There are many books I don’t get ( see, for example, ‘What I don’t get about Stoner’ – http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=262), but I was surprised last week to discover that I might have been misreading my all-time favourite for many years.
The book in question is David McKee’s ‘Not Now Bernard’, and it’s my favourite for several reasons:
1. It features my name in the title
2. I read it to both my children when they were babies
3. I, like Bernard, feel I am often being ignored
4. It features an enormous child-eating monster.
Those four reasons alone are enough to keep it at number one slot for some time. But this weekend I came across another reason why it should stay there.
5. It’s not as simple as it seems.
I had been blissfully unaware of the book’s complexity until last weekend when I read a piece by Sheila Hancock in ‘The Independent’. She was writing about her ‘Book of a Lifetime’, and she started by talking about Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. Soon, though, she was onto McKee’s classic –
‘The joy of modern children’s books is that they are fun for the grown-ups as well. None more so than my favourite ‘Not Now Bernard’. How many like me and my overworked mother have used that phrase “Not now dear”. And how many children have turned into a monster when they are ignored and wanted, if not actually managed, to bite someone in rage.That is if you believe the monster in the story doesn’t actually eat Bernard but becomes him, is absorbed into him. It’s alright in the end, for the monster goes to bed with his milk and his teddy bear and will doubtless be Bernard again in the morning.’
As soon as I read this I was thrown into doubt. You mean the monster’s not real ? You mean that for all those years I have been getting it wrong? You mean the whole thing’s some kind of metaphor?
I felt like I’d just been told that Father Christmas doesn’t, after all, exist.
Could I really have been reading ‘Not Now, Bernard’ incorrectly for all those years?
My first instinct was to ask my wife and kids where they stood on the issue. I framed the question in my head –
“You know that story ‘Not Now Bernard’? And you know the monster that eats him up? Do you think he’s real ? I mean, I know he’s made up because it’s a book and so it’s not real in that sense, but, you know, within the book, do you think he’s real ? I mean does he really eat Bernard up, or is it, like, you know, some kind of…”
I knew, even before I got as far as the word ‘metaphor’ that this was a question I, an English teacher for over thirty years, could not ask, even to my own flesh and blood.
The best thing to do was, as I insist on telling my students, look at the text. So that is what I did.
This is all straightforward enough. Bernard is being ignored by his father
“Hello, Mum,” said Bernard.
“Not now, Bernard,” said his mother.
More of the same. This time from his mum
More of the same. Even though Bernard is now delivering some very big news.
But hang on. Is there really a monster in the garden or is Bernard making it up? Just look at Bernard’s eyes – the way they give that sly leftwards glance. Is he telling the truth here?
Bernard went into the garden
There he is – the monster. Looks pretty real to me.
There he is, licking his lips. He’s eaten him
Then the monster went indoors.
If this is a real monster the mother is showing how she ignores absolutely everyone, even a roaring monster.
If the monster, though, has eaten Bernard up metaphorically, then the mother is still ignoring her son who is now behaving like a monster by roaring at her. In other words, she knows it’s Bernard being a monster again.
The monster bit Bernard’s father.
It’s still ambiguous.
Is this a real monster, or is it Bernard behaving like a monster because his parents keep ignoring him?
“Your dinner’s ready,” said Bernard’s mother
She put the dinner in front of the television.
Only it didn’t. It poured it over its head.
Only it didn’t. It climbed on the television.
Then it read one of Bernard’s comics.
OK, I’ll admit it – I’m baffled now.
Are these the actions of a monster or a boy behaving like a monster?
There it is – carrying its teddy
There it is – tucked up in bed.
There she is – ignoring everyone, even a monster sleeping in her son’s bed.
Or is she ignoring her son who has turned into a monster? Does she, as Sheila Hancock suggests, know that the ‘monster’ will be her Bernard again the next day when she will carry on ignoring him and he will carry on behaving like a monster?
I certainly don’t.
Not Now Bernard – it’s a monster of a text. And thankyou, Sheila Hancock, for making me realise just how tricky reading can be.