I’m awful proud of humanity for coming up with the idea of the monster. And what a wonderfully convenient metaphor it is too! The monster as a symbolic hodgepodge of all our fears and worries. The worst of our nightmares turned on their heads. Sesame Street tamed them. Monsters, Inc. reformed them. And children’s literature has dealt with them in a variety of different ways. Whether it’s the systematic banning of a monster, scary piece by scary piece, as found in Ed Emberley’s Go Away, Big Green Monster! or the soft thoughtful view of differences and prejudice seen in Jitterbug Jam by Barbara Hickman, as long as there are kids there are going to be monster-related picture books. Which brings us to today’s item right here. Bump in the Night is an old-fashioned concept wrapped in a visual treat. The idea behind the story is certainly something you’ve seen before, but the packaging renders it original enough to render it worthy of shelf space in any passing library system.
After an evening of playing and picking up toys it’s time for Billy and teddy to settle down for the night. But what’s this? Emanating from Billy’s closet is a heart-stopping “BUMP!” sound. Billy can just imagine the ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties that might be lurking in the shadows. Billy hides and when at last the creature shows itself it proves to be a monster, pure and simple. But not just any monster! This monster juggles, bounces, bellows, and manages to hog-tie any actually scary critters that are hanging about. Billy, impressed by the monster’s chutzpah, sets off with him for adventure. And when Billy wakes from this delightful dream, he strides over confidently to the closet that is making the bumping sound, only to find that it’s just his own dog that’s been in there making a ruckus all this time. A useful diagram of the monster from the front and the side at the end of the book shows piece by piece just how utterly un-frightening the fellow really is.
The monster as pal. It’s funny, but the bulk of children’s books prefer to take monsters/fears and tame them. It’s usually the old There’s a Nightmare in My Closet treatment. You identify a child’s hidden fears. You display them in all their pitiful ridiculousness. You then ban them forever. Problem solved? I suppose that that’s one way to go about it. The other way is the method Mr. Hemingway has adopted here. That would be the find-out-they’re-not-so-bad storyline. The kind of thing you see in Elizabeth Winthrop’s Maggie and the Monster or Philippe Coretin’s Papa!. But Hemingway is more systematic in his anti-fear sentiments, including that chart at the end that identifies each of the monster’s potentially scary aspects so as to explain them away. His pointed nose? “Hi nose looks like a blue carrot. Have you ever been scared of a blue carrot?” Touché. And that wide-lipped grin. “A sweet smile isn’t scary.” About the time you get to “Nothing scary about a ponytail,” you are convinced. This little fellow is definitely a little off-putting at first, but when all is said and done he’s precisely the kind of guy you’d want to find bursting out of your closet on a dark and scary.
Of course, a picture book is judged first and foremost by the quality of its art. Hemingway appears to give more than a glancing nod at the artist Gary Basemen in this book. Fortunately the characters are less disturbing than Baseman’s and less cartoony too. At first I had a devil of a time figuring out what Hemingway’s technique was. A quick glance at the publication page and apparently, “The artwork in this book is acrylic on wood (with occasional alterations in Photoshop)”. The result is a look that seems simultaneously retro and contemporary. It funny, but on several readings I had just assumed that everything was computerized. Hemingway’s smooth curves and perfectly round lines give that impression. Yet after reading the description of the art, closer inspection revealed the lines of the canvass and the faint strokes of the brush in several scenes. The Photoshopping really is quite light. One should never mistake painstaking detail for computerized wizardry.
I was pleased with the blue tones that filter over the pages, suggesting moonlight. It’s the same kind of look Tricia Tusa used in Jim Averbeck’s In a Blue Room, and it suits Bump quite well. Later in the story we come to the dream Billy has about being on a pirate ship with his teddy and the monster, and though it’s still blue, Hemingway has subtly added in a bit of gray as well. The result gives the two-page spread a kind of old-fashioned cinematic feel. A look not a bit at odds with the book’s almost 50s homage. I was also impressed with the small details that appear on several rereadings. Parents have to deal with so many children’s books that must be read over and over and over again that they are often desperate for simple titles that yield new images on subsequent retellings. So they’ll probably be the people that appreciate the most the fact that the teddy’s face will show sadness and happiness by just the slightest of increments of the mouth. Or that the wooden blocks visible in scenes will spell out words that apply to the plot. And did you see the toys on Billy’s dresser pulling the old See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil move in the background? Cute.
Look, I know you’ve got a lot of monster books out there to choose from. Not just blue ones either. But sometimes you want a monster story that can give you cool visuals and a fun plot without sacrificing style or message. This little number won’t change the face of friendly monster fare as we know it, but when it comes to amusing both adults and kids alike it certainly has the edge. Fun. Cute. Hard to resist.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Back Cover: I think Hemingway gets 20 extra points for including wooden blocks on the back of the book that spell out “NO FEAR”. It’s kind of oddly badass.
- It’s the Hemingway thing, isn’t it? You want to know, doncha? Want me to spill the beans on his name? Fine. It’s true, all right. Edward Hemingway is indeed the youngest grandson of Ernest Hemingway. Cool, huh?
- Okay. A little out of the ordinary. Apparently Mr. Hemingway has a fan site that he himself did not create. Huh.