While this blog will mainly be about Arabic non-translated children’s book, I will be making an exception this time (and maybe at other times in the future, who knows?).
This month, I will review Monsters aren’t real, written and illustrated by Kerstin Schoene from Germany. The original German version was published by BajazzoVerlag in Zurich, Switzerland, and the story was later translated into Arabic and published by Asala Publishers in Beirut, Lebanon with support from the Spotlight on Rights programme. There is also an English version available from Kane/Miller publishers.
The story begins like this:
This causes our monster to start to doubt his own existence, so he sets out to convince the world that monsters are actually real, contrary to what everyone else seems to think.
He starts a bit of a visibility campaign:
and performs many feats of strength such as this one:
All this to no avail: nobody pays him any mind, and he fails to scare anybody, even the youngest children.
Toward the end of the story, our monster gets discouraged, so he decides to give up and acknowledge that everyone else was right. He starts to repeat to himself, "Monsters aren’t real". While he is doing so, another monster appears out of nowhere to object to this statement. The monsters, happy to find each other, set out together to convince the world that monsters do actually exist:
I have a reason for using so many illustrations* in this summary. Monsters aren’t real is a story told primarily through its illustrations with a scant but judicious use of the written text. As a result, I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the book - it wouldn’t have felt right otherwise.
The illustrations play a leading role in narrating the events of the story; in fact, it is only through the illustrations that we find out what originally triggers the monster to set out on his quest (a graffiti on the wall denying the existence of monsters) and the different things he does to try to convince people that monsters do exist.
Schoene uses text sparsely, mostly for conveying dialogue, both the internal dialogue of the monster and his conversation with the monster that appears at the end of the story. Out of forty pages, the book contains ten spreads or twenty pages that contain no text but only images- I have used a few of these images above. Schoene does not go as far as making this a wordless book- a wise decision as I don’t think that this book would have worked quite as well without Schoene’s carefully used text which carries conveys a lot of humour and serves to drive the story forward.
It is for this reason that this book is very interesting to me, as it highlights the role of the illustrator as co-writer and the importance of involving illustrators in the construction of a picture book story. When we read picture books, we often count on the illustrations as our primary source for a lot of information, such as the physical appearance of the characters, their social milieu and their physical environment.
The larger-than-usual role played by the illustrations in this story is very easily explained by the fact that the author is herself the illustrator. Usually, illustrators enter the process of producing a picture book at a second stage after the text has been written and edited. Any illustrator wishing to be creative or leave his/her distinctive mark has to be so in the empty spaces left for them (whether deliberately or not) by the author.
However, I would like to think that a book like this would not otherwise have been impossible (i.e. in cases where the author and the illustrator are different people) if the author and the illustrator work collaboratively instead of separately, or if the illustrator ‘gets’ the text and is allowed the space to roam free to express himself/herself and his/her style and philosophy.
I have another reason to show so many illustrations, and that is to give you a taster of the skillful illustrations in this very funny book. Once we see the illustrations, it comes as no surprise to us that the monster is not really able to scare anyone, and Schoene portrays people’s indifference to the monster to great comic effect. On the more technical level, the illustrator uses soft and broken colours in her images with a predominance of soft browns, beige and green, and her backgrounds are clear and uncluttered. To the credit of the publisher of the Arabic version of the book, the book has that nice smell of good quality and thick paper, and the end result is an attractive book.
You might ask yourself about the message of a story, which basically says that, contrary to what your parents tell you, monsters do exist. Well, where else would fantastic creatures live and unexpected things happen apart from a book such as this? God knows, these things don’t happen enough in real life.
When I recall the stories that I, and many other children, used to love as a child, they were stories full of pixies, fairies, giants, witches, flying objects and portals to another world that existed where we least expected them. I think the reason that I loved these stories was the boredom I felt as a child in my daily life. These books were a comfort and held out hope that somewhere there was a world more beautiful and exciting.
In addition, believe it or not, Monsters aren’t real is full of some very astute social observations, such as, that sometimes the majority can believe something very strongly (such as monsters not being real) but it can be wrong and still somehow have the power to make you believe that you are the one who is wrong. The book also contains positive messages about not giving up when you are fighting for what you know is true and the relief one feels to finally find like-minded friends and accomplices.
Maybe, you didn’t get any of that. At least Monsters aren’t real is a very enjoyable story and a skillfully executed book, and that alone makes it worth reading.
*The illustrations used are taken from the Arabic version of the book; they are reproduced with the kind permission of Asala Publishers.