Back to School With Monsters (of the Misunderstood Variety)
September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments
One of my favorite books as a kid was James Marhsall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, a picture book about a smiley, mild-tempered teacher, who, fed up with the rude and rambunctious behavior of her students, dons a pointy nose, a wig, and a black dress to become the witchy, ultra-strict substitute named Viola Swamp; within a few weeks, the children have reformed their ways and are begging for Miss Nelson’s return. The story is a playful reminder that we’re not always grateful for what we have until it’s gone. As a kid, though, my obsession with the book stemmed from the fact that Viola Swamp’s true identity eludes, not only her students, but us readers as well—that is, until the final page, when we get a glimpse of the familiar black dress hanging in Miss Nelson’s bedroom closet. Once we’re in on the secret, we can’t help but want to read the book again and again, picking up on clues that we missed the first time around, stunned that the truth was right in front of our eyes the whole time. If only we (alongside Miss Nelson’s students) hadn’t been so quick to settle for first impressions, we would have seen that Miss Nelson wasn’t just a sweet face, oblivious to the spitballs flying at her. Nor was Viola Swamp the monstrous outsider we assumed her to be.
Now, forty years after James Marshall published his book, Peter Brown again turns the conventional teacher-student relationship on its head in his infectiously-titled new picture book, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.) (Ages 5-9). “Bobby had a big problem at school. Her name was Ms. Kirby.” As we learn early on, Ms. Kirby is prone to yelling, stomping, and taking away Bobby’s recess privileges on account of his paper airplane shenanigans. She is also more monster than human, with green skin and exaggerated facial features, including sharp, protruding teeth and flared nostrils. And yet, what is quietly revealed as the story develops, is that this picture of Ms. Kirby lies entirely in the eye of her beholder; we are seeing Ms. Kirby exactly as Bobby himself sees her. Only after a chance encounter with his teacher in the park one weekend afternoon, does Bobby begin to glimpse what lies beneath that rough exterior.
Peter Brown (whose equally spectacular Mr. Tiger Goes Wild was, coincidentally, my back-to-school pick for last year) is a master at creating picture books that, at first glance, appear deceptively simple. In fact, though, their minimal text invites maximum interaction from the child reader, as he or she must glean as much of the story’s meaning from the illustrations—from what is not said—than from the words themselves. In this case, most of the plot is advanced through speech bubbles, bringing to mind some of Brown’s earlier works, like You Will Be My Friend! and Children Make Terrible Pets. The animated conversation is highly entertaining to read aloud by parents and early readers alike. Take, for example, the below conversation, when Bobby initially stumbles upon his teacher in the park and begrudgingly sits down beside her (personally, I can remember like it was yesterday that very bizarre sensation of running into my elementary teacher outside the classroom—wait, they have a life?):
Teachers, as it turns out, can be quite silly. Ms. Kirby, as Bobby discovers, enjoys quacking alongside ducks. Teachers can also—wait for it—feel things, like panic and distress, when “my dear old granny’s” wide-brimmed hat flies away (thankfully, Bobby heroically snatches it before it blows into the water). Later, when Bobby leads Ms. Kirby to his favorite spot, high atop a rocky hill, she bestows on him a piece of paper to launch the “single greatest paper airplane flight in history!”
Throughout these exchanges, we as readers become privy to a slow, subtle alteration in Ms. Kirby’s appearance: her face becomes softer, her coloring more peach-toned; and one by one her pointy teeth drop off and are replaced with something resembling a smile. (Side note: I have yet to read this book with my kids without them demanding “wait, go back, I need to see something!”—so delighted are they by the sneaky changes taking place.) Later, this transformation extends into the classroom, where Ms. Kirby’s monstrous qualities surface only some of the time, in her justified moments of frustration (we’ve all been there). But there’s another equally important (albeit more subtle) transformation at work here: that of the misunderstood student. In Ms. Kirby’s eyes, Bobby goes from being a kid who drives her crazy, to a kid who drives her crazy and is sweet, creative, and capable of hard work.
Whether you apply these lessons inside or outside the school year, Peter Brown gives us parents an immensely valuable tool for helping our children see beyond the unfamiliar, the intimidating, and the alien; to resist the temptation to judge off what we see; to seek out commonalities and to connect as human beings. While we’re at it, we would do well to take a few tips for ourselves.
Please note: due to the current standoff between Amazon and Hachette Publishing, you will get any of Peter Brown’s books a lot quicker if you head for your neighborhood bookstore (which, I might add, you should be doing anyway). If you’d like to read Peter Brown’s impassioned post about the independent bookstore in light of Amazon’s shifting policies, click here.