There’s always one. Yes: where there’s a book that isn’t just exactly what you might expect in a children’s title, there’s always an indignant parent demanding it be withdrawn from the school library so that nobody will be in danger of reading it.
I love Chris Wormell’s picture books, and so did my children as they were growing up. Neither George and the Dragon nor In The Woods deny the existence of big scary monsters, but both show that big scary monsters are not so scary that they can’t be faced - and that sometimes monsters can be frightened, too.
But the Big Ugly Monster (the one with the little stone rabbit) isn’t scary. He’s ugly - so ugly that even the weather and the landscape can’t bear him - but he isn’t frightening to the reader. To the reader he’s lonely, sad, but ineffably optimistic. Ponds dry up when he steps in them; the trees shed their leaves whenever he appears. The only things he has to talk to are bare rocks, but that doesn’t deter him: his great idea is to carve the rocks into friendly animals (though the back ends are the best bits, as that’s his normal view of animals).
I’ll be honest: when I got to this point, on my very first reading of the book, I was as full of optimism as the monster, who ‘was pleased with all his stone animals, and he smiled.’ And so did I, until the stone animals shattered in the face of that incredibly ugly smile.
There’s only one stone animal that survives the smile, and that’s the little stone rabbit. Nothing the monster can do - dancing, singing, smiling an EXTRA BIG SMILE - can shatter the rabbit. Which is the point, in another book, when you might expect the little stone rabbit to come to life and be a real, breathing, talking friend to the Big Ugly Monster.
That’s what I love about this book: it just isn’t that simple. The stone rabbit doesn’t change - he doesn’t sing and dance and he doesn’t talk - but he doesn’t shatter either. Through all the years and seasons, he never shatters. Not even when--
But that would be telling.
This is one of those books where you get to the last page and you take a breath, because you can’t quite believe it. And then you might just cry. I’m warning you.
Now, I’m a mother. I understand that you might feel, reading this book, that your child isn’t quite ready for it, and for the questions it might provoke. Or more likely, you might decide you aren’t ready for that discussion yourself. That’s fair enough. I know I decided exactly that, at different points for each child.
Heck, I’m 48 years old, give or take, and there are nights I wouldn’t want it for my bedtime reading. But honestly, The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It still makes me cry. Get around to it some day: take a deep breath and have that talk about friendship, and loyalty, and loneliness, and what we leave behind us.
Just - whatever you do - don’t superimpose some simplistic message on this book. And - as one Amazon reviewer does - don’t, please, ever deny it to every other child in your local school. I only looked up the Amazon reviews because I was curious about this book's reception, and I’m still breathless with rage at that particular reviewer.
And if you’re one of the librarians who capitulated? Do the children in your care a favour, and think again.
The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit by Chris Wormell
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