“Sometimes We’re All Furious and How Books Can Help With That”
Most picture books are about happy things. And so they should be. As a writer for young children, you have the wonderful privilege of being able to share your readers’ delight in the discovery of the amazing world all around them. So you write about cake, birthdays, holidays, more cake, adventures, the love of parents for their kids (and kids for their parents, and kids for cake). You write about dinosaurs, pirates, cake again, fairies, unicorns. You write about the limitless possibilities of a child’s wonder and imagination.
And did I mention cake?
But that’s not the whole job. Because you’re not a child, you’re a grown-up. (So stop talking about cake!) It doesn’t matter how imaginative or empathetic you can be, or how well you remember your own childhood – you also owe your young readers a duty of care. Because the world isn’t always wonderful, and they need to know that too.
The first stories for kids – such as the ones the Brothers Grimm collected (which have been told for centuries, millennia even) – are pretty much all terrifying. Because they’re warnings. Beware of the wolf in the woods, they say, or look out for the trap lurking in the surprise gift: that seemingly kind old lady may actually wish you harm. They were scary because they needed to be, because the dangers were real, and kids couldn’t be sheltered from them.
Thankfully, for most of us, the wolf issue has now been settled once and for all, and the kind old ladies that today’s kids encounter tend to be genuinely kind old ladies, not witches in disguise. But children still have problems and the books they read need to address them. Finding solace, finding answers – finding a way of making sense of their lives – in books is a useful habit, and something we should be teaching them. Which brings me to the kind of book that I’ve just written, which is an anger book.
My favourite picture book of all time is an anger book. It’s Where the Wild Things Are by the late, great Maurice Sendak. I love everything about it, from the strange poetry of its telling to the way the forest grows in Max’s room so that it spreads to the edge of the pages (overrunning the neat white margins that had previously kept the story within bounds). It’s perfect, of course it is, but I have on occasion felt a little dissatisfied that Max’s anger is just left to run its course, until he grows bored of the Wild Things and their lawless land and wants to be home where someone loves him “best of all”.
Sendak famously said that the Wild Things, with their strange cries of “We’ll eat you up – we love you so!”, were based on his smothering relatives. But what if there was a relative who understood Max, who showed him the way out of that forest?
Because it’s hard, this stuff – and we could all do with a little help. I’ve often thought that children learning how to handle their emotions is a bit like someone learning to drive during a demolition derby. You find yourself at the wheel of a hugely powerful machine which zooms around the place, forever crashing into people and things, and it’s only after a lot of scrapes and collisions that you finally get some kind of fix on how not to destroy everything every time your little brother eats the last piece of cake.
(Do I talk about cake too much? Is that even possible?)
And that’s why I wrote my new book, Sometimes I Am Furious (illustrated by the brilliant Joe Berger). In our story, a little girl is mostly kind and good, but on occasion… well, you can guess. And we make it clear that it’s not unreasonable that she blows up from time to time. Things don’t always go right for any of us – in life, there are disappointments and frustrations and you’re going to get angry. (By the way, check out how Joe shows our girl in ever greater close-up each time she says she’s furious – maybe it’s his version of Sendak’s expanding forest, as her rage spreads out to cover her world. You will also notice that Joe likes yellow.)
What our book has that Sendak’s doesn’t is a grown-up who is patient and loving and suggests ways the little girl can cope with her emotions so that they don’t overwhelm her. I’m not suggesting the advice she gives will work for everyone (though I hope it’s useful). It’s reading the book – sharing the girl’s journey through her anger and out the other side – that might help. Losing control is scary, but in the safe world of the imagination, where you can pretend to be someone else and try on different emotions just like you try on different outfits at a costume party, children can gain a clearer understanding of these big feelings, lose some of their fear of them and maybe learn a bit more control.
That way they’ll become better, more rounded individuals, just like all us grown-ups. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. Hey, wait a minute – where’s my cake? I left a piece of cake right here! I’m not leaving until I find out WHO. TOOK. MY. CAKE!!!
Sometimes I Am Furious
Author: Timothy Knapman
Illustrator: Joe Berger
Published June 6th, 2023 by Penguin Workshop
About the Book: Life is all fun and games when everything’s going your way. But some days, suddenly, something becomes horribly UNFAIR. A melting ice cream cone, a too-tight T-shirt, a boy who doesn’t share… it’s enough to make you FURIOUS. But as this little girl discovers, it’s nothing that a deep breath, a happy song, and a good cuddle can’t sort out.
You won’t be furious reading this funny, friendly, and relatable book for young children (and their parents) about strong emotions and how to handle them.
“Humorous art supports the rhyming verse with bold, eye-catching, thick-lined graphics. Kudos to Knapman and Berger for making it clear that feeling anger—especially at perceived unfairness—is fine; what’s important is finding ways to calm down before a meltdown.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Knapman and Berger … offer standard self-regulation advice by way of their young exemplar: seek out an empathic adult… and try some grounding exercises… While 24-7 equilibrium may not be possible, the creators suggest that knowing it’s within reach can be a big comfort.”—Publishers Weekly
“In this charming UK picture book import, our narrator’s cute, unassuming attire… comically mismatches the pure childhood-tantrum wrath of exaggerated downturned eyebrows and a glare so intense it practically burns through the page… The text’s rhyming couplets are smoothly read aloud and make this an ideal choice for a storytime that will have its audience in giggles and maybe inspire some introspection about how to deal with big emotions.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
About the Author: Timothy Knapman has written over 60 books for children, as well writing as plays and (the words for) musicals and operas. He lives on cake in his own private flying castle with his pet dragon, Enid, and finds it increasingly hard to tell the truth about himself.
If you’d like to find out more about him, please visit www.timothyknapman.com
Thank you, Timothy, for this hilarious yet important post!