Review: Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 4-7
Author and illustrator: Jon Davis
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (published August 2014)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0544164660
ISBN-13: 978-0544164666

In the deepest, darkest hour of the night,
Small Blue woke up.

Small Blue awakes in her bed, thinking of creepy things and sneaky things and gnarly snarly teeth and boggling goggling eyes. She cries out for Big Brown and tells him she saw goblins. Well, she didn’t see them exactly, but she knows they’re there.

“But if it was dark,” asks Big Bear, “How do you know it wasn’t a delightful doggies’ Saturday-night unicycle convention?”

Good question.

Big Brown helps Small Blue work through her fears. Are there flappy bats with shifty eyes lurking in the dark? Or is it a smiley spacemen’s zero-gravity birthday party? When they turn on the light, it turns out that there are no bats and no spacemen either. Are there warty witches or clackety skeletons, or is it a retired-pirates’ annual sock-knitting jamboree? Neither, as it turns out.

Together, Small Blue and Big Brown enjoy mugs of warm milk and wonder if the stars are running a relay race around the moon. And now, when Small Blue wakes up in the deepest, darkest hour of the night, she waves…

…just in case there are delightful doggies, smiley spacemen, or retired pirates to wave back.

The lovingly illustrated picture-book equivalent of a mug of warm milk, Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night is a great place to turn if you’ve got a little one who’s having trouble sleeping or is working through some anxiety. The imagination game Big Brown and Small Blue play together would be a great jumping-off point for talking through any child’s worries.

Actually, I think it could work for grown-ups’ fears too. Let me know if you try it.

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Featured Series: Little Kids First Big Books

First Big Book of Space  First Big Book of Dinosaurs  First Big Book of Animals  Little Kids First Big Book of the Ocean

Little E turns four this summer, and suddenly we’re being peppered with questions that are not as easy to answer as they used to be. I can handle “How does a carrot grow?” and “Is Daddy a giant?” but suddenly it’s “Where does the wind come from?” and “Would this big dinosaur be able to eat that dinosaur?” We haven’t yet entered the world of “How many moons does Jupiter have?” yet, but I like to be prepared, and I really like these National Geographic Little Kids First Big Books. There are lots of them, covering everything from bugs to space to the ocean, and including The Little Kids Big Book of Why, which gives you somewhere to turn when children ask “How does dough become a cookie?” or “Why do I have a belly button?” and The Little Kids Big Book of Who, which introduces children to all kinds of people they might want to know about, from the Beatles to Malala Yousafzai.*

These books are just slightly too old for Little E, so I would recommend them more for the four-and-up crowd. They have enormous rereadability and make great references. When I was a kid, we had a junior encyclopedia that was fundamental to my school career and interests. But even in this age of ubiquitous technology, children need to know how to look things up in atlases and other reference books, how to use an index, and what a glossary is for. The Little Kids Big Books series lays a great foundation for those skills, while still being well written and packed with great photos and visuals.

Have you checked out these books? Does your family have some favourite reference books to recommend?

  • Any book of biographies is bound to be problematic for some people, because you can’t include everyone, but the Big Book of Who has made a valiant effort to include a diverse group of people and give decent coverage to women. A lot of people and groups are still left out, but as always, I think that makes for a good jumping-off point for talking about why underrepresented people are sometimes left out and how to find out about the people who don’t always make it into books.
Kids Need Fairy Tales

Kids need fairytales

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my two-week absence. Little E’s magical fairyland daycare that I wrote about here turned out to be not a magical fairyland after all, and we found ourselves, extremely suddenly, without childcare. So I have been hard at work finishing up deadlines and winding up work while trying to keep my very confused three-year-old happy during an unexpected and challenging transition.

All of which brings me to the power of stories and, in particular, of fairy tales, which are great tools for kids during rough times.

Kids don’t seem to read fairy tales anymore. Parents sometimes feel like they’re drowning in a sea of kids’ books and in the overwhelm, it doesn’t always occur to us to pick up a copy of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus, we always think, aren’t they terrifying? Doesn’t the hunstman kill the wolf and doesn’t the troll drown and do I really want to be reading these to my kids?

Yes. Yes you do.

Neil Gaiman put the power of these stories thus: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Children, particularly small children, live in a scary, uncertain world, where things can change quickly and they rarely have much control. People tell them how their day is going to go, what they’re going to eat, and how they are to behave, and they don’t always know what is going to happen to them next or what it will mean. They need stories where the brave hero comes through the dark, terrifying forest unscathed and where the troll will wash away down the river, never to be seen again. Parents like to protect children from dark ideas, but kids’ heads are already full of dark ideas. Giving a child a safe way to see those dark ideas expressed and to talk about them together is a positive way to help her realize that it’s okay to have those fears and to help her work through them with you.

It is true, however, that you should have a look at the book before you sit down to read it with your child. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are famously terrifying, particularly if you get your hands on a translation of the original, which features stories such as “How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” in which a boy cuts his brother’s throat and is then stabbed in anger by his mother, who has left the other brother alone in the bath, where he drowns. She hangs herself, naturally, and the father dies of grief. Then there are problems with sexism and chauvinism and the idea that girls must be rescued by handsome princes and that their value can be quantified by their looks and how sensitive they are to a pea under their mattress. So I do recommend a look through the fairy tales you plan to read to your children in advance and also that you use them* as a jumping-off point to talk about some of these ideas.

That said, how do you find good versions of fairy tales to read? The best way is to have your local librarian in the children’s section point you in the direction of the fairy tale section and pick some you know your kiddo(s) will enjoy (I don’t recommend the Disney versions, which come replete with their own negative messages). Sometimes it’s fun to take out a few different versions of the same story (most libraries have a few of the classics, often including spoofs and sequels that can be fun to read) and let them decide which one they like. I do have just a few favourites to recommend but mostly I think you should have a browse through your local selection and read the ones that catch your eye!

(1) Brave Chicken Little  (2) Little Red Riding Hood

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake (4) A Bean, A Stalk, and a Boy Named Jack

(5) Three Little Pigs

(1) This pen-and-ink-illustrated version of Chicken Little is great fun to read (just try to race through the cast of characters: “Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit, Natty Ratty, Froggy Woggy, and Roly and Poly Moley” — and that’s before they meet the large Foxy Loxy family!) and features an interesting twist, in which the wee poultry hero turns the tables on the sly fox family and no cute animals are eaten. You could also read the version in which the heroes are cooked in the villain’s stew if you think your kids are up for it!

(2) This telling of Little Red Riding Hood stands out because of Trina Schart Hyman’s rich and evocative illustrations. It’s not a sanitized version of the story by any stretch, though, so be prepared.

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake may not be a traditional fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale nonetheless, and great fun to read. The book will probably get its own post in time, but pick it up to find out how poor Jack is going to make a cake and get it to the castle in time for the bored princess’s birthday party, against the odds and using all his wits and resources.

(4) This lighthearted tale falls into the spinoff category, riffing on the familiar story of plucky little Jack stealing from the Giants high above. But kids will delight in the story of King Blah Blah Blah, Jack and his cheerleading friend the talking bean, and a “smallish giant kid” named Don.

(5) All of the books in this read-along “Noisy Picture Book” audiobook series are great: Three Little PigsThree Billy Goats Gruff, and Little Red Hen. Each one comes with a CD, and the audio recordings are far better voice-acted than most children’s audiobooks, including sound effects and songs that even Tiny J can almost sing at eighteen months. We got Little E her own CD player (they’ve become so cheap now that they basically come free with cereal) and she loves to put these on and “read” along. The stories are funny, well illustrated, and pretty un-scary.

So hit up the library and fill yourselves up on tales of dragons, castles, sneaky wolves, and brave children! What are your kids’ favourite fairy tales?

*Perhaps not “How the Children Played at Slaughtering” specifically.