Agatha and the Dark

Anna Pignataro
The Five Mile Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781760402075
Age: 5+

Reviewed by Viv Young

One stormy day at school Agatha is repeatedly confronted by her fear of the dark. At home in the evening she adopts various strategies to avoid bedtime and the monsters in the dark. But when Agatha’s parents encourage her to draw a monster, she has a change of heart.

Agatha and the Dark is a superb story with a creative resolution that can be adapted to help kids confront their own fears in everyday life. It contains many layers of meaning in the text and artwork ready for curious readers to contemplate. There are, for example, the brain bubbles revealing the fears of Agatha’s classmates (George who constantly talks about monsters is afraid of the dark too!) and the suitably dark stormy-day backdrop, which is only hinted at in the text. The adult responses to Agatha’s fears are sympathetic in tone and seek to reassure with logic. The greatest strength of the story for this reader is, however, the exploration of different aspects of the same fear: being in the dark (alone), storms, shadows, monsters. This layered approach feels authentic, capturing the intensity of fears and their capacity to snowball, especially for children.

Jemma Gets the Jitters

Katrina Roe (author) and Leigh Hedstrom (illustrator)
Wombat Books: 2017
ISBN: 9781925563139
Age: 3+
Reviewed by Viv Young

Gemma is a giraffe who discovers she is afraid of heights while taking a photo on holidays. When Gemma’s fear starts to restrict her capacity to enjoy everyday life at home and her passion for photography, Gemma’s jungle friends help her out with some great advice — ‘take one step at a time’. 

Gemma Gets the Jitters touches on the physical feelings associated with fear, indicates why avoidance isn’t practical or fulfilling, and provides a real-world approach for dealing with fears gradually. The advice—take one step at a time and get used to what you fear gradually—is woven into the narrative thoughtfully; overcoming Gemma’s particular fear of heights requires her literally to walk (presumably one step at a time) across the harbour bridge but the advice can easily be adapted for any particular fear.

The artwork for Gemma Gets the Jitters uses perspective and shadow as well as body language and facial expressions to convey the uncomfortable feelings associated with fear. The occasional use of photograph-style images in the artwork and design help to highlight key moments in the text. For Australian kids the opportunity to spot well known landmarks is sure to provide some extra fun too!

Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats

Alicia Potter (author) and Birgitta Sif (illustrator)
Walker Books: 2016
ISBN: 9781406362398
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats opens and all kinds of cats with all kinds of fears arrive. Lovingly cared for, the cats are patiently encouraged to face their fears. When their beloved teacher Miss Hazeltine has to confront her own fears, the cats are given a chance to show just how much they’ve learned.

Alicia Potter and Birgitta Sif deliver a fun and quirky story that also contains a subtle reassuring message—everyone feels fear and fears can be many and varied. While the enumeration of cat concerns—for example fear of birds—provides plenty of laughs with which to chuckle away one’s own worries, some fears are likely to resonate with kids, such as fear of the dark—a fear cleverly ascribed to the adult Miss Hazelintine herself.

The consistent use of shadow and dark tones in the artwork suits the overall focus on fear yet these elements in the illustrations are never overwhelming—the charming characterisation of cats and teacher are just too adorable. The cute and slightly awkward-looking cast of cats arch and stretch themselves across almost every page and Miss Hazeltine is one cool modern cat lady with her witchy hat and sneakers!

The Scared Book

Debra Tidball (author) and Kim Stew (illustrator)
Lothian Children’s Books, Sydney 2017
ISBN: 9780734417497 (HBK)
ISBN: 9780734417503 (PBK)
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

The narrator starts to tell a story about monsters but is too scared and asks for help. This help requires reader interaction, such as blowing away goose bumps and fanning stinky monster smell. After all this help is elicited the story resumes and you the reader have played a key part.

Interactive picture books that break the fourth wall have a long history (e.g. The Monster at the End of the Book) and are a great way to encourage kids to engage physically with what they are reading. The Scared Book applies the technique to a particularly apt topic, empowering children to practice evicting monsters. The illustrations are fun—monster focused but fairly tame; monsters are, for example, many eyed versions of ‘real’ creatures or blobby shapes with lots of eyes and teeth (think Monsters Ink!). The descriptions of physical responses to fear (e.g. rub away the goose bumps, rub the tingly spine) are genius and can help parents talk to kids about what fear actually feels like in a fun and entertaining way.

When I’m Feeling Scared

Trace Moroney
The Five Mile Press: Rowville: 2005
ISBN: 1741245052 (HBK)
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

When I’m feeling Scared is a guide to the emotion of fear for young children. It is narrated in the first person with a young rabbit as the central illustrated character. The narrator first talks about the physical feeling of fear, then what causes fear and how this is different for everyone. The guide concludes with a reassuring message about the role of fear in helping to stay safe and about the comfort to be gained from talking to others about one’s fears.

The text in this book is clear and concise; Tracey Moroney gets right to the point with key instructional messages about emotions. The illustrations all focus on the central anthropomorphised bunny character in simple scenes that marry closely with the text—facial expressions, gestures and some use of symbols (like the heart jumping out of the rabbit’s chest) further explain the ideas and sensations being discussed and provide cues for parents to engage their kids with the information being presented. Don’t forget the message at the end written by a Melbourne psychologist and intended to aid parents.

Trace Moroney’s feelings series has been reprinted several times. Used and new copies are widely available. A link to available copies can also be found on the author’s website.

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