No More Sitting Pretty

April 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt PhelanAfter spring break ate up my last two weeks, I’ve found my way back to writing, and I’m especially glad to be back, because I have a very special new book to tell you about. It’s a book that can be enjoyed simply for the fun, quirky, heartwarming story that it is. Or, it’s a book that can be read as a metaphor for one of the most important examples we can provide our children: that when life doesn’t give us what we want, we possess the power to stand up and change it.

It’s a book that boys and girls will enjoy equally, as my two already do. But, it’s also a book that must be shared with our girls. In fact, Marilyn has quickly become one of my favorite picture book heroines OF ALL TIME.

If that hasn’t piqued your interest, consider this: Marilyn’s Monster (Ages 4-8) is written by Michelle Knudsen, the same author who gave us Library Lion (need I say more?!). Marilyn’s Monster showcases the same beautiful fluidity of narration, the same perfectly orchestrated dramatic arc, and engenders the same depth of empathy for its central character.

Like Library Lion, where a lion listens to stories alongside children at the local library, Marilyn’s Monster is similarly grounded in real, everyday life—with one large, fantastical exception.

You see, in Marilyn’s elementary school, every child has a monster. That’s right, a monster. A friendly, playful, benevolent monster. A monster that’s unique to each child in color, attribute, and personality. These monsters aren’t exactly pets (because they don’t require basic care); they’re not exactly imaginary friends (because they’re visible to everyone); and, while similar in personality to their children, they’re not exactly personified extensions of the children themselves.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

These monsters fill a different void for each child. Maybe the child needs a homework buddy; or someone forever available to clap when they perform tricks on the playground. Maybe they need a monster of enormous proportions to scare off bullies. Maybe, as in the case of Marilyn’s dour, know-it-all older brother, they need a gooey glob of green slime perched under a baseball cap.

While the text gives us bits of insight into some of these monster-child matches, the real joy comes in pouring over Matt Phelan’s whimsical illustrations: watercolor and pencil drawings, which have so captivated my children’s imaginations, that they cannot help but cast themselves in this bizarre world. “Mommy, I can see your monster’s claws when you bend down,” they say about my tortoiseshell hair clip. “JP, your monster is definitely green,” Emily says to her adamantly-green-loving brother, “and mine is just a teeny tiny baby who hasn’t grown any ears yet.”

But here’s the catch. In Marilyn’s world, “Your monster had to find you. That’s just the way it worked.” You never know when the timing will strike. You could be sitting in class one day and, boom, your monster chooses you.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

Not only does your monster find you, under no circumstances are you to find your monster. No sir! No ma’am! This is simply not done. So, when Marilyn finds herself in the devastating predicament of being the only child without a monster, she is given only one option: she has to sit pretty and wait.

She made sure she brushed her hair very carefully every morning and wore pretty clothes and smiled a lot and tried to look very friendly and interesting and smart and fun to be around. She tried to be the kind of girl no monster could resist.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

But no monster. Even when Marilyn tries to look for her monster without appearing like she’s looking for it—mailing a letter simply for the excuse to look deep into the mailbox—she comes up empty.

So what’s a girl to do when social conventions aren’t panning out for her? Well, for starters, she gets mad. She “stopped trying to seem pretty and nice and friendly and fun all the time…Where was her monster? What was taking him so long?”

“That’s it,” Marilyn said one morning. “I’m going to find my monster.”

“You can’t,” said her brother. “That’s not the way it works.”

“Maybe,” said Marilyn. “But you don’t really know. Maybe my monster is different.”

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

With her good walking shoes and a packed lunch, Marilyn sets off on a solo crusade. Mind you, at no point does she compromise her core values. She doesn’t turn mean or sassy; she doesn’t whine or demand her monster to come out. As she overturns every stone and looks behind every tree, she carries herself with grace and composure. And yet, when she finally reaches her breaking point, she isn’t afraid to speak up for what she wants. She “took a deep, deep breath and shouted in her loudest, loudest voice”:

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

And that’s when she hears the small, quiet answer of her monster. He hasn’t been hiding from her. Rather, he’s lost and scared and his two delicate golden wings are tangled in the branches of a tree. It turns out Marilyn doesn’t need saving. But her monster does!

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Mattt Phelan

But my favorite part of this story—the part that makes my heart swell with every reading—is Marilyn’s quiet confidence when she returns home victorious, flown in the arms of her (COOLEST EVER) monster. Haters will hate, and her brother is quick to criticize.

“It’s not supposed to work that way,” her brother said.

Marilyn just looked at him. She didn’t think he was right about that. She thought there were a lot of different ways that things could work.

No more complacency. No more blind acceptance of the Status Quo. No more sitting pretty and waiting for friends or adventure or work or opportunity to come. Daughter of mine, children of the world: here’s hoping that Marilyn will serve as one small example that, sometimes, you have to take life by its monstrous horns and go get ‘em.

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt Phelan

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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