I was in the children’s section of the library the other day waiting for the launch of Storylab, and I started to browse the picture books. On the librarian’s recommendation I had a look at the newly published It’s a Book in which a precocious pinch-and-zoom cybermonkey struggles to use a paper book. Very funny, and timely, but probably more so for parents than for children.
Then I saw Not Now Bernard by my Andersen Press stablemate David McKee, creator of Elmer the Elephant, Mr Benn and King Rollo. What a great story! Not Now Bernard is about a boy whose parents are so preoccupied that they don’t notice he is being threatened by – and then eaten by – a monster.
So far so funny. But what I enjoyed almost as much as the book itself was this hilarious and hyperbolic review of the book, claiming that Not Now Bernard is “five times as disturbing as Silence of the Lambs and the entire Saw franchise combined.” I quickly clicked on the reviewer’s name to see whether he has contributed any more Amazon reviews, but unfortunately this is the only one so far. Here’s the review in full. Read, enjoy and buy the book to see if you agree!
I can only assume that the 23 five-star reviews of this horror story are suffering from some kind of sociopathic disorder. This book is in no way appropriate for children.
Not Now Bernard used to terrify me as a child. A couple of days ago I stumbled across a copy and decided to look through it, believing I’d be able to chuckle at how silly the five-year-old me was to be so petrified by an innocent children’s book (after all, I used to have an irrational fear of the Moomins too). No, there was nothing irrational about my fear of Not Now Bernard: this story is about five times as disturbing as Silence of the Lambs and the entire Saw franchise combined. It is as is some madman has transcribed the absolute worst nightmare of every single infant, illustrated it and then sold it to their hapless parents.
The story is chilling: a little boy strolls innocently out into his garden whereupon he encounters a monster that declares it is going to eat him. The illustrations of this encounter are rendered in a creepy colour palette – the sky has an apocalyptic orange glow, whilst the characters appear grey and dreary. Bernard wears a permanently blank expression on his face, and the monster has a look of pure evil about him: his eyebrows slanted, his pointed teeth gritted, and his fists clenched. Bernard desperately tries to tell his parents that this garden-demon is about to devour him, but they simply do not care – dismissing him with the titular phrase “Not Now Bernard”. Rejected by those who are supposed to be looking after him, Bernard walks back out into the garden and is promptly eaten by the creature. This is tantamount to the child committing suicide – the horrific undertones are that this innocent kid had literally nowhere else to go other than into the waiting jaws of the beast. The monster then calmly wanders into the house and proceeds to assume Bernard’s identity – with their child’s remains still dissolving in his stomach acid, Bernard’s unfit parents go on to prepare dinner for the monster, let him watch their TV and put him to sleep in their dead son’s room. The monster seizes upon this opportunity to systematically destroy all of Bernard’s toys.
That’s it. That’s the story. There is no moral here, no repercussions for the killer, no acknowledgement of a child’s death. How can anybody read this twisted tale of undiluted horror to their kids? What message are they supposed to get from it? A child is killed and his parents do not notice or care, and then everything he owned and loved is smashed to pieces and his murderer goes to sleep peacefully in his bed.
To counterbalance that strong anti-NNB opinion, here’s a positive review of the book by someone whose little girls “cherish” the book. And here’s a very readable and interesting 2700 word scholarly vivisection of Not Now Bernard, which puts an entirely different interpretation on the story. Two quotes:
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.
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.’