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September 8, 2011

Security Blanket: Some Things Are Scary

Good picture books—all books, really, I suppose—are usually equal parts brilliant concept and brilliant execution, but most lean more heavily on one or the other. The concept of Some Things Are Scarya book originally released in 1969 but recently reissued, is simple enough: It's a book about scary things (real-life ones; this is not, as I misunderstood from the title at first, a Halloween book!). But it has a leg up on most of its subgenre: it was written by Florence Parry Heide, veteran author of classics like the Treehorn trilogy, and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, whose work on The Phantom Tollbooth and many other children's books is just one portion of an iconic career.

What this means in practice is that a seemingly straightforward idea is surprisingly clever, imaginative, and expressive. Each sentence of the book is simply something a kid would find scary—say, discovering the hand you're holding isn't Mommy's after all—but Heide keeps the throughline unpredictable, jumping smartly from personal, concrete fears (strange food on the dinner plate) to social anxieties (worry over being the last kid picked in pickup team sports) to kid existential angst (finding out your best friend has...another best friend) and then back to the concrete again.

Meanwhile, Feiffer visualizes every one of these fears in his inimitable fashion, capturing the feeling behind each with uncanny precision. (Click on the image below to see better what I mean.) He also imparts his usual wry humor, somehow without ever undercutting the validity of the feelings he's portraying. He's laughing with, not at, the situations, which allows parents to smile in recognition (and even personal remembrance in many cases), while kids can see that they're not the only ones who feel the way they feel.

It's nothing fancy—just a breath of fresh air in what could have been just another stale go at a common picture-book subject. And it's a testament to what kid-lit royalty is capable of. Indeed, it's evidence of why and how they became royalty in the first place.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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