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What's that world for "the fear of everything" again?
on December 13, 2006
Step with me into the wayback machine as we travel to early 2006 and the publication of Melanie Watt's, "Scaredy Squirrel". Watt's latest is by no means her first book, but it distinguishes itself from the pack. Thick black lines, simple images, and humorous repetition mean that this puppy's a tidy little gem. For those kids that know fear all too well, this book will speak to them directly. As for parents, I present to you a title your offspring can be read time after time after time without you having to fight the urge to rip out your hair in large chunks.
Scaredy Squirrel's world is straightforward and easy to navigate. His tree is safe and comforting whereas everything else on the planet is "the unknown" and therefore worthy of fear. I mean, consider how dangerous everything is. There's poison ivy and martians and sharks and germs and all kinds of stuff to watch out for. Scaredy Squirrel, therefore, sees no good reason why he should do anything other than eat, sleep, and look at the view from his tree's verdant branches all day. He even has an emergency kit near at hand. Then... one day... the unthinkable occurs. Out of nowhere a "killer" bee startles our hero and causes him to drop his kit. Down plunges Scaredy (before remembering the whole don't-leave-the-tree plan) but rather than crash to the ground he finds that he is capable of something entirely new: gliding. Turns out that Scaredy has been a flying squirrel all along and never knew it. Now Scaredy makes exactly one leap into the unknown every day before playing dead for two hours and going home. And for this little squirrel, that's a mighty big step to take.
I liked the straightforward nature of the book. The book limits its words, making it easily comprehensible to its intended audience, but also manages to carry with it a rather grand message. If you stay in your tree all day and never leave you might be missing out. You might also be bored. And by and large, kids understand the concept of "bored" very very well. Then there's the fact that young readers will be able to relate to the hero of this tale. Children, it is generally assumed, like repetition. They like the comfort of an ordered routine. Change is not a small child's friend. So in a sense, many children are Scaredy Squirrels. Consider him the ideal protagonist for such little `uns then.
The pictures are undeniably charming as well. Rendered in "charcoal pencil and acrylic" the thick black lines of the story evoke a slightly more detailed style akin to Mo Willems. Watt knows how to milk a visual gag for all it's worth too. The repeated images of what Scaredy's average day looks like are more than funny. They manage to tread that difficult line between cute and cute-SY. And best of all, Watt brings in good design elements that not only look good but will actually draw the children deeper into the book. For example, there's a passage that covers the advantages of never leaving one's own tree vs. the disadvantages. Each box has a circle where Scaredy is either looking elated or offering a thumbs down sign. Below, each of the bullet points have a cute little picture to illustrate their individual points. It sounds trite, but it works very well indeed.
I can't express just how happy I was when I discovered that this book's message did not render everything ootsy-cutesy. When Scaredy is startled out of his tree by an adorable "killer" bee, he doesn't befriend that same bee by the story's end. There are no long drawn out passages about friendship and why it's a bad idea to jump to conclusions about people. Leave such proselytizing for another picture book. Or, better yet, the sequel, "Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend". The simplicity of this tale (i.e. a little adventure can do the heart good) is worth the price of admission alone. I commend, by the way, the first use that I have seen in a young picture book of the term "killer bee". Just don't be too surprised if your kidlets start asking for child-friendly books on that topic as well.
Consider pairing this book with the similarly charming "Wallace's Lists" by Barbara Bottner about an equally neurotic rodent. You could have an entire small-furry-creature's-fears storytime, if you had half a mind to. If you have to read at least one book by a Quebec-native author, this might be the one to grab. And hey, if you have TV-obsessed kids who need a television tie-in to get them interested in a book, just tell them that Scaredy looks like a distant cousin of Sandy from "Spongebob Squarepants". Whatever it takes to get them to read the book, man. It's worth it.