Think there’s nothing in common between this year’s Giller Prize winner and Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series?
Take this quote from Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing: “You can only be vigilant, she thought, about a few things at a time. Otherwise it’s not vigilance anymore. It starts to be more like panic.”
Mélanie Watt takes her friend, Scaredy Orville Squirrel, up to the line between vigilance and panic and dances around and across it until the line is a blur.
I”m willing to bet that in a matter of a few pages, the blur is as much from the pitter-patter of little feet as from the near-weeping as the reader’s affection for Scaredy coalesces and swells.
“Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone wash their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book.”
You just thought of someone you know, right? I mean, someone who practically has this warning tatooed on every exposed swath of skin. The co-worker with a pump bottle not only on the desktop but also in the top drawer (and, maybe, a bottle in reserve in a lower cabinet drawer nearby).
“Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree. He’d rather stay in his safe and famliar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown. The unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel.”
And there it is: the heart of the nut.
For most readers, regardless of age and skin covering, can relate to the fear of the unknown.
So, yes, he’s young and furry, designed to immediately and lastingly appeal to young readers accustomed to only a handful of words on each page of the book they’re reading.
But, yes, he’s determined and savvy, ready to dramatically engage not only with the unknown but with an emergency.
S.O.S. (I’m cheating: we don’t learn his middle name until later in the series) is a list-maker. You know one of those, too, right? (I am one of those, actually.)
The first volume in the series includes a list of some of the things he is afraid of (some that seem crazy, some that you might predict, but okay, mostly on the crazy side).
Many of these advantages fall under the umbrella of ‘predictable’, a concept introduced promptly.
And that is a core element not only of Scaredy’s life in the nut tree, but also in the narratives which follow his adventures (because, yes, he does venture into the unknown: of course he does).
Scaredy’s lists, his weighing of pros and cons, his daily routine chart, the essential items in the emergency kit, the plan with numbered and illustrated steps: these are all predictable elements of the stories upon which readers can rely.
Step 1: Panic. (This is always the first step, well past vigilance, in Lynn Coady’s parlance.) And the panic is provoked by the Event. (Sturdier souls might refer to this as the Adventure element of the tale.)
Panic leads to complications (these stories are as instructive as the girls’ stories of the latter century is some ways).
And in the wake of panic, Scaredy has few options, but one which he turns to predictably (and it still makes me grin as widely as the cover images grin back at me, even after eight books and multiple re-reads).
No, I’m not going to tell you what Scaredy’s “go to” option is, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard the advice given (and I may have employed it myself, thanks to Scaredy’s encouragement).
Scaredy Squrriel Makes a Friend is one of my favourites. (My apologies: I will say that again later, because I have too many favourites.)
Why? The warning, the list of individuals he is afraid to be bitten by, the list of satisfying solitary pastimes, the items required to make the Perfect Friend, the Perfect Plan, the Event, the Panic, the Response (still the same) and, my favourite part: Scaredy’s Risk Test (#4 makes me giggle like a little girl).
The difficulty in discussing this series and revisiting each of the volumes to do so, is that you want to say “Oh, this was when Scaredy met [insert name of Almost Perfect Friend] or [insert type of overwhelming disaster] but, of course, that would spoil everything. Or, maybe not.
The draw for adult readers is similar in many ways, and in some ways perhaps older adults can relate more readily to Scaredy’s tribulations; we recognize the advantages of not venturing beyond the nut tree and not making friends who might bite.
We, adult readers, have fallen from great heights. We have been bit. And, so, the brightly coloured version and the satisfying conclusions in these volumes are appreciated by readers of all ages.
In Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, our hero brandishes his hard hat and constructs a beach, to avoid the panic which might ensue from visiting an actual beach. But, when the beach is missing the sound of surf, Scaredy needs to reconsider.
(I have two favourite parts in this volume; once upon a time, I was enamoured by the gear, which includes an eye patch to fool pirates, but now I am most fond of the passport. Yes, you need a passport for the beach. If you don’t have one, you clearly need to consult this book in the series before all others.)
In this volume, I became that much more aware that at the end of each installment, Scaredy has added something to his existence; at times, this may be subtle and more experiential, but other times, there is a new addition to the nut tree, and that adds another layer of humour to this story for sure.
Scaredy Squirrel at Night includes all the familiar elements. It, like the last volume, contains slightly advanced vocabulary and the planning capacity is more complex. Nonetheless, there are still several close-ups (all squirrelly teeth and ears, button eyes gleaming).
Readers will not be surprised to learn that Scaredy Scquirrel “never has big birthday parties. He’d rather celebeate alone quietly up in his tree than party below and risk being taken by surprise.” Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party reveals all.
There is a lot more text in this volume, but it’s necessary because parties, even for non-scaredies, take a lot of planning. (My favourite part is the checkmark next to the No I Can’t Attend, with the corresponding reason.)
There is a giant leap, all would agree, in the risks that might befall readers in the acts of making frends and going camping. Scaredy has come a long way. Many adults view camping as an extremely risky activity, not to be undertaken lightly, if at all.
Older readers might not include Penguins in the list of threats that Scaredy identifies, but the others will likely be familiar, which adds another level of appreciation to this volume in the series.
(One of my favourite parts of this story is the TV schedule, in particular the show which airs at 10pm, after young, sensitive camping enthusiasts are most likely asleep. Myother favourite part is the last page which, clearly, I cannot comment on at all.)
Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas is at the top of my seasonal reading list: a generously illustrated chapter book for scaredies.
Those readers just encountering our hero for the first time can study “Scaredy Squirrel in a Nutshell, which includes all birth-related information, pet peeves and other essentials. (Psst…did you catch the ‘nutshell’ bit?)
The Scaredy Christmas Quiz proves that this guide is for me, because even one question alone scored me a point; I’d not have scored for saying that decorating makes me feel either creative or festive but, instead, it makes me anxious, so I have at least one point. (Note to self: don’t reveal full scoring.)
Often times holiday-themed books seem to be more about marketing and profit than pure pleasure, but it’s clear from the start that Scaredy and the holidays are a perfect fit. (I mean, green anti-bacterial soap for a festive look? Why, of course.)
Although I hadn’t taken note previously, it was with great relief that I scanned the Scaredy landscape with snow. The nut tree looks completely different (and, I might say, immediately festive).
The lists of red and green things to avoid decorating with? Tremendously helpful. Scaredy’s Top 10 Worst Kissing Scenarios? Very funny. (And I’m sure kissing wouldn’t even have been on the option earlier in the series: progress for Scaredy!)
But as with every holiday special, I am a sucker for the everybody-gathers-together scene, and that was true, too, for me with Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas. (But my favourite part? The coping mechanism playing out against the snow. And just when I thought it was missing from the story, with the jump to chapter book!)
Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Hallowe’en has a format similar to the Christmas volume: chapters (eight of them) and substantially more text than the previous books. One highlight includes the Jack-o’-Lantern carving advice (When carving a facial expression, always go with a friendly look”), which reveals a facial expression remarkably similiar to that of Scaredy Squirrel himself.
The decorating tips (unscary items in the traditional colour scheme), the Face-Off (Makeup Vs Mask…get it? Face-off?), the list of rational excuses not to enter a haunted mansion (I’ll be using “I have to water my plants” next year): this holiday is MADE for Scaredy.
My favourite part of this volume is, paws down, the costume list. If I could print it out wall-sized, I would.
That’s the other intersection between the Giller prizelist reading and Scaredy O. Squirrel stories: readers who love one might surprise themselves and love the other too.