How to Be the Monster at the End of Your Book {On Reading}

by Guest Contributor



                               

I never owned any books written by Shel Silverstein. I remember stealing my mother’s copy of Sound and Sense. From this, I learned too early that poetry wasn’t supposed to rhyme. The pieces I scribbled on kindergarten’s yellow-lined paper read more like Sylvia Plath than Silverstein—

Or at least that’s the story that I tell.

That I don’t remember many children’s books from my childhood. That I started devouring Stephen King novels by the time my classmates were struggling through Sweet Valley High. I’ve made these details important. Nevertheless, as an educator, I’ve learned that the children’s books I often choose to overlook for the sake of making me sound smart were the books that actually taught me that I could choose which details to make important.

Like many writers recalling their childhood encounters with literature, the Golden Book I best remember is Jon Stone and Michael Smollin’s The Monster at the End of This Book, “starring furry, lovable old Grover.” In this book, Grover is frightened of reaching the end of the book, as he’s certain a monster dwells there. Grover does everything in his power to stop the reader from turning pages. He ties them together with rope. He builds a brick wall. He gets very angry, and the measures he takes to protect himself—and the reader—continue to escalate. Of course, Grover ends up being the monster at the end of the book, and the reader is either delightfully surprised or disappointed or satisfied by the predictability of this conclusion. The Monster at the End of This Book is more than a postmodern tale of self-aware fictional monster avoiding monster—it shows, very literally, how obstacles are essential to a narrative that keeps readers engaged until its satisfying conclusion.

monster at the end of this bookThis story serves as a great teaching tool for students writing their first works of fiction. Like Grover, we want our readers to be committed to discovering what’s at the end of our books, and to do this, we must delay that gratification. We need to continuously raise the stakes of the obstacles in our stories. We need to go from the rational to twists that read like brick walls and feel that way in our readers’ guts. I felt so sympathetic to Grover that I was afraid to turn the page. In the end it wasn’t that bad. We all knew we were just in a story.

Content-wise, The Monster at the End of This Book teaches young readers to face their fears, even if their biggest fear is turning the page. If we keep avoiding that which scares us, we will have a mess akin to Grover’s pile of failed masonry on the ground. If we, the readers, identify with Grover, we identify that at the end, we only have ourselves to face—we are the monster. Though we learn as we grow up that we can be our own worst critics, we aren’t as bad as we feared. Our fears are the product of our imaginations and only have the power to eat us if we don’t choose to turn the page.

Elmo may have upstaged Grover’s role as Sesame Street’s most ubiquitous monster, but Stone’s 1971 book has proven timeless enough to warrant an app. Though much conflicting research exists regarding the relationship between digital natives and their beloved screens, I don’t think that “the monster at the end of this app” has the same ring to it. What is Grover going to do, lock your iPad screen? I’m tempted to argue that the act of turning a page is the essential metaphor for realizing one has agency in their own life story, but I don’t even own a tablet. Sure, like many others, I tell my life story via Facebook, but offline, I am committed to the tactile experience of reading. The box full of illegible journals in my garage serve as a testament to the tactile experience of writing, even if I’m the only one who knows what the pages say—

Thankfully, The Monster at the End of This Book is still widely available in hardback. I’ve taken to keeping a copy on my desk as a reminder that when I write, I write with awareness that what I imagine is powerful enough to change my life yet not powerful enough to kill me. When something in our world causes us pain, we have the power to imagine our way beyond obstacles. I tell a particular story about how I became a reader and a writer and know that each detail makes or reveals something about me. The best children’s books not only tell a compelling story, but also help young readers realize how to shape their own stories, and that their imaginations not only shape the boundaries of what they’re able to put on the page, but the boundaries of their worlds.

Guest contributor +Brian Burton is a children’s book enthusiast who writes on the topics of reading and parenting.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ginny at Random Acts of Momness September 24, 2013 at 1:25 am

Super post!

I read the book as a kid, and forgot about it entirely until about three years ago, when someone gave it to my son. Reading it again, it all came back to me in a rush. It was so fun to rediscover the story and the surprise ending. Thanks for pointing out the connections to writing/life.

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