Monday, April 18, 2011

Monsters Eat Whiny Children

Written and Illustrated by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (2010)
Ages 4-8

I zeroed in on this book the other day because it had just about everything going for it that screamed READ ME:
  • The title, which does not leave me wondering if the trajectory of the plot will be on point. I already know where this story is going and I want to watch it unfold.
  • The back cover, which reads, "The crumbs are the best part." Okay. Now I know this is going to be brash, dark humor. Love it.
  • The color and illustrations, which are simple, bold cartoon style.(Very raw and monsterish.)
  • The inside cover pages, which display a map of the children's neighborhood, including this gem: "Store where people think Eve is a boy." It's one of those random, quirky details that tell me this book will not be the usual fare.
As I read the story—about a brother and sister who, despite the warnings from their "kindly father," continue to whine until they are taken by a monster to his lair "in the bad side of town"—I immediately felt an old conflict rising inside my gut (and it wasn't dinner). Here was a fabulous concept with off-beat twists...but the story had all the hallmarks of a writer for adults (Kaplan wrote for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under) who has just written his first children's book.

I love television writers. They're quick, witty, sharp and edgy—all qualities that, when combined with proven conventions of children's literature, could make for a dynamite story. But the key word is, conventions. There's a reason children's writers study them, practice them, and are rejected for years until they get them right: THEY WORK.

I think one of my biggest disappointments in MONSTERS EAT WHINY CHILDREN is that, while it's still a fun read, it could have been so much better. If only a few simple conventions were adhered to:

Make the children the protagonists. In MONSTERS, the protagonists are the "adults" (the monsters) and not the kids. How much more lively and empowering it would have been to see the kids get themselves into trouble, then deeper and deeper trouble as they tried to fix the problem; instead, the story shows us the monsters making all the decisions and mistakes, which his falls under "those dumb grown ups" category. (Yawn)

Stick to the rule of three. It's hard to tell how many problems and turns this story takes. It's a little muddled in this regard. The monster makes a whiny child salad, but the monster's wife doesn't like the dressing. So they make a new dressing, but the neighbor shows up and says they should be making whiny child burgers. But they have trouble with the grill... You get the picture. It's a very adult daily life sort of problem, which is fun to laugh at, but how much better would it have been if the children had been outwitting them or doing something (anything) to affect the storyline?

In the end, the children find a way out, but they didn't earn their way there. So, from my perspective, it felt much less satisfying.

Does this lessen the enjoyment of a reader? Probably not. On the other hand, why not make the most of a promising story and, at the same time, maintain the quality of of craft that we all want young readers to recognize and expect as they grow into the world of literature and life?

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read are not so much reader-type reviews as they are my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work.