Recently I showed Monsters Inc to our 2 and 4 year old...and regretted it immediately. The movie begins with a monster slowly opening a cupboard door and creeping into a child’s room as the child hides under a blanket, shaking in terror. The kids were entranced, or maybe riveted is a better word, by the horror that was unfolding on the TV screen. They quickly realized that the monsters were not meant to be baddies but the damage was already done. Later our 2 year old kept asking what the running machine behind the lounge was for (tells you how much it gets used) having witnessed the diabolical machine in Monsters Inc that sucks screams out of little children (srsly Pixar what were you thinking?). I even got onto the damned running machine again to show her what it was for, and even then she was not totally convinced.
Anyway the point is little kids aren’t afraid of the dark or boogiemen or whatever until you plant the seed in their head (“Do you want me to leave the light on?” “Why mummy?” “Oh, no reason…”) or they learn it from a book or TV program.
So when I picked up Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, a picture book designed to help kids manage their fear of the dark, I did so with one sceptical eyebrow firmly raised.
The story is an incredibly simple one really.
It’s a story about a boy and his relationship with the Dark, an amorphous black presence that lives in the basement and comes out at night to fill up the house and engulf the world outside. Lemony Snicket’s version of the dark clearly reflects how the dark is experienced by children. The dark is feared not just because of what it conceals (monsters, boogiemen etc) but because of its own tangible presence- it “waits” in the next room, it “creeps” around corners, it “cloaks” the eyes. So when Lemony Snicket gives it a voice, it rings true, like some ancient memory or a "click" in the brainstem (if anything deserves its own anthropomorphic personification* it’s The Dark). The Dark is scary enough on its own, without filling it with monsters.
Interestingly there are no parents or other sources of comfort in the story- just the boy and the Dark- and when the boy goes down into the basement to meet the Dark at its lair, he does so on his own, relying on his own inner resources, and it’s his bravery that’s on display. That’s an important message for kids too.
The key to this story, and the reason it’s so successful, is the brilliant way Lemony Snicket defuses the boy’s fear of the dark at the end. I won’t tell you how it’s done (a magician’s tricks and all that) but I will say it’s a stroke of mental jujitsu that had me blinking in astonishment and totally cured me of my fear of the dark forever (come on, admit it, you sometimes get it too, inching your way down a darkened corridor in the middle of the night).
The illustrator Jon Klassen deserves a mention too. His simple but effective drawings really bring Lemony Snicket’s vision to life. The dark in The Dark is pitch black- so incredibly dark it has a physical presence that clearly conveys Lemony Snicket’s notion of The Dark. I don’t think the story could be told any more clearly or effectively than it is, either in words or in pictures.
As an overprotective Dad I think if your kids aren’t afraid of the dark there’s probably no reason to get this book, but if they are, it’s a great way to address that fear. Having said that, my kids aren’t really afraid of the dark and I would still read it to them- and that’s the biggest endorsement I can give.