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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Not Now, Bernard

Author and Illustrator: David Mckee
Publisher: First published by Andersen Press Ltd, 1980. Featured edition published, Andersen Press Ltd, 2012 

Now here's a very dark book. It leaves me with a puzzled look. It takes a jab at parents, or a particular parenting style/ type, or is it taking a stance on children? (should they be 'seen and not heard'?)...and that's why I like this children's book, it's thought-provoking, and really designed as a cautionary tale to adults.

Economical with words, but telling a big story, Not Now, Bernard is about a little boy looking to attract the attention of his parents. He walks from dad to mum, interrupting / interacting as his parents get on with household jobs. Bernard has a knack of speaking to his parents just at crucial moments, so his dad, hammering a nail in the wall in order to put a picture up, bashes his thumb, his mum is watering a pot plant as the pot cracks and drips water over the table. Both parents dismiss Bernard and his mum ignores Bernard's observation that 'there's a monster in the garden.' 'Bernard went into the garden.'  Bernard is then eaten by the monster.

This dry humour then darkens further, as the monster enters the kitchen: the monster is ignored and dismissed by Bernard's mum. A lovely illustration shows the monster puzzled, looking directly at us (the reader). Bernard's father is reading a newspaper, his thumb now bandaged. The monster bites the leg of the father, and the chorus retort is again shouted, 'not now,  Bernard.'   Continuing to show no worry, interest, fear in the monster, Bernard's mother shouts Bernard (who of course is eaten by the monster) to tea. Tea is left in front of the the television (another moment of detachment / practical parenting, depending on your perspective...I expect the author intended the former here, but as a parent of four, I do have a little sympathy for the parents (sorry author David Mckee!). The monster (Bernard himself?) shows signs of being increasingly bored and angry alone in his room. Still ignoring the monster/ or oblivious unintentionally (?) Bernard's mother sends Bernard to bed (the monster obliges).
So this is a very intelligent children's book. it makes some interesting suggestions, comments, but leaves the interpretation and inference firmly with the reader (at least I think it does, I might be missing something?). Are Bernard's parents emotionally abusive? They ignore Bernard, he seeks their attention, they don't meet his emotional needs, yet mum has her pinafore on tending to all Bernard's physical needs (keeping home). Is Bernard the monster? His parents are 'genuinely' busy (though are they as the types of jobs they're doing aren't crucial), Bernard is being very needy, and has a vivid imagination (he can see monsters)- is he lying (again?). Does Bernard become the Monster, rather than being eaten by the monster? Is ignoring a 'monster-child' a good way to cope with a 'monster-child', not remarking on the anti-social behaviours? But then, why is Bernard a monster child in the first place?  These are just a few of the questions the book opens up. Its a psychology undergraduate's dream! Themes we could take from this book include, parent-child relationships (attachment theory/ bonding/ interaction), child psychology (imagination, pestering, boredom), neglect, abandonment, abuse, childhood, adulthood, family dynamics, transference... the list goes on.    

On a less analytical note maybe, Not Now, Bernard is a comedy. My children love the parents' voices growling, 'Not Now, Bernard' at their child (especially if you make mum's voice deep too). The unexpected works well to grab interest (in what other book does the main protagonist get eaten by a purple monster?) It's also humorous on the very principle that children don't necessarily 'read' an alternative ending. Tonight I suggested to Bert (age 5) that Bernard is the Monster.  'No', he said, earnestly, 'It said the monster ate him.' 'Bernard is dead forever.' (eek, and my child said that so matter-of-fact!)

Interestingly the book makes Bert feel quite uncomfortable, he's the sort of child that doesn't break rules and isn't 'a bit of the monster'. The book appeals hugely to Edie (age 3) who break lots of rules and loves hearing that others are 'naughty'. On the basis of it's invitation to put on funny voices and the bright, basic pictures, you could easily read this book to very young children (toddlers), but those children of six years and upward, can really start picking at the comprehension and nuances,and the contradictions in this book.
In terms of the humour, it reminds me very much of the macabre disappearance of the rabbit in I want my hat back by Jon Klassen (I wonder whether this story inspired Klassen's dark thoughts there).  
In all, the book feels very blunt, very short and very critical (of society, children, parenting), but I really enjoy that David Mckee has opened this debate, and applaud the fact he does this in a children's story. It is clever, undoubtedly clever.    

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