial impression: the teenager sleeps with his cat, the bus driver makes her kids pancakes, the cafeteria lady sings as she roller blades.

The illustrations by Alexandra Boiger emphasize this change in impression. When the little girl first sees these imposing figures, she appears to be the most colorful thing on the page, with her carroty hair and bright green outfit contrasting with a grey and ominous background . The color scheme emphasizes the alien and intimidating impression she receives on first glance. But with the help of her imagination, she is able to picture an alternative identity for each character, an identity that makes them seem familiar, rather than strange. Each person she meets, including the tired policeman who enjoys eating at Italian restaurants and turns out to be her dad, has another side, another personality that enjoys life, finds it colorful, and so is not so scary after all.

As my kindergartener and I read the book together, I told him how I had felt the same way in fourth grade, when I switched piano teachers. My new teacher was old, with stale breath and a house that smelled like powder and rose water and moth balls. This teacher wasn’t particularly strict or punitive, but I was overwhelmed with fear and foreboding. I did not want to go to her house. I cried and yelled and said terrible things. But my mom persisted, and finally I discovered that my teacher was a lady who like hard candies, had two grandchildren just my age, and liked to sing her own lyrics to the pieces I played. My teacher was not a little bit scary after at all.

And neither are those after care providers. Reading this book together and talking about how people aren’t always who they appear to be didn’t make my son happy about his trip to after-care. But at least it gave us a chance to talk about his fears, and just maybe it inspired him think a little about what those after care providers might be like after they go home in the evening.

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