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.


  1. What a brilliant blog. I love the idea of it and can't wait to read more. I found this post absolutely fascinating and a particularly interesting way to look at the book. Am off to read it again.

  2. I sometimes read blogs out of a sense of duty, I often enjoy what I read, but this one was an unadulterated delight. I feel better for having read it. Thanks, Anne, for letting me feel like a student sitting in a tutorial given by someone who clearly knows a lot more about the subject than I do and makes it accessible. This is definitely how to read.

    1. Thank you, Bill - and that is high praise, coming from you! That is very kind.

  3. Really useful to have a book, especially a "familiar" picture book, vivisected - er, ANALYSED so obervantly. Looks like this is going to be a most interesting blog. Thanks!

  4. Gosh, I wish lit crit at school and university had been like this!

  5. Brilliant vivisection - I have a feeling I may never look at a picture book the same way again....

  6. Absolutely wonderful - incisive, emotionally intelligent and deeply compassionate. Bravo to you!

  7. It takes a good picture book to stand up to this kind of analysis. I love David McKee - as you say, he is a genius. 'The Sad Story of Veronica who Played the Violin' is equally brilliant, and one of my all time favourites. This is a great companion to your main blog - I will be following with interest! :)

  8. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant - thank you for this fascinating post. Having loved this book for years, I recently discovered 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' & was fascinated by the parallels & crucial differences (no getting eaten by a monster!). If you ever felt like analysing that one I'd love to read it... But whatever you choose, I'll be back for more.

  9. What an excellent, insightful blog. Hope you pull apart more picture books, Anne.

    Must admit, this is a picture book I read only once to my children. I suspect the parental guilt it caused was good for me. However, what made it a 'never again' story was how much it upset my children (and from the feedback of other parents, I know they're not alone). I can't see how this picture book could be considered reassuring to children. Even though four-year-old children are brilliant at spotting the visual subtleties of stories, they still tend to take a story at face value and don't look for hidden meanings. Yes, we can discuss it with them, but you're assuming a tired parent is also a sophisticated reader.

    Very much looking forward to reading your next vivisection!

  10. Thank you, everyone for being so supportive and making such lovely comments on my bloglet's very first day! It feels really self-indulgent to spend a morning analysing a picture book, without having to write it in reviewer-speak - I loved doing it, so I'm really glad people enjoy reading it.

    Paeony, I'm really interested to hear your children were frightened - my kids loved it, and I've not knowingly come across any who didn't. It was the fact that they loved a book that on the surface *should* be frightening that got me thinking about it. I don't think they they consciously pick it apart - when they're small, it all works at a subconscious level. And of course, children are different and we can't expect them all to take the same from a story or to like the same stories.

  11. I wonder how I would have reacted to this as a child? I think I would have been terrified because of other events in my life. I also know a child (whose mother committed suicide) who was terribly upset by the book.
    I also know two young boys with a very healthy self-image who thought the book was "brilliant" and threatened their busy parents with the same result.
    It may not be a book for everyone but, for the right child, it is very, very good!
    Look forward to more!

  12. Fabulous blog post, Anne. I like the way you analyse the illustrations as well. Such tiny details like the change in wall colour.

    I once had a child at playgroup listen to the story very intently when I read it and then said - with the superiority that only a clever 4yr old can produce - "The monster was Bernard all the time, wasn't he?" [She was a VERY bright child]

    Looking forward to more bookanalysis.

  13. This is a really great post! I have been puzzling about this book for a while - I didn't particularly 'love it' as a child (I preferred Paddington Bear!) but I wasn't scared or upset by it.

    I distinctly remember someone from the NSPCC coming in to the school to talk to us, and they read us the book. When we all laughed at the ending they said 'Aha, but this book is actually very serious', and told us it was about child abuse!! I remember thinking 'What?! But Bernard's FINE!'. We all thought it was quite funny that he'd sort of got one over on his parents.

    I've been confused about the book ever since but your dissection makes a lot of sense! Thank you!

  14. Superbly thoughtful and illuminating post, Anne. Keep 'em coming!

  15. I like to give this book to childless friends to read to my kids. It's always a good laugh to see the adult turn the last page, register the blank, and turn back again, frantically looking for the happy ending, before realising there isn't going to be one.

    This is a great analysis. I'd add one extra element: the joy for children in registering Bernard's parents' incompetence. Their obliviousness to Bernard goes from threatening to foolish as they unwittingly allow a monster to wreak havoc round the house without even noticing, and it visibly diminishes their authority/power in the reader's eyes - it's hilarious when Dad gets bitten. And things go constantly wrong for the parents: the hammered thumb, the broken pot. 'They silly!' crows my toddler gleefully. It doesn't draw the fangs of the story or the parental neglect, but it chips away at their authority.

  16. That's a great observation, Kate - thank you for sharing it. I love you toddler already - what insight! That must certainly be another aspect that appeals to children.

  17. And now we don't know book's next for your vivisecting gaze. What a tease! Will be watching out . . .

  18. Sorry, Penny! This is theoretically fortnightly, so new book due Monday. But Monday is also a book deadline, and Tuesday I am lecturing (not prep'd) so it will be a little late :-)

  19. Very much enjoyed this analysis! The book is a great favourite with us and was for all our three girls. I think I agree with. Everything but couldn't have put it so well.

  20. Wonderful analysis - well done! I've quoted you extensively in a recent Not Now Bernard post!

  21. Great blog. Have just started studying to become a teacher and we were asked to review a children's picture book and I chose this one. Your blog was very helpful in helping me dissect the book! Pity you haven't done more :-(

  22. Thankyou, Ronan, and good luck with your studies. I will do more, but this is really an occasional blog. Each post takes a long time, and I have to earn a living, so it has to fit into my slack periods. It will slowly build up. But I do realise I've left it a long time - I wanted to do about one every month or two. Ha! But you've reminded to get back to it, so soon I will :-)

  23. I've just discovered this, and it's really fascinating. It is indeed a brilliant book, and works on so many levels as you've illustrated beautifully. I wonder though, if we are over-analysing in respect of a child's perspective. I love this book as an adult, but when I read it to my two my daughter (who is a pretty sophisticated reader) said 'I don't get it'. So perhaps we are assuming too much?

  24. Thankyou, lucymarcovitch.

    I'm not suggesting a child consciously responds or thinks in this, but that this is how the text works, by resonating at some level like this.

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  26. I am also studying to be a teacher. I have to write an essay on emotional benefits for children. One of the recommended readings is this one and I decided to read it with my eight year old to pick his brain on the book.
    I read it before reading your blog and you were spot on with the guilt for the parents, it has made me feel so bad for every time I am studying and say "not now".
    However, my son's opinion on the book was very different. He said that it is not a good book. "it doesn't even have an ending!" "she is supposed to notice!!" he even turned back to the page where mum sends him to bed and pointed out that she has seen the monster because she was looking that way. He then said that the writer is crazy (I nearly laughed) and that it should have ended with the parents saving Bernard and taking him out from the monster's mouth.
    We can interpret my son's words to say he thinks that parents always protect you, but that is not my son's view of the story or HIS interpretation of the book. He has not read between the lines and just expects a normal ending like in Spiderman or any other adventure he knows.
    I do not see how this book can help a child with any feelings. It is too complex. Maybe much older children...
    Very effective on me, though. I will always stop and listen even if I am extremely busy!
    I enjoyed the story but I don't think I can use it for my essay.

  27. The way a story works is not usually accessible to a child, just as the way Calpol works is not accessible to them. Most stories are of emotional benefit because they endorse the child's view of the world, encourage them in their endeavours and validate their feelings. All of these help the child to form their identity and to build self-confidence. The child doesn't have to notice these things. (At eight, your son certainly not too young for this book; the complexity is not something the author would expect him to think about.) Children's views of this book do seem to be divided between those who love it and those who hate it.

  28. So how does it help a child emotionally if they cannot see the hidden message? (not a rethorical question, but a real one) Your comments are extremelly helpful to me. Thank you

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  33. Good informative post, thanks for sharing.

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  35. Dear Stroppy Author - I have belatedly discovered this wonderful blog. Not Now, Bernard was always my favourite book as a child, partly as I am called Bernard. I made a musical setting of the book for narrator and orchestra and it has been recorded, with Alexander Armstrong as narrator. I hope it might be of interest: part of my challenge was to reflect on the story in music in the way you have reflected on the pictures. For example in my piece, the big emotional moment is when the monster goes upstairs to bed, as this is his moment of resignation to his fate. The album is available for pre-order now:

  36. I randomly read about this book today and ended up finding this blog. I was blown away at how much meaning was packed into a few short lines and illustrations. Absolutely amazing story and wonderful dissection of its themes.