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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Jitterbug Jam: A Monster Tale
Jitterbug Jam: A Monster Tale
by Barbara Jean Hicks, illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,(March 2005)
Nobody believes me,
and my brother, Buster, says I'm a fraidy-cat,
but I'm not fooling you:
there's a boy
who hides in my big old monster closet
all night long
and then sneaks under my bed in the morning
to scare me.
--Jitterbug Jam by Barbara Jean Hicks, illustrated by Alexis Deacon, p. 1.
In this delightful reversal of traditional monster-under-the-bed stories, Bobo is a young monster who is afraid there's a boy under his bed. He doesn't want to go to bed, and hides until Boo-Dad, his grandfather, comes to visit. His grandfather tells him a story of once meeting a girl, and this helps give him the courage to face his fears--especially when he actually meets a boy under his bed. In the end, Bobo and the boy start a friendship. This is a soothing, imaginative story about facing your fears, finding courage and reassurance, and discovering that someone you fear may not actually be very different than yourself.
Hicks' (I like Black and White, The Secret Life of Walter Kitty) text is familiar and colloquial, with Bobo speaking directly to the reader ("And you won't never believe what happens!"). This may help some readers almost feel like they're a part of the story. Hicks sets up the problem and the imaginative twist from the very first page. Funny differences and small reversals such as that Bobo is afraid of the day yet enjoys the night, that Bobo is afraid of a boy being in his closet or under his bed, and that the monsters are afraid of anything too cheerful, bring humor and help the reader to see the story from the little monster's perspective. Yet these very differences help the little monster to seem less frightening and very much like any child who is afraid of monsters.
More humor comes in the things Bobo is afraid of in a boy, and the way he describes them--pink skin, orange "fur" on his head, no horns, blue eyes. Hicks uses both concrete and metaphorical details which help make the story more rich, lyrical, and believable, and also add humor--such as Bobo describing the boy's eyes as "that awful color the sky is when you wake up in the middle of the day and can't see, it's so bright out." There's humor, too, in familiar expressions being slightly twisted by Bobo and his family "quick as lickety-split 'n' spit-fish", as well as the kinds of monster foods they eat and drink (homemade bread with jitterbug jam and hot bug juice).
There is a lot of story text--at times it feels like too much. Though the text is broken up into chunks on the page, often into smaller panels of illustrations, which helps it move faster, sometimes the text feels too loaded with description or side comments. Although interesting and well written, this greatly slows the story down. Some of the unique phrases and dialect may also lose some readers. And Bobo's frequent and ongoing fear and anxiety may be overplayed too much for some readers. One small thing did not make sense to me: the boy said that he hid under Bobo's bed. How would he know or believe that it was Bobo's bed, and why would he accept it so blithely?
Hicks helps bring some familiarity and safety through Bobo's family life and the safety that Bobo feels with his grandfather. Hicks has the grandfather tell a story within the main story, and keeps BoBo firmly in the story text through Bobo's reactions to his grandfather's story and voice. This helps the reader stay attached to Bobo and remember that it is his story overall. Bobo is shown to be both afraid and brave, which many readers will identify with. Boo-Dad encourages Bobo--and thus the reader--to face his fears, to look the boy straight in the eye and greet him, and Bobo gains courage to do so.
Hicks has Bobo and the young boy join together as the boy's older brother looks for him in a game of hide-and-seek, and this helps bring the two together. That Bobo's brother insists on ignoring him, not playing with him, and refusing to believe him after he faces the boy brings a bit of a down feeling, and this doesn't work very well so close to the end of the book. It moves from there into a funny and hopeful ending, where Bobo decides he's going to make friends with the boy, but some readers may want a bit more reassurance.
The text, through humanizing Bobo, making him afraid of humans (but then friendly with them), giving him fears as well as safety, security, and a family life, help provide, through a reversal of boy and monster, the suggestion that any monsters the reader might see or imagine don't want to hurt the reader, but are simply just like humans. This may help calm some readers' fears.
Visually, the text layout is creative; sometimes it appears as regular text, sometimes the text curves to fit the meaning of the text (such as Bobo's big toothy grin), sometimes the text appears in speech balloons, and on one spread it appears on a curling tape-like banner.
Deacon's (While You Are Sleeping, Slow Loris) pencil-and-watercolor illustrations are wonderfully creative, gentle, and rich, at times looking like a beautifully illustrated comic book, at other times like a fairy tale. The monsters are friendly, attractive in an ugly sort of way, and smiling; they are never scary, and this helps bring a soothing feel to the book. They also wear clothes, which helps humanize them a little more. Little Bobo, especially, is adorable, in red pajamas or a red overcoat and patched pants (he always appears in red, which helps identify him and make him stand out). It's sweet and endearing how Bobo needs his stuffed dinosaur, cuddles it to him, to feel safer, and takes his stuffie with him most places; it's a nice added detail (not found in the text) which many readers will identify with.
Pencil is used to outline the characters and objects, to create texture, and to create shadow, and these lines help define the characters and make them stand out. Deacon uses pattern in character clothing to draw the eye to the characters, as well as splashes of bright color, and a good use of light and shadow. Shadow, a layering of colors, and a good sense of perspective help add to the depth of the illustrations.
Visually the layout varies, bringing a pleasing effect; some illustrations are small squares or rectangles over top a cream colored background, others are full-spread illustrations that bleed right to the edges, and others are a series of illustrations or panels that show a sequence of events, often over a black background, which makes the illustrations stand out even more. Soft, gentle backgrounds and layered washes of color help add to the soothing feeling and the beauty of many of the illustrations. The creams and yellows in many of the pages, and the shades of brown and green that frequent the pages of the monsters also help to bring a soothing, calm effect. The pencil lines in a few illustrations, especially in the under-the-bed scenes, look almost grainy, as if they were much smaller to begin with but were blown up for the book, or are simply rougher--but they still have charm. The scene where Bobo meets the boy has grainy, rough lines, no text, and Bobo and the boy both appear much larger than they do in any other illustration; this helps set the scene apart from the others, bringing attention to its importance.
The story that Boo-Dad tells Bobo is visually separated from the other illustrations by a decorative border, a ribbon that text winds through the panels, and flower vines that all work to make it look like a fairy tale, and distinguish it from Bobo's story. It also helps that Deacon makes a visual distinction between Boo-Dad as a young monster, and Bobo, through details such as green skirt pajamas instead of red pant pajamas, and wearing glasses where Bobo does not. Though this distinction is nice, because the text keeps Bobo firmly in Boo-Dad's story through his reactions to Boo-Dad and his voice, I would have preferred to see a tiny illustration of Bobo off to the side; to not visually see him, when he was still so present in the 3-spread story, felt a little disconcerting.
Bobo is depicted as vulnerable throughout the book, and though this fits with his character, I would have liked to see him happier and stronger, most especially near the end of the book, after he's faced the boy. He looks downright dejected and upset sitting on his mother's lap in the second-to-last illustration, which doesn't bring a good feeling. However, the last illustration is a happier one, although much smaller, of Bobo playing with the boy.
Overall the illustrations are enchanting, and some are picturesque, almost magical, such as the illustration of Bobo going down the stairs past a circular window with stars and a crescent moon in the green-blue sky. Others have a warm, friendly feel to them, such as Boo-Dad holding Bobo's brother and smiling down at him. Readers may enjoy finding the various bugs that appear in the juice, on Bobo's mother's clothing, that fly into the air, and more.
This is an encouraging story for readers with nighttime fears--it may help those readers who can't be persuaded that monsters don't exist that monsters are actually nothing to be afraid of, but are just like us (with a few small differences). It may also encourage readers to face their fears, and to try to embrace them. Recommended.
-Added June 15, 2007
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