Monday, 18 June 2012

Not Now, Bernard - David McKee

Welcome to my new reading blog, the companion to my writing blog, Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing. For the last two years, I've been running critical reading sessions, but they were part of a pilot scheme that ends this summer. I'll miss them, so am moving the critical reading online - here!

This isn't a review site, so there will be plot spoilers. If you don't want to know what happens in a book you haven't read, don't read that post. And finally: I'm not reading any existing criticism or reviews of these books. These are my ideas. I'm happy - more than happy - to hear different views in the comments. I want to host a discussion about books. Let's start with a book I think is one of the most important picture books of the last fifty years: Not Now, Bernard, by David McKee.

Despite warning his parents that he is about to be eaten by a monster, Bernard does indeed become a monster-snack. Is that suitable material for a picture book? My Big Bint re-read it this morning - 'it's a book about suicide for kids'. Ish.

Not Now, Bernard was first published in 1980 and has been translated into countless languages (not literally - I just haven't counted them). The translation can't have cost much, as the book is only 154 words long.

Plot spoiler/synopsis:

Bernard tries to attract his father's attention, but his father says "Not now, Bernard." The same happens with his mother. He tells her a monster is waiting to eat him. She is still not interested. Bernard goes out into the garden and is eaten by the monster.

Still his parents don't notice. The monster/ Bernard does naughty things, but his parents don't treat him/it any differently, or spot that he is now purple, hairy, big and fierce.

It's funny and terrible: a tragic tale of parental neglect, the isolation of childhood and the self-recognition of the infant psyche. And yet...

Not Now, Bernard is both very simple and very complex. The language and the plot are simple; the psychology is complex and its delineation incisive - it's a perfectly distilled insight into what it is to be a child. (And a parent, but who really cares about that? This is a children's book.) One of the strengths of Not Now, Bernard is that it has a message for the child and a message for the parent who will probably be reading the book to a child. The meaning for the child is comforting; the meaning for the parent is disturbing and guilt-inducing.

The book works through the pictures as well as the words, as a picture book must.

(Click on the pictures to bigify them.)

On the first double-page spread, Bernard tries to talk to his dad while his dad is hammering a nail into the wall. Bernard looks cheerful, he says "Hello, Dad" - a friendly greeting which he could expect would get a friendly, attentive response. (Don't worry, I won't keep telling the story...)

But his dad hits his finger with the hammer and says "Not now, Bernard", and Bernard walks off, looking slightly disconsolate.

Bernard's disappointment is in his eyes and his mouth - the eye has a smaller iris, the mouth is a slight, down-turning line.

Happy eye on the right, sad eye on the left. Notice the darker shading above the sad eye and lack of shading beneath it, giving a heavy-lidded look.

His hands are now in his pockets, not behind his back. The changes are tiny - this tells us Bernard is not surprised by the rebuff. He does not say anything; what is there to say? His dad doesn't want to speak to him. He'd rather hit a nail with a hammer. Bernard is a distraction; Bernard has made him hit his thumb with a hammer and turn green.

The changes in dad, on the other hand, are extreme. He has changed colour, his facial expression is horrific, and his feet are off the floor. The implication (to Bernard's eyes)  is that Bernard has got something so wrong, is so inept, that even a polite greeting makes his dad really angry.

Look at the positions of their bodies: Dad is always facing away from Bernard. Bernard is facing his dad, but when he is rejected, he turns his back on him. And look at the background. On the left-hand page, the orange is darkest at the top of the wall/page (because we don't really believe these parents have painted their house like this, do we? so it's just a page, here). It brightens towards yellow at the bottom. Bernard is the locus of light - until disappointed, and then on the right-hand side the bottom of the wall/page is darker. The light has gone out.

There are two points of view presented on this page. The words are not loaded - they are as anodyne as possible, communicating only the action. The pictures carry the emotion and commentary, because pictures can easily carry both points of view at once.

Parental viewpoint: Bernard is being a nuisance; why can't he see that if he distracts me when I'm doing something I might hurt myself. Why can't he tell me later?

Child's viewpoint: He doesn't want to talk to me. I am not very significant - the hammering is more important than I am, even though he doesn't know what I want to say.

At this point, both the child-reader and the parent reader/page-turner recognise the situation and identify with their respective roles in the story. This is going to get uncomfortable for the parent...

Turn the page. Bernard's mother is similarly uninterested. Her back is turned to him all the time, and when she speaks to him her eyes are closed. They are closed every single time she speaks to him - she simply doesn't see him, literally and metaphorically. Even when Bernard tells her there is a monster outside that wants to eat him, she is still impatient and uninterested. She is also cross - another accident has accompanied Bernard's attempt to get some parental attention. Why can't he see she is doing something important? (Watering a pot plant.)

Look at the patterns on the third spread - a chaos of geometric shapes. This type of busy confusion of patern is associated with his mother throughout the book (her dress, her apron). There is too much going on: the lines, shapes and colours fight with each other for attention. Bernard is right at the back of the picture.

Although he is more animated, she still doesn't look at him, and his patterns disrupt the ugly composition of the picture. It's very discordant, very unsettling - it makes us turn the page quickly and so we (the parent/page-turner) become complicit in the dismissal of Bernard. How clever is that? This man is a genius!

So Bernard goes outside into a calm page. The shapes of the monster and tree are simple, rounded, and rather appealing after the cacophony of the previous page. There is the monster. It looks at him. OK, it's angry and fierce, but it's taking notice. It has his father's eyes and perhaps his mother's hands, hooked in annoyance. Bernard looks as though he is smiling as he speaks to the monster - his mouth wide with the first syllable of 'hello'. He knows the monster is going to eat him and he *still* goes to say hello to it - because even bad attention is better than no attention. (Which is why people stay in abusive relationships and children don't denounce cruel parents and neglected children become unruly.)

And so the monster eats Bernard, every bit. Even the trainers. And now the landscape is fantastic, with the monster sitting on a huge rock and the tree like a vast, thick pink and orange asparagus spike. This is what would happen, Bernard thinks - I could be eaten by a monster and no one would bother to stop it or even notice. As the monster walks towards the house, there are two much smaller, rather wilted-looking, pink and orange palm trees - it is shifting towards normal again. But here's a strange thing - we are less than half way through the book and the protagonist has been eaten. What can happen now?

The worst of things: nothing.

But also the best of things.

His parents still don't notice, still don't look at him, still say "Not now, Bernard" - they don't see that he has become a monster. When rejected, the monster looks vulnerable, surprised, appealing, confused, and - critically - childlike. He has Bernard's disappointed eyes and puzzled expression. Previously, Bernard's expression asked "What have I done wrong?" Now he knows what he's done wrong and the puzzle has to be "What does it take?"

We will never know what it takes. Bernard's mother leaves his dinner in front of the TV (classic neglect, not even sitting with him while he eats) - we see her departing at the edge of the page before Bernard/the monster has even got to his dinner tray. The monster is naughty, wrecks things, eats messily, stands on the table and climbs on the TV; and he is good - reads comics, goes up to bed with a teddy when told to. He does what any child wants to do - he is sometimes cross with toys, climbs on things he shouldn't climb on, eats in a horrid way. These are not major crimes, they are the verve of childhood. His mother still doesn't notice. She takes his milk upstairs and leaves it for him - no bedtime story or goodnight kiss for him, just practical care. He does as she says, and she turns away and turns off the light, not even looking at him. It's heartbreaking. Such a lovely child/monster, so ignored... of course he became a monster.

But did he?

Michael Rosen has called Not Now, Bernard a 'cautionary tale'. It's obvious why - neglect your child, take no notice, and he will turn into a monster. Parental neglect leads to terrible teens. That is one of the meanings in this complex book. The parents are responsible for Bernard turning into a monster, and we - the parent/page-turners are drawn into their crime by sympathising with the injured father on the very first page. We are slightly let off, though - after all, we are reading with our child. Surely our child won't turn out to be a monster? Don't rely on it. This 'letting off' is just enough to make the warning work. If someone condemns you with no suggestion of redemption, you won't listen to them at all. McKee keeps the parent on-side just enough that s/he might learn from this tale.

A cautionary tale. That is how it is so often read. Really? Cautionary tales are like Struwelpeter and The Water Babies. They caution the target reader: behave badly, and bad things will happen to you. Of course this is not a cautionary tale, because the caution is addressed to the parents. And within the narrative it's not even very effective at that, as Bernard's parents  don't notice the consequences of their actions as they don't see the monster they might have made.

But Not Now, Bernard is a children's book. It is aimed at children, not parents. So why on earth would it have a central message that is aimed at parents? This is just adult readers being adult-centric. The book is not about parental neglect - or not mostly. It's about the experience of being a child.

Look again at the page where Bernard goes outside to the monster. He welcomes this fate. ('A book about suicide for kids.') He knows the monster will eat him and he goes to greet it - either he is just giving in to the inevitable or it is preferable to being ignored.

Look at the cover: the monster is on a mound, scowling threateningly at Bernard, and Bernard is smiling at it. Children need attention, and if they can't get the attention of their parents, they will get attention wherever they can find it. Hence, many would have us believe, pregnant 13-year-olds and children lured away by dangerous (monstrous) strangers.

Bernard is not lured by the monster. He is not destroyed by the monster. He is subsumed by it, but returns to live as Bernard in the house. Bernard is inside the monster. What the monster does is what any angry child wants to do. He doesn't burn the house down, or kill his parents - he *wants* to live a normal life. He is angry and throws things, bites his father, makes a mess, because that is what an angry child does, or wants to do, or fantasises about doing. He is venting his frustration. He is being monstrous. But being monstrous does not destroy his life - it is surface monstrosity, producing minor annoyances rather than outright destruction. His parents don't notice he is a monster, not only because they aren't taking any notice but because he is just being a child.

The child worries that he is a monster. (I'll say 'he' all the time, just because Bernard is a boy.) No child has any model for being a child other than their own experience, and it doesn't match up to what their parents and society expect or demand of them. This disjunction is disturbing and frustrating. Children respond differently to it, of course - some try hard to be 'good', some become confused and angry. The frustrated child is terrified by his own imaginings, he feels he is monstrous because he wants to destroy things and hurt people. Bernard feels that he is turning into a monster because when his parents don't want to talk to him he feels angry. He feels he changes - that he wants to do bad things, that he is monstrous. And he can spite his parents by being gone, by not being Bernard.

How many parents have (misguidedly) said 'where's my lovely [Bernard] gone?' or 'what has happened to my delightful child? Where has this other, naughty child come from?' and so reinforced this division between the child's well-behaved moods and their expressions of anger, frustration and disappointment?

This stops the child owning their 'bad' impulses and learning to accept and deal with them. It is like the dramatisation of good and evil aspects in the medieval morality plays. The human is beset by evil thoughts, defended by good thoughts - it's a way of distancing ourselves from our worse impulses. But Bernard is still a real child inside. And the truth of the book is that there is a monster inside (or outside) every child, but the child is not really a monster.

This is why the book is reassuring for children - not because of what it says about parents, but because of what it says about children. A child is not interested in what an author has to say about adults. A child is interested in what a book says about being a child. And if the book says 'it's OK, you're not the only monster' (no point saying 'you're not a monster') and 'life will go on anyway', that matches their experience and reassures them. Bernard is not blaming his parents for making him a monster, even if that is how guilty, self-obsessed parents read the book. Bernard is struggling with the feelings of anger and resentment that are brought up by his parents ignoring him. This is where the child reader recognises himself or herself and finds comfort in the book. It is a book that holds the infant monster-hand and says 'here's your teddy, here's your milk, go to bed.'

Ultimately, Bernard is isolated, he is not understood, he is trying to recognise what he is - and that, tragically, is the human condition. It takes a lifetime to learn it, and maybe we never do learn it. We still, as adults, look around in bemusement and think 'but I am a monster'. Because it's true. And it's also not true - because if we are all monsters, there are no monsters.

Not Now, Bernard is copyright David McKee. All quotations and images are presented here for the purposes of review and comment.