Ladies and gentlemen: here from the woolly expanses of Canada, please welcome this week’s reminder of the literary pleasures we could probably be enjoying if we only had access to shipping lanes. Now imagine if booksellers and publishers and agents further possessed the means of communicating with booksellers and publishers and agents in other countries. Imagine the spiritual benefits of all of these cultures and different perspectives intersecting in the stories we read to our children. The gods, and foreign customs, and freaky art. The furry, funny mammals we could probably get to meet, with jaunty berets and nicotine dependencies and existential foibles….
Or consider, please, Scaredy Squirrel, by the intriguingly accented Mélanie Watt, which otherwise looks as harmless and disposable as one of those activity books where you get to dress someone up in hilariously mismatching suits. This book is published by a modest little outfit in Ontario called Kids Can Press, none of whose output seems exactly designed to hint at thematic surprises within.
Yet surprise is what Scaredy Squirrel does, and perhaps that is fitting for a story which ends up turning on an accident, and not a leap of faith. Because you would not find this book unless an entire display came toppling down on top of you, when, panicked, a little disoriented maybe, you impulsively decided to follow the orange, simple arrow directing you toward Scaredy Squirrel’s head.
He’s grinning, perhaps a little nervously, on the cover. One page in appears this “Warning!”:
“Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone washes their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book.”
It’s a pretty great hook, and probably just as relevant to what scares us about books of unusual provenance as all of the forbidding horizons visible from Scaredy Squirrel’s tree. These he designates the Unknown, and they are inhabited by green Martians, killer bees, tarantulas, poison ivy, sharks and staring germs. So he’s perfectly happy where he is. Well, as perfectly happy as anyone can be who generates spread sheets of all of the advantages and disadvantages of staying put, assembles and continually reflects upon the contents of an emergency kit (hard hat, parachute, calamine lotion, sardines as a diversion for those sharks), hatches four different exit plans - and one last resort:
“Remember, if all else fails, playing dead is always a good option!”
Of course the unthinkable comes to pass, Scaredy Squirrel finds one more tool in his kit that proves useful, and one more activity to add to his daily planner, but the changes are finally nothing so drastic as he avows. Maybe character is destiny after all, though I see at the back, near the critical blurbs (“Youngsters will go nuts over this one!” says Publishers Weekly) that Scaredy Squirrel ends up at the beach in a future installment, and hope this is the result of a kidnapping, or the sort of dumb improbability that led me to him in the first place. For anyone not accustomed to venturing fearlessly into the Unknown, perhaps the least we can wish is that once in a while the Unknown should come visiting us.