When asked to recall a book that had a significant impact on my early years, I immediately gravitate to one book: The Monster At the End of This Book by Jon Stone and illustrated by Mike Smollin. First published in 1971, this is a Sesame Street book with the subtitle “Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover.” It is a fascinatingly brilliant piece of meta-fiction in which Grover, upon hearing the title of the book, becomes fearful of encountering the eponymous monster. He implores the reader to stop turning pages, because this would keep the end of the book – and the aforementioned monster – from ever appearing. As pages are turned, Grover grows more and more desperate, attempting to thwart the reader’s page-turning by tying the pages together with rope and then building a brick wall between them. Of course, these measures are futile, and Grover resorts to begging and pleading. But the final page arrives and Grover realizes that he is the monster at the end of the book. Embarrassed at his overreaction, he tries to play off his fear and blames the reader for wanting to stop turning pages.
This was my favorite book as a child. It was always fun to have read to me. In some ways, I’m sure I gravitated to it because it’s main character was familiar to me; I grew up watching Sesame Street, and I knew Grover already. It didn’t hurt that when my dad read the book to me, he would approximate Grover’s voice, which tickled me to no end. I also loved its interactivity. Reading this book was not passive; I was an integral part of the story. The story only progressed if I turned the page. Of course, that’s true with every book; but this book made this truth obvious and essential to the story. I could always choose to honor Grover’s requests and not turn pages. But of course, what child would do that? Grover is the perfect character for children to be asked to torment. He’s the embodiment of the bumbling id: teaching lessons that are glaringly wrong and in need of correction, dressing up as a superhero but providing no real aid to those he deigns to help, making increasingly hilarious mistakes at the consternation of the stuffy characters around him. What child who knew anything about Grover would actually comply when Grover said not to turn the page?
In true “meta” fashion, this story taught me that my participation in stories is what makes a story real. If I never opened that book, would Grover know there was a monster at the end of the book? In fact, would Grover even know there was a monster at the end of the book if I didn’t read the title? As a child encountering stories at such an early age, it was empowering to know that the main character actually cared about what I did. Television is not interactive like this, but books are. And having such an early experience with a story in which the character cared about my actions helped me when I went to church and read another important book in which the main character cares about my actions. Basically, this book taught me to read. Not “how to read” in the sense of making sense of letters and words, but “how to read” in the sense of engaging a text with investment, commitment, and action.
But there’s a thematic truth to the book that still resonates with me as an adult, a truth that I believe children know instinctively but that we as a society learn to suppress and ignore. As a child reading this book, we know that Grover is silly for being afraid. If we’ve read the book before, then we already know that Grover is the monster at the end of the book, which makes his fear even more amusing. After all, the subtitle tells us that the book stars “lovable, furry old Grover.” We already know Grover has nothing to fear, that he what he is working so hard to avoid is his own self.
And this is the very essence of fear. The things of which we are most afraid are the things of which we most identify. Go ahead, stop and think about that for a moment. Your deepest, darkest fears… They are yours. Sometimes they are borne out of experiences we have had: terrifying, life-threatening experiences. But even deeper than that experience is our understanding of what it means.
Children know this in their bones. A child’s deepest fear is connected with abandonment, loneliness, and subsequent annihilation. And in a child’s ego-centric worldview, any abandonment will be her own fault. Children are torn between what Freud called the “death drive” and the “libido,” or a life-giving, creative drive. Children want to stay connected to parents, to please them and delight them. And yet there is the desire to strike out and hit the parent, followed by anxiety that this will cause the parent to turn away and abandon the child.
The task for children is to learn that they cannot destroy the world, that acting out will not automatically destroy them. The child strikes her mother and in horror anticipates her destruction… but finds that her mother still loves her. Children’s literature is teeming with stories of children who confront their darkest fears. It is the story of Max who tames the “wild things,” or the story of the runaway bunny who flirts with his own separation from the mother, or the story of Hansel and Gretel who confront the wicked, evil witch in the forest. Children are not as timid as adults tend to think; it is we adults who grow timid over time. Confronting our fears is hard and scary and difficult and we spend our lives learning how to tie pages together so we won’t have to reach the monster at the end. But, as we know, the monster at the end is really not very scary. In fact, that monster is furry and, well, lovable. The darkest parts of ourselves are not so fearful when brought to light and befriended.
My daughter loves being startled. She tells me to hide so that when she rounds the corner I can jump out with a shout and “scare” her. She shrieks with delight and immediately cries, “Again, Daddy!” How thrilling it is for her to prove that she can let herself be scared and stand it, to find that the monster behind the bed is her own father who loves her more than anything. Our monsters tend to be lovable, furry and old, and if we can meet them face to face, we might find ourselves embarrassed at how strongly we resisted them. Nearly every week, I am reminded of this as an adult. As I read this book with my daughter (trying my best, of course, to approximate Grover’s voice), I try to recapture that childlike fearlessness of tearing forward, no matter how frightened I might feel, trusting that I already know the truth: that my monsters are really lovable, furry, old goofballs who are worth revisiting over and over again.