Monday, March 02, 2009

The charming crippling mental illness and/or behavioral problems of Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel

Grown-ups and kids can read the exact same picture books and see very different things. That’s a fact that won’t come as a surprise to any grown-up who has returned to a work they experienced as a child and saw it in a very different light, or any grown-up who’s ever read a book with a child.

One’s own personal life experiences so color one’s perceptions that taking in any work of art can completely transform the work in the minds of individual members of its audience. When a large segment of that audience has very limited personal life experiences—that is, they’ve only been alive for a couple of years—they’re obviously going to see things a lot differently then someone who’s been around the block a few times in their thirty-some years.

I’m constantly half-aware of this as I read children’s picture books, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of it then when I read Mélanie Watt’s book Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press; 2006). I suppose that, for kids, it’s supposed to be the story of a humorously shy and nervous woodland creature that reluctantly, gradually must learn to deal with what frightens him.

But me, I saw a remarkably accurate story of a woodland creature who suffers from some kind of generalized anxiety disorder, probably a particularly debilitating form of agoraphobia, maybe with some touches of obsessive compulsive disorder.

I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, although it bummed me right the hell out, and read like a tragedy to me—although there is a happy-ish ending, so I suppose it’s more comic than tragic.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Here’s how the book opens: “Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree. He’d rather stay in his safe and familiar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown. The unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel.”

See what I mean?

Scaredy doesn’t look too upset about being a prisoner to his fears. He even smiles when we’re introduced to him. Watt’s design is a nice compromise between representational and cartoony; the first image of him depicts a squirrel in very squirrel-y, hunched over posture, but with an exaggerated head. When the need arises, his blank, squirrel-y expression can take on intelligence and emotion, and he can become more animated and emotive, while still being a consistent design throughout.

That’s no mean feat.

Watt’s art has a very highly sophisticated faux child-like style. The black lines aren’t solid or drawn with machine-like consistency, but have the waxy look of crayon lines. The coloring within those lines leaves white space around each of them, as if it too was applied by a child overly-careful not to go over the line (whether this is simply a style Watt thought looked pretty cool or a conscious effort to make the art look hesitant and risk-adverse so as to reflect the personality of the protagonist, it works both ways).

From there, we get a two-page spread, broken into a series of boxes showing “A few things Scaredy Squirrel is afraid of.”

Here’s the right half of it:

On the left side is a picture of Scaredy hiding his eyes, and two more items, tarantulas and poison ivy.

These fears will seem comically irrational, as everyone knows there’s no such thing as Martians, ad tarantulas, sharks, killer bees and even poison ivy are pretty easy to avoid. Right?

I don’t know. I’m not terribly afraid of any of these things, but mostly because I know that I can leave my house without encountering any of them (Like, if I stay out of oceans and aquarium tanks, I can’t possibly run afoul of a shark).

But then, I’m not sure how old Scaredy is. Maybe he’s very young? I used to be afraid of killer bees, and all bees (come to think of it) when I was young—right up until I actually got stung a few times and I realized it wasn’t so bad. My nieces and the other little kids I know sure freak out about bees.

I used to be pretty terrified of aliens too. Not green Martians, but gray Grays, like on the cover of Communion, which scared the hell out of me as a child and still kinda creeps me out.

If Scaredy’s really young, well, he can feel free to be scared of pretty much anything. When I was super-young, too young for school, but old enough to form memories, I used to be afraid to go to the second floor of my house without an adult with me, because then I would be at mouth-level to dinosaurs, and I had a very vivid mental picture of a Tyrannosaurus smashing his head through the windows of my bedroom or at the top of the stairs.

An ex-girlfriend told me that when she was little she used to be afraid of the sister she shared a room with turning into a werewolf at night. My little brother used to be afraid of crickets coming to get him at night. I used to think the sound of trees of trees pushing against electrical wires outside my room were owl men on the roof, and I was afraid of Bigfoot sneaking around my house at night.

Little kids are dumb, so I can’t really judge Scaredy.

The middle part of the book is devoted to similar charts, some of them kinda heart breaking. Like one two-page spread is divided into two lists, “Advantages of never leaving the nut tree” and “Disadvantages of never leaving the tree.” The same items are each chart, just given a different meaning by a different word or two (“great view” vs. “same old view”). The main advantage seems to be the lack of tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, killer bees, germs and sharks in the nut tree.

The next spread is a series of seven drawings of the nut tree along a timeline, with a different day of the week written next to each one, and Scaredy standing on a different part of each image of the tree, a red arrow pointing to him.

“In Scaredy Squirrel’s nut tree, every day is the same. Everything is predictable. All is under control.”

Awww….see? This is sad! Scaredy needs help.

This part was kind of funny, but hit a little too close to home:

Jeez, change “look at view” to “read or write about comics” and you’ve pretty much got my life.(Although Scaredy wakes up and goes to bed hella early; maybe he doesn’t have electricity).

Watts goes on to discuss Scaredy’s preparations for the unexpected, and provides a chart of what’s in his emergency kit and his various escape plans.

We now approach the climax. There’s a nine-panel grid of Scaredy looking around with binoculars, clutching his emergency kit in his hand, when suddenly, “A killer bee appears!


Clearly this is not a killer bee, Scaredy.

Does this look like the face of a killer?

No, no it does not. This is the face of a killer:

Scaredy freaks out, drops his emergency kit and falls out of the tree, but then, “something incredible happens.” A secret, surprise fold-out page reveals that Scaredy is actually “a FLYING squirrel!” Irony! A flying squirrel that’s too scared to leave his tree.

He glides to safety and lands in a bush, where he plays dead for two hours. When he realizes nothing bad is happening, he eventually returns to his nut tree.

The narrator tells us that “All this excitement has inspired Scaredy Squirrel to make drastic changes in his life…” and then we get a two-page spread of his “new-and-improved daily routine,” which is exactly like the other one, except that Jump into the unknown, play dead and return home are now included between the breakfast nut and lunch nut.

And that’s how you’re supposed to overcome behavioral problems, isn’t it? By breaking your routine slightly at first, and then making that slightly different behavior part of your new routine, as you gradually work toward functionality?

So there you have it: The best children’s book about agoraphobia I’ve ever read.

Watt has returned repeatedly to Scaredy since, producing two more books.

The first is Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend (Kids Can Press; 2007), which is also pretty depressing.

“Scaredy Squirrel doesn’t have a friend. He’d rather be alone than risk encountering someone dangerous.” Watt plays it cute by saying that he’s specifically afraid of getting bitten, which is perhaps a natural fear for a small wild animal to have, but it sure sounds like a metaphor for emotional rejection to me.

The format is roughly the same, with charts and maps and what not.

For example, instead of the list of some of the things Scaredy is afraid of that was in the first book, this one includes “a few individuals Scaredy Squirrel is afraid to be bitten by,” and these are walruses, bunnies, beavers, piranhas and Godzilla.

Finally, Scaredy gets sick of passing his time by himself doing such activities as knitting, reading, crafting and talking to a sock puppet, and decides to venture out of his tree to make friends with a goldfish in a nearby birdbath.

After making a detailed plan, and emergency plan for what to do if he encounters a walrus or Godzilla, Scaredy gathers sundry materials and tries to go make friends with the fish, but is interrupted by a big smelly, germy dog who chases him around for a few pages. Scaredy plays dead for a while, until he realizes the dog doesn’t want to bite him, and the two become friends.

Finally, there’s Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach (Kids Can Press; 2008), in which Scaredy makes a great deal of progress.

In this one, he wants to take a vacation, but doesn’t want to leave his house and go to a real beach, where there are all sorts of dangers. And crowds.

So he constructs his own personal beach to pretend he’s on vacation at, until he decides he needs to get a seashell to reproduce the sound of the ocean. So he hatches an elaborate plan to go to the real beach and get a real shell, a plan that involves charts, maps, equipment and putting himself in a box and shipping himself via UPS to the beach.

When he sees all the people there, he panics and plays dead, but eventually realizes he’s in no danger and returns home with the shell.

I have some problems with this one, the weakest of the three. Mailing yourself seems like a pretty risky, dangerous activity, and seems far scarier than just going to the beach. But then, that’s the way mental illness works—it doesn’t always make sense.

More troubling was what Scaredy makes his fake home beach out of: A bag of kitty litter. Why use kitty litter? Presumably he had to go to a store and buy it, or at least order it online and have it shipped to him, and bags of sand can also be bought at stores, so why not just get a bag of sand? And the bag of kitty litter is scaled to Scaredy’s size; that is, it’s the same size to Scaredy as it would be to us, even though Scaredy is squirrel-sized, not human-sized.

I’m fine with all the other things Scaredy uses being scaled to him—flashlights, binoculars, crayons, etc.—because for all I know squirrels have all that shit in their nut trees. I’ve never actually been in one of their homes, you know? But kitty litter is a product made for a specific animal that is quite a bit larger than a squirrel, so why would squirrels have their own squirrel-sized equivalent to it? I will accept a squirrel using tiny little binoculars, but not a squirrels keeping tiny, smaller-than-squirrel-sized cats as pets, because that’s insane.

A fourth Scaredy Squirrel book, Scaredy Squirrel at Night, is set for a March 28 release.


LurkerWithout said...

That sister/werewolf thing of your ex's sounds like she watched too much Ginger Snaps, a movie series where that is the main plot point of the first movie...

And the bee looks like the one I got as a donation gift from Kier McFarlane's Wiki's Lessons in Life...

Katie said...

My husband comments that the non-cat related use for kitty litter is ice patches and squirrels may have a need for it on that basis. Thus, it could be reasonable for it to be scaled to Scaredy, even if there aren't miniature cats around!