You do not know the temptation I am fighting right now to begin this review with some grandiose statement equating a fear of the dark with a fear of death itself. You have my full permission to slap me upside the head if I start off my children’s books reviews with something that bigheaded. The whole reason I was going to do it at all is that after reading a book like Lemony Snicket’s The Dark I find myself wondering about kids and their fears. Most childhood fears tap into the weird id (see, here I go) part of our brains where the unknown takes on greater and grander evils than could possibly occur in the real world. So we get fears of dogs, the color mauve, certain dead-eyed paintings, fruit, and water going down the drain (or so Mr. Rogers claimed, though I’ve never met a kid that went that route), etc. In the light of those others, a healthy fear of the dark makes perfect sense. The dark is where you cannot see and what you cannot see cannot possibly do you any good. That said, there are surprisingly few picture books out there that tackle this very specific fear. Picture books love to tackle a fear of monsters, but the idea of handling something as ephemeral as a fear of the dark is much much harder. It takes a certain kind of writer and a certain kind of illustrator to grasp this fear by the throat and throttle it good and sound. Behold the pairing of Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. You’ll ne’er see the like again (unless they do another picture book together, in which case, scratch that).
“You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you.” Laszlo is afraid but there’s not much he can do about it. Seems as though the dark is everywhere you look sometimes. Generally speaking it lives in the basement, and every morning Laszlo would open the door and say, “Hi . . . Hi, dark.” He wouldn’t get a reply. Then, one night, the dark does something unprecedented. It comes into Laszlo’s room and though he has a flashlight, it seems to be everywhere. It says it wants to show him something. Something in the basement. Something in the bottom drawer of an old dresser. Something that helps Laszlo just when he needs it. The dark still visits Laszlo now. It just doesn’t bother him.
There is nothing normal about Lemony Snicket. When he writes a picture book he doesn’t go about it the usual route. Past efforts have included The Composer Is Dead which effectively replaced ye olde stand-by Peter and the Wolf in terms of instrument instruction in many a fine school district. Then there was 13 Words which played out like a bit of experimental theater for the picture book set. I say that, but 16 copies of the book are currently checked out of my own library system. Besides, how can you not love a book that contains the following tags on its record: “cake, depression, friendship, haberdashery, happiness”? Take all that under consideration and The Dark is without a doubt the most normal picture book the man has attempted yet. It has, on paper anyway, a purpose: address children’s fear of the dark. In practice, it’s more complicated than that. More complicated and better.
Snicket does not address a fear of the absence of light by offering up the usual platitudes. He doesn’t delve into the monsters or other beasties that may lurk in its corners. The dark, in Snicket’s universe, acts almost as an attentive guardian. When we look up at the night sky, it is looking back at us. In Laszlo’s own experience, the dark only seeks to help. We don’t quite understand its motivations. The takeaway, rather, is that it is a benign force. Remove the threat and what you’re left with is something that exists alongside you. Interestingly it almost works on a religious level. I would not be the least bit surprised if Sunday school classes started using it as a religious parable for death. Not its original purpose but on the horizon just the same.
It is also a pleasure to read this book aloud. Mr. Snicket’s words require a bit of rereading to fully appreciate them, but appreciate you will. First off, there’s the fact that our hero’s name is Laszlo. A cursory search of children’s books yields many a Laszlo author or illustrator but nary a Laszloian subject. So that’s nice. Then there’s the repetition you don’t necessarily notice at the time (terms like “creaky roof” “smooth, cold windows”) but that sink in with repeated readings. The voice of the dark is particularly interesting. Snicket writes it in such a way as to allow the reader the choice of purring the words, whispering them, putting a bit of creak into the vocal chords, or hissing them. The parent is granted the choice of making the dark threatening in its initial lures or comforting. Long story short, adults would do well to attempt a couple solo readings on their own before attempting with a kiddo. At least figure out what take you’re going for. It demands no less.
The most Snicketish verbal choice, unfortunately, turns out to be the book’s Achilles heel. You’re reading along, merry as you please, when you come to a page that creates a kind of verbal record scratch to the whole proceeding. Laszlo has approached the dark at last. He is nearing something that may turn out to be very scary. And then, just as he grows near, the next page FILLS . . . . with text. Text that is very nice and very well written and perhaps places childhood fears in context better than anything I’ve seen before. All that. By the same token it stops the reading cold. I imagine there must have been a couple editorial consultations about this page. Someone somewhere along the process of publication would have questioned its necessity. Perhaps there was a sterling defense of it that swayed all parties involved and in it remained. Or maybe everyone at Little, Brown loved it the first time they read it. Not quite sure. What I do know is that if you are reading this book to a large group, you will skip this page. And if you are reading one-on-one to your own sprog? Depends on the sprog, of course. Thoughtful sprogs will be able to take it. They may be few and far between, however. The last thing you want when you are watching a horror film and the hero is reaching for the doorknob of the basement is to have the moment interrupted by a five-minute talk on the roots of fear. It might contain a brilliant thesis. You just don’t want to hear it at this particular moment in time.
Canadians have a special relationship to the dark that Americans can’t quite appreciate. I was first alerted to this fact when I read Caroline Woodward’s Singing Away the Dark. That book was about a little girl’s mile long trek through the dark to the stop for her school bus. The book was illustrated by Julie Morstad, whose work reminds me, not a little, of Klassen’s. They share a similar deadpan serenity. If Morstad was an American resident you can bet she’d get as much attention as Mr. Klassen has acquired in the last few years. In this particular outing, Mr. Klassen works almost in the negative. Much of this book has to be black. Pure black. The kind that has a palpable weight to it. Laszlo and his house fill in the spaces where the dark has yet to penetrate. It was with great pleasure that I watched what the man did with light as well. The colors of a home when lit by a flashlight are different from the colors seen in the slow setting of the evening sun. A toy car that Laszlo abandons in his efforts to escape the dark appears as a dark umber at first, then later pure black in the flashlight’s glow. We only see the early morning light once, and in that case Klassen makes it a lovely cool blue. These are subtle details, but they’re enough to convince the reader that they’re viewing accurate portrayals of each time of day.
The dark is not visually anthropomorphized. It is verbally, of course, with references to it hiding, sitting, or even gazing. One has to sit and shudder for a while when you imagine what this book might have been like with an author that turned the dark into a black blob with facial expressions. It’s not exaggerating to say that such a move would defeat the very purpose of the book itself. The whole reason the book works on a visual level is because Klassen adheres strictly and entirely to the real world. An enterprising soul could take this book, replicate it scene by scene in a live action YouTube video, and not have to dip into the film budget for a single solitary special effect. This is enormously important to children who may actually be afraid of the dark. This book gives a face to a fear that is both nameable and not nameable without giving a literal face to a specific fear. It’s accessible because it is realistic.
When dealing with picture books that seek to exorcise fears, one has to be very careful that you don’t instill a fear where there wasn’t one before. So a child that might never have considered the fact that nighttime can be a scary time might enter into a whole new kind of knowledge with the simple application of this book. That said, those sorts of things are very much on a case-by-case basis. Certainly The Dark will be a boon to some and simply a well-wrought story for others. Pairing Klassen with Snicket feels good when you say it aloud. No surprise then that the result of such a pairing isn’t just good. It’s great. A powerhouse of a comfort book.
On shelves April 2nd.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Creepy Carrots by Aaron A. Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown
- Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward, illustrated by Julie Morstad
- Bob & Co by Delphine Durand
- Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley
- Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Snicket) speaks to Terry Gross at NPR about, amongst other things, this book.
- Read an excerpt here.
- And yes, the rumors are true. Neil Gaiman is reading the audiobook.