Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).
Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth
Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).
There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.
The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.
The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.
Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.