Reviews 2012

Monsters Under the Bed: Critically Investigating Early Years Writing

Monsters Under the Bed: Critically Investigating Early Years Writing. Andrew Melrose. London: Routledge, 2012. 139 pages. $155.00 (hardback).

Monsters Under the Bed is a "critically creative and creatively critical investigation of the cult and culture of the child and childhood in fiction and non-fiction writing" (front matter). It digs deep beneath the quick and easy definitions of child and children and examines the dynamic existence these young people live within our largely adult world. They are inexperienced members of this world, but their experience changes and grows at every moment, and with every interaction they have. Melrose's central, vibrant thesis is that this experience is most effective, and most meaningful, as a joint endeavour: between experts and novices, between teachers and students, between parents and their children. Subsets of these partnerships are the artists and writers and creators of stories; specifically of picture books and early readers. Melrose's book resides in the arena of books for children, with an emphasis on picturebooks, more specifically on the impact that a joint exploration of their text and images can have on a developing child. These are not "little books for little people" (5) but are, instead, big ideas shaped into brief, yet resonant stories, ideas that can introduce a child to new concepts, and confirm what she already knows, all within a dynamic, safe and creative interaction.

The book is divided into two sections. The first explores the theories surrounding child-centred culture, communication and media, as seen through cultural and critical lenses. The second investigates the different components of a successful child-centred culture, using the creative lens to open up the implications for picture books and books for early readers.

Melrose's central idea is that books are extremely vital to the experience of childhood, and that other forms of media (such as DVDs, advertisements, games, dolls—some offshoots of books themselves) cannot, and will not, ever take their place. Not only is the actual, tangible book—with its hard covers and crackly spine, black ink and illustrations in a rainbow of colours—an object like no other, but it is also part of a larger, unique experience (again, not the offshoot doll or the adapted movie kind) which brings together the book, the child who listens to it being read, and the adult who does the reading. And within this reading aloud experience is the key point to which Melrose repeatedly returns: there is a space that exists in-between adults and children and, contrary to the belief that this space cannot be entered, it can be and, more than that, it can be fully explored. "The responsible job of writing for children, the job of the responsible writer, the artist, the storyteller is to explore the gap, the in-between space, by providing a story which allows it to be bridged" (10).

The writer (artist, storyteller) creating the book is only the beginning of the process. The book then gets into the homes and hands of children and their adults, and the book is read. The in-between space is activated. It is a space where children both bring their knowledge and their questions. It is a space, as Melrose repeats many times, in which "it's not so much explaining or showing but helping [children] connect to what they already know from other parts of life and then asking them to take the ideas forward into something…they may not have thought about but are ready to explore" (11). This read-aloud process becomes a nurturing shared experience, one that taps into physical, intellectual and emotional developmental growth, as well as cultivating curiosity and sensory awareness, and fostering a sense of safety and intimacy.

All adults, but especially adults who are creating books for children, have opportunities to offer children spaces to explore, not just one issue or one subject, but the many facets of life itself. Melrose challenges his readers further by asking us to be constantly and consistently vigilant in our transformation of the culture of writing for children. What ideas is the writer contemplating? What issues and aesthetics are being brought into that in-between space? What norms are being challenged? For Melrose , children's books are not dead, or even dying. Instead they are potentially a "radical force for good” (33).

Not all children's books, nor their writers, are equal. Melrose spends the second half of Monsters Under the Bed breaking apart and articulating the components necessary for successful picture books and early readers. Components like rhythm and rhyme, dialogue, point of view, voice, plot and the relationship between the text and the illustrations. He does this with examples of published books as well as a rough text of his own that he uses to demonstrate how the various components work and why. After he explores best practices for creating and utilizing these components Melrose returns to the refrain that they all must serve to nurture astonishment, intimacy and connection. This trinity is the foundation of a meaningful book, he says. It is the foundation of that in-between space and the dynamic learning that occurs within it.

Monsters Under the Bed is a passionate read. Melrose writes in a clear, personal, creative voice. He has also done his research, which is deep, multifaceted and compelling. There is much to learn from Melrose and he makes it easy to learn it. He is, just as he says the book is, "a critically creative and creatively critical" teacher, scholar and human being (1). Thus, the book feels organic. It resonates with important questions, compelling theory, and, in the end, a tremendous amount of hope. Hope for children's books, for the writers, artists and storytellers who make them, and for the children who read them. Although at times a bit rambling, and too-often (self-admittedly) repetitive in some of its ideas, Monsters Under the Bed is a book I wholeheartedly recommend.

Books written for children matter. They are a safe, dynamic place in which children can learn about themselves and the world, in all of their multifaceted ways. The act of reading books for children is an act of both coming home and striking out on the path away from home. Andrew Melrose's Monsters Under the Bed explores and explains all of this beautifully. This is a very good, very hopeful thing indeed.

Tamara Ellis Smith
Vermont College of Fine Arts, USA