Last night, my 4-year-old and I snuggled under the covers for our nightly bedtime stories. Here are some pages from our final book of the night.
What If…? by Anthony Browne
Wait, what!? You’ll probably want to spend a little time looking at those pages. I sure did.
The premise of What If… ? by Anthony Browne (not to be confused with What If… by Samantha Berger and Mike Curato, which is another great children’s book) is that a boy is having anxiety about going to a birthday party. As his mom walks him down the street to the party, he looks in all the neighbors’ windows and imagines weirder and weirder scenarios for what the party might be like.
In the first picture here, notice the pig hiding under the table. And how one of the humanoids is being shoved face-first into the… teapot that sort of looks like it’s alive (or used to be?) There’s a pink sausage shape on a plate, and a cup of possibly blood with a single drop spilled onto the white tablecloth. Full-on creepy.
The second picture makes my heart race with fears of gang rape. It portrays a scary, real life game of Snakes and Ladders. Coincidentally, we’d spent the evening playing the American version, Chutes and Ladders, right up until our bedtime routine.
These images certainly make me feel something. They make me feel anxiety in my whole body, the exact feeling the kid in the book is feeling. So, I believe the art is impressive; it speaks to me. But does it belong in a children’s book?
“We are currently in a golden age of picture books, with a tremendous range to choose from. Some of the best are funny. Or silly. Or informative. Or socially aware. Or just plain reassuring. But I’d like to think there’s a place for the emotionally complex picture book, too.”
De la Peña’s books are wonderfully emotionally complex, and they specifically highlight the stories and emotions of low income families and children of color — something so vitally needed in children’s literature, and all media. I love that we’re recognizing that children don’t live in a world of all sunshine and lollypops, no matter how much we wish this was the case, and it won’t do children any good to pretend they don’t experience dark feelings.
In de la Peña’s Love, illustrated by Loren Long, we see children of all different circumstances experiencing love and hardship. De la Peña writes in his Time piece that a major gatekeeper wanted him and Long to remove this picture from their book, because it was too heavy:
They fought to keep this illustration in the book, and I’m so glad they did. This picture of a dog comforting a child during the parents’ domestic dispute honestly portrays real-life emotions. For so many families, this scene is a reality that hides behind closed doors. My child wouldn’t relate to the liquor glass, but she knows the feeling of her parents fighting. This picture could help her and other children know they’re not alone, and their parents’ dramas are not their fault.
Even as an adult, I still carry that feeling too, of blaming myself for my parents’ fighting. Children — and adults — who read this book will see themselves in it, and I believe it will help readers of all ages cope with — and heal from — their trauma, fear and pain.
Joe in What If… ? appears to have a pretty easy life.
The crisis in the book is that he’s going to a birthday party. But the nightmarish story art shows how terrifying anxiety can feel, regardless of how easy your life is or isn’t. It also suggests maybe there’s trauma there you would never imagine from the outside. Joe could be the child under the piano. Or his life could be free of major hardship but anxiety-ridden nonetheless. People’s pain and fear are real to them, regardless of the cause or how it looks to other people.
We all worry about messing our kids up. Is it comforting, freeing, to think that no matter how good or bad we do, they’re all going to have emotional difficulties? Or is this distressing? (Is the creepy glass of blood on the table half full or half empty?)
What do parents think of What If… ?
Here are some quotes from Amazon reviews for What if… ?:
“The very disturbing photos of the scenes in the windows are just not okay for kids to see. I don’t get it.”
“The scenes depicted range from terrifying to incomprehensible. I wouldn’t give this to a child.”
“Disturbing, dark and evil…. The pictures are inappropriate and disturbing… the men shoving a man in a pot and the other devil/dark picture of snakes on the floor and men forcing men to the ground is disturbing and dark. I plan to return the book tomorrow to the library and tell the librarian about this and to suggest that it be removed from the children’s section. I was forced to give at least one star in order to submit this review. It deserves no stars.
What do kids think of What If… ?
Amazon has one review from a 5-year-old:
“ This book is worth reading. It has two stories. One story is serious. It is about a boy going to a birthday party. The story will help kids not to be afraid to go to parties and experience new things.
However, kids will like it when the mom is silly at the end. But this book has a trick — there is another story. Look carefully at the pictures because you will find some surprises that will make you laugh. If you like hidden picture puzzles, you will like this book.”
Are we grownups bringing so much of our own anxieties to everything we see that we forget that — although, yes, children are as emotionally complex as us — they often don’t see things with the same everything-is-terrible lens that we grownups have?
How does my kid feel?
“What do you think of this picture?” I ask my 4-and-a-half-year-old, looking at the drawing from What If… ? that makes me think of gang rape.
“I think it’s funny.”
“Do you think it’s kind of… creepy?”
“Creepy? What do you mean? Like, scary?”
“Yeah, do you feel scared at all when you look at it?”
“No.” She sounds confused.
“I mean, I think the point is it’s supposed to be a little scary. Because Joe is feeling really anxious, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s just silly.”
“Do you think he’s really seeing these things through the windows? Or is he just imagining because he’s nervous?”
“He’s really seeing these things. This is what’s in the houses.”
“But it’s silly?”
“Yeah,” she laughs. She really isn’t scared. “It’s weird, Mama, cause usually kids are more afraid than grownups. But this time a grownup is more afraid than a kid!”
“Yeah, I guess so. I just know what’s that like, to feel scared, and I think the pictures really capture it.”
“Mama, if you think it’s scary, why are you still looking at it?”
“Good question,” I say, not taking my eyes off of it. “I guess, there’s a lot to see. I like it. I think it’s scary, but I also like it.”
“I really like it too.”