• Posted on October 28, 2014

What There Is Before There Is Anything There

I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven (five kids), I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was Liniers coverlurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell fried baloney in the downstairs kitchen, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.

Liniers umbrella guy

What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.

Liniers black monster

Liniers I Am What There Is

The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.

Liniers surrounded

Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.

Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.

Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, Liniers detailand magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.

 What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

  • Posted on October 13, 2011

The Dark Art of Halloween

Ah…Halloween again. As mentioned in a previous post, October is one of my favourite months. Autumn colours and bags of fun-sized chocolate bars make me happy in a very, very deep place. As a picturebook aficionado, I love the months that bring out the seasonal collections. Christmas, Easter…even within this narrow field, it’s fascinating to see how many picturebook variations there are on Jesus (well, not that many), a Christmas tree, or a gourd. Some are better than others, and in that spirit, I will be making recommendations for Halloween based on previous posts in this blog. But first…a little Halloween treat from my youth. While this blog is devoted to picture books, occasionally a novel bubbles to the surface, or in the particular case of this novel, boils and bubbles to the surface, demanding inclusion in spite of the dearth of illustrations. Such is The Little Leftover Witch, by Florence Laughlin.

a leftover girl and her cat

One of the most memorable books of my childhood, The Little Leftover Witch is a short novel about a seven year old witch named Felina who breaks her broom on Halloween night and is unable to fly. In spite of her protests, the stubborn and disheveled girl is taken in by a family, where she is gradually made to feel at home in a non-magical world. What I remember most is the way she is cared for by the mother. Her long hair is brushed and brushed until it is shiny and all the knots are gone, her dirty black dress is washed and ironed, she has a bubble bath for the first time in her life, and instead of bat soup and jibbers’ gizzards, she is fed chicken and dumplings, peach cobbler, ice cream, and big glasses of ice-cold milk. Felina resists the kindness of the family, but eventually succumbs. The Little Leftover Witch resonated with me as a child. As the fifth girl in a family of limited means, the nurturing was a little thin, but I did have my school library, where I found this book, and many others. Coincidentally, I found it again the first day I started working in the children’s section of a bookstore. Different cover, same book. The simple, pen & ink illustrations are just as evocative as they were decades ago, as is the story of a lost little girl. The jaded adult in me wonders why Felina wasn’t allowed to retain her true witchy self and is instead persuaded to follow the conservative values of her adopted family. Luckily, a good story and pretty pictures never fail to knock me off my portable soapbox. The Little Leftover Witch is a book about love and transformation, and on that level, it succeeds beautifully. And what could be more ‘Halloween’ than a story of transformation…from summer to autumn, light to dark, jibbers’ gizzards to chicken dumplings. Although I believe the book is currently out of print, I was more than a little surprised to read that Chris Colfer from Glee is making a movie out of The Little Leftover Witch for the Disney Channel. Looks like the book is about to undergo…a transformation.

And now…a few more Halloween treats (excluding those horrible molasses things) from the archives~

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