Brain Pickings

My Teacher Is a Monster: A Sweet Modern Fable About Seeing Through the Otherness of Others

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A gentle illustrated reminder that we can’t love what we don’t know.

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

In a recent conversation, I asked Brown about his thinking behind My Teacher Is a Monster and his broader philosophy of writing and illustrating for young minds:

MP: All of your work emanates such a sense of optimism. Do you feel that it is our responsibility to cultivate this in children or is it, rather, the other way around — our responsibility to ourselves is to bear witness to this natural human capacity in kids, which we unlearn as we grow up, and to perhaps reawaken it in our grown selves?

PB: The further I get in my career, the more I think about my readers. I see it as my responsibility to create books that will make kids laugh and think and want to pick up another book. The hope is that I might, in some small way, help to grow the number of readers in the world. And the best way to make more readers is to help people fall in love with reading at an early age. So I try to make stories and characters and art that appeal to the excitement and curiosity that occurs naturally in children.

The optimism in my stories is no accident. But I think you’ll find that in addition to positivity there’s always a dose of reality in my stories. Each of my characters face real disappointment, and their story is about them overcoming their disappointment. That’s real, and kids get it.

MP: This particular book explores the rather common experience of seeing someone as both frightening and repulsive until we get to know them — one manifestation of our broader, fundamental fear of the unfamiliar. Did you have such an experience yourself, either with a teacher or with another figure in your life, that inspired the book?

PB: When I was a kid I had several grumpy adults in my life. There were the old neighbors who would actually yell at me to get off their lawn. There was the mysterious family of five who all seemed to be mean and miserable, even the kids. And yes, I did have a few grumpy teachers, too. I was confused and concerned by all of those people, but the grumpy teachers were especially distressing because I had to be in close quarters with them for a whole school year.

To make matters worse, I had a big, uncontrollable imagination, and there was a time when I actually thought those teachers were monsters in disguise. But over time, most of those teachers gradually revealed their softer side — they’d share a personal story, or share my excitement about some little thing — and I’d gradually realize that they weren’t so bad… in fact, they were actually pretty cool.

That seemed like a pretty good premise for a children’s book.

And indeed it is — My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) is an absolute delight. Complement it with The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison’s similarly-spirited collaboration with her son.

Images courtesy of Peter Brown / Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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