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Silly Picture Books With Unforgettable Characters
Posted on May 23, 2018
by Eric P
“The Monster at the End of this Book” is but one of the books on the 101 Picture Book Challenge list. This picture book has enough literary self-consciousness and existential dread to keep a whole room of graduate students busy for a month.
Action Figure Not Included
Children’s picture books built around mass media tie-ins are a healthy segment of the publishing industry but they rarely have enduring cultural impact. One might praise such books for attracting reluctant readers who’d rather read about Thomas the Train than about “The Little Engine That Could,” or one might dismiss them as merchandising cash grabs grubbing for a little of the money that starts flying around every time there’s a new “Batman” movie or Disney Channel cartoon series. Either way, though, it’s safe to say that generally such books are considered to have about as much literary and artistic value as a tube of Dora the Explorer toothpaste or a pair of plastic Hulk hands. “The Monster at the End of This Book” is available in Print and eBook.
But unlike those perfectly pleasant and forgettable titles, “The Monster at the End of This Book” finds the furry blue Grover in a moment of acute existential dread and neurotic anxiety, which lends the story a manic sense of slapstick urgency – he really, really does not want to confront the monster lurking at the end of this book, and he’s driven into paroxysms of escalating panic by his inability to control your insistence on turning the pages. He’s a helpless pawn in the hands of a capricious god. (And you’re the god.)
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Grover talks to you, the reader, throughout – enlisting you, haranguing you, beseeching you. This wasn’t a terribly common strategy in picture books when this one was published back in 1971. It’s arguable that without the precedent of “The Monster at the End of This Book” we might never have had Mo Willems’s demanding, voluble, fourth-wall-breaking pigeon.
But the pigeon talks about buses and puppies and bedtimes and hot dogs – you know, important real-life stuff. He never addresses the fact that he’s a character in a book; he never violates that illusion. And that’s where Grover is really groundbreaking.
It’s not like Grover invented the idea of a book that comments on its being a book. “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy” and John Barth all came first. But in 1971, a picture book that so thoroughly embraced the physical qualities of being a book – by featuring a character who really wants you to stop turning the pages; by indicating in the title itself the very fact that the book’s an object with a physical ending – was a rare piece of Muppety postmodernism indeed.
Nowadays the conceit of a picture book that’s overtly preoccupied with its own picture-book-ness – with having page numbers and illustrations and a gutter where the pages meet in the middle – is so common as to have become a cliché. It’s almost a relief these days to come across a new picture book about people who aren’t aware that they’re two-dimensional fictional characters, who don’t talk about the binding or interact with the copyright notice.
But besides being one of the earliest examples of picture-book metafiction, “The Monster at the End of This Book” is also among the best. Recently it’s been common for picture book characters who discover they’re in a book to be shaken by the discovery and to wrestle with its existential implications. But Grover knows he’s in a book and accepts it. (Which is pretty complicated when you consider that he’s based on a three-dimensional character who doesn’t appear to know he’s a puppet.) He’s just consumed with struggling to keep the end of the book from coming (a futile struggle that feels a lot like humankind’s fraught relationship with the inevitability of mortality. No, seriously).
And one of the book’s pleasures is Smollin’s artwork – loose and expansive, it fills each leaf and the pleasure Smollin takes in depicting the accumulating debris of Grover’s escapades in the tattered pages left behind is delightful. Also glorious is what Smollin does with Grover’s hand-lettered dialogue balloons, inflecting his words with emotion by bubbling and shadowing and coloring them with an expressiveness that recalls the eclectic lettering of Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo.”
Which is appropriate, since it was Pogo who once said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” And of course when Grover finally gets to the end of the book and finds out who the monster is – well, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.
What is the 101 Picture Book Challenge?
The 101 Picture Book Challenge is for anyone at any age. Librarians hand picked the titles on the list which includes classics, new titles and everything in between.
To get started, register online. You can track your progress online or if you prefer a paper log booklet, pick one up at your neighborhood Library. The books are organized into categories but you can read the books in any order and at your own pace. When you read all 101 titles, you earn a free picture book (while supplies last).
This is the latest in a series of blog posts exploring some of the things we love about these books.