On ‘Monsters’ by Anna Fienberg

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I have long loved the writing of Anna Fienberg. It’s hard to not fall head first into the Tashi series, and ‘Horrendo’s Curse’ (and its companion book ‘Wicked’s Way’) will also always sit on my favourites shelf, in fact I recommend both these books to Year Three – Six students at least once a week. To that same favourites shelf, will now go ‘Monsters’, the most exquisite romp through a monster filled garden I ever did see and a story of courage and the power of friendship. ‘Monsters’ was Anna and illustrator Kim Gambles final book together, with Kim Gamble passing away in 2016. Kim’s lifelong friend, Stephen Axelsen, took over where Kim left off and together, these three outstanding children’s book creators ensured that ‘Monsters’ came into being – Stephen’s writing on the ‘story behind the story’ is here. 

One of Pud’s alltime favourites, ‘Wickeds Way’ by Anna Fienberg.

It seems to me that it is a childhood right of passage to have thoughts and dreams of scary but imaginary monsters – some children vanquish their monsters, while others learn to love them and live with them. ‘Monsters’ is a quintessential ‘I’m scared of the monsters under my bed’ imaginary story and one which should adorn every childhood bookshelf, perhaps sitting next to ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. I have asked Anna to share with CBD readers the story behind the story. Anna’s words below made me more than a little bit teary and her thoughts on grief so echo my own. Likewise, her take on the ‘dark’ books for children is something I often try to explain to parents who are concerned at their children reading what they see as sad or scary books. She is far more eloquent than I when she says; ‘Children can bear the dark, I think, if they trust in the author to keep hold of them as they descend, shining a light of hope on higher ground…It’s possible to tell a child there is hope, to outline facts and strategies for coping, but there’s something about the imaginative power of fiction that makes it possible to experience it.’

Thank you Anna, for sharing your wisdom, and your love of story, with us all. 

Tildy knew there were monsters. They sailed in from outside and hid behind the curtains. Moonlight brought them in. Tildy hated moonlight. Mum and Dad said there were no such things. Her aunt and uncle couldn’t see them, and when Tildy wrote to her twenty-three cousins about monsters, only one wrote back saying she shouldn’t eat spicy food before bedtime.

Then a new boy came to school. Hendrik drew pages and pages of monsters when the class was writing numbers. He had a way of dealing with his monsters.

When Tildy dares to stay over at Hendrik’s house, she panics when the moon rises… but together they make the night safe, and Tildy can watch the moon sail through the starry sky.

‘The Solace of Books’ by Anna Fienberg

We read for many splendid pleasures, but surely one is for the company. As a child I remember the excitement and comfort of meeting Anne from Green Gables, who had a whole interior monology going on just as I did. She let me climb the steps of her thoughts, her feelings, her towering imaginings. I could see why she said this thing, why she didn’t say that. I adored her, and never wanted her to stop talking to me.

Books helped me map the inner world – my own and that of others, which in real life often remains mysterious.

To feel not completely alone in one’s mind is such a relief. Even though a character’s world might be foreign to our own, in a beloved book we dissolve into it like paint in water, returning to our own landscape forever changed. To imagine another’s life is an active process requiring empathy. And in feeling empathy for another’s story, we can find compassion for our own.

Children need this just as grown ups do. Perhaps more. They need to know that even when frightening or tragic elements in life overtake them, there are  always possibilities, ways through. Children can bear the dark, I think, if they trust in the author to keep hold of them as they descend, shining a light of hope on higher ground. Children, like adults, will search out fellow travellers, whose inner monologues match their own. The more difficulties an author throws at a character, the more diverse will be the ways she’ll try to solve it. And when, at the end, we see the character put together all that she’s learnt, we’ll be satisfied that she has truly saved herself, and that her redemption will be enduring.

It’s possible to tell a child there is hope, to outline facts and strategies for coping, but there’s something about the imaginative power of fiction that makes it possible to experience it. And these are the stories that change us.

Bereavement and loss are perhaps the loneliest of experiences. Grief can drag you off to an island at the edge of the world, making you feel separate from the human race – how can those others on the mainland be carrying on with their lives, singing in the shower, going out for dinner, as if the world hasn’t stopped? Stubbornly you refuse invitations, needing to stay marooned. There’s no extra energy to move, only enough to guard your obsession, protect your sadness. And yet you are lonely.

Novels have provided such good company for me in these last two years. After losing Kim, I could only read about grief and death. I feel so grateful to those authors who showed the kindness to row over to my island bringing fellow bereavers, mapping the secret rooms of grief.

In Penelope Lively’s ‘Perfect Happiness’, Frances loses her husband but keeps one sparkling day. Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking’, becomes obsessive about detail, believing that if she can remember and record every second of her husband’s dying, she might be able to stop it. Julian Barnes in ‘Levels of Life’ discusses the constant need of the bereaved to talk about the loved one, and others’ reluctance to do so.

One of the worst things about loss is the silence that ensues. It moves in and takes up permanent residence, replacing news of daily life, opinions, jokes, complaints, communications from that dear familiar interior you desperately miss.

Reading these books about loss helped me fill the silence. Writing gave it a voice.

In 2015 when Kim was diagnosed with cancer, he was still able to stand up at his easel, covering huge canvases with the oil paints he loved. He’d spent two decades illustrating over 70 books, visiting schools, making a living. He’d been wanting to get back to his own painting for years, those big symphonies that swept you through forests mosaicked with sun and shadow, a house with the yellow light flaring in the windows, sunset draping over hills in that tender melancholy bloom. He was a master painter, and he needed to paint his own stories.

It had taken me a while to understand this, and a while for him to say it. The common variety of monsters got in the way. So I was astonished when one day, at the end of lunch, he said, ‘Got any ideas for a new picture book?’

I was ecstatic at the thought. Looking back I think it felt like a last minute reprieve, a stay of the final sentence. I became feverish with excitement. It wasn’t the end of us at all, it was just the beginning!

Over that weekend I paced and walked and tried out ideas and rushed down dead ends. I thought of sequels to ‘A Hottest Boy’, new tales for ‘Magnificent Nose’, our first book together with those bejewelled watercolours of his, the book that won him the Crichton award for his art, and for us The Children’s Book Council Award for Younger Readers.

Nothing felt right. I thought of ‘Tashi’, and how Kim’s first sketch of him had been such a shock. I’d expected an ordinary-looking boy who came from a magical world. Instead Kim put the magic into Tashi himself – in his question-mark hair, his elfish ears and Santa Claus suit. At once he was a boy in a classroom and a being born in a magical flourish. Like the brilliant illustrator he was, Kim deepened and extended the story, allowing the reader to resist the urge to classify where the character belonged, letting him be the world he’d conjured. So persuasively did Kim do this that we follow Tashi from kitchen to dragon den, without a pause.

But this had to be a new story, and I had to find a new world for us to live in. One thing I knew – I wanted to place our last story in Kim’s childhood garden. It was one of the places he loved most – suburban gardens and wild Australian bush and magpies and big skies at sunset. I remembered how he said once that as a child he used to lie for hours on his back and look up at the clouds, seeing ships and dragons, giants. Monsters.

We’d talked often about dreams and nightmares, and the fears that got in the way of love and happiness. Early in his career Kim said he wanted to illustrate books about feelings, about love. And now I knew this book would be about just that…

Image Credit: Booktopia

It could have been tricky – a bed-time picture book for small children about one of the most scary parts of childhood: night fears and monsters. But Kim’s gently water coloured monsters swarm about a domestic world, tentacled, toothy, hilarious. The monsters are endearing, if pestilential. Some of them you just want to pat! I hope Tildy’s acknowledgement of them, and the positive outcome emerging from sharing them, will provide comfort to children, and give rise to conversation, bringing those monsters out of the shadows and into the light.

It’s hard to convey how enormously grateful to Steve I am for possessing the courage, love and skill required to complete the second half of this book. To make it possible. As Kim’s daughter Arielle said recently, his was ‘a labour of love and watercolours, and the most beautiful tribute to friendship a person could imagine.’ Steve took up Kim’s characters with a matching tenderness and imaginative agility and he never let them drop. The result is seamless, the illustrations evoking such a strong empathy for the characters that the reader can be all of them, even the monsters. And yet Steve’s world – his garden and monsters and moonlight are his own brand of whimsy and magic.

I think Kim would have been delighted with the collaboration. This book was a gift he left for us, and with it, the blessing of his company. He’s helped ease the silence of his leaving with his outrageous and gentle humour, his empathy for childhood with its terror and magic of the night, his playful gardens and thieving magpies, and that full moon of hope.

What a comfort, the company of Monsters’.

Author Anna Fienberg

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