Be Brave, Little One
‘Brave Squish Rabbit’ and ‘Black Dog’
Next week is Halloween, and while the holiday is now more about accumulated treats than fearsome tricks, young children still think of it as a special occasion to feel scared. Not that they need one. The dark and frightful are daily occurrences. Two new books pay tribute to those little ones who manage to be braver than you might expect.
“Brave Squish Rabbit” is Katherine Battersby’s follow-up to last year’s “Squish Rabbit.” It stars the same character, an improbably cute, Keith Haring-esque outline of a bunny, with two irregular dots for eyes and any number of fears, depicted in a series of collage tableaus. “Squish was scared of many things,” we’re told — including storms, chickens and especially the dark, nemesis of all creatures small (and some big).
The story Battersby tells is deceptively simple, but it conveys valuable ideas — for instance, that distraction, companionship and resourcefulness can help us to combat fearfulness. And acting brave even when you don’t feel brave makes a difference too. These are somber messages, but framing them around a story about a cute bunny and his squirrel friend makes it a lot easier for young children to bear.
There is nothing cuddly about the enormous black dog that appears outside the Hope family house one winter’s day in “Black Dog.” Mr. Hope calls the police, who instruct him to stay inside. Mrs. Hope turns out the lights. Adeline Hope compares the dog to a Tyrannosaurus rex, and closes the curtains so the dog can’t peer in. Maurice Hope hides under the covers.
But the youngest member of the family, Small, calling the others “such sillies,” boldly ventures outdoors to confront the beast, who seems quite fearsome at first. “Outside the Black Dog leaned down toward her and BREATHED. ‘Golly, you ARE big!’ said Small. ‘What are you doing here, you guffin?’” Next she challenges the dog to a chase. “You might be big, I may be small, but I’m not afraid of you at all,” she sings out. The two give pursuit in a fantastical winter landscape, where playgrounds contain oversize elephant structures, their muted pink and blue trunks bent into curving slides.
The Australian author-illustrator Levi Pinfold alternates full-page, full-color paintings with smaller, sepia-toned panels. These last recall those of Chris Van Allsburg but have a style all their own. Children and adults will relish the details of Pinfold’s very fine paintings, set in a magical never-time of old typewriters and wood-burning stoves and hand-painted furniture, in which people wear assorted kitchen equipment as hats on their heads. (Mr. Hope sports an oversize colander.)
And yet, very little of what goes on in the Hope household is particularly askew or unusual. As with fear itself, it’s all a matter of perspective. And that’s a potent lesson for children as well as adults.