June 22, 2023

(++++) AAUGH!

Sometimes I Am Furious. By Timothy Knapman. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Penguin Workshop. $18.99.

     Charlie Brown’s famous Peanuts cry of frustration after his umpteenth unsuccessful attempt to kick a football held by Lucy, or his more-than-umpteenth attempt to lead his hapless baseball team to victory, was a trademark of sorts in Charles Schulz’ strip. And Charlie Brown was not alone: many characters yelled “aaugh!” when angry or frustrated – often with their mouths so wide-open that they became almost as big as their faces. The little girl protagonist of Timothy Knapman’s Sometimes I Am Furious does not emit that specific exclamation, but wow, does she look as if she is thinking it in Joe Berger’s illustrations! And somehow the furiousness is combined with adorableness, starting with a cover that perfectly illustrates the book’s title.

     The Peanuts gang never quite learned to overcome their everyday adversities – they would simply bear them and go on with life – but Sometimes I Am Furious is designed to teach early readers and pre-readers, ages 3-5, how to handle feelings so big that they seem overwhelming. In truth, it falls a bit short of that ambition: Knapman and Berger are much, much better at showing the little girl’s frustration, and the reasons for it, than showing how she can get past the big, bad feelings – only a single page says what she does: “I take deep breaths. I count to ten. I sing my happy song.” Learning how to do those things gets short shrift: all readers find out is that the girl’s Grandma teaches her what to do. So the book is more useful as a reflection of young children’s feelings than as a guide to getting past all those upsetting “aaugh!” moments.

     Sometimes I Am Furious also suffers from the virtue signaling that is increasingly common in books for children. For no particular reason, the little girl has a white father and black mother. This is statistically extremely improbable. In Great Britain, where the book was first published, blacks are 2.5% of the population, according to the Office for National Statistics. In the United States, blacks are 12.1% of the population, according to BlackDemographics.com, using U.S. Census Bureau data – and in both cases, the numbers include people of all ages. Among married black women in the U.S., 93% have a black husband and 4% have a white spouse. So the family dynamic presented here is very, very unlikely to represent the arrangement in the homes of most readers. There is nothing wrong with this at all: nobody says that books can or should show only families resembling those of the children at whom the books are targeted. However, in books for very young kids, especially ones intended to provide teachable moments, anything that distracts young readers (or even-younger children, to whom the books are read) risks getting in the way of the lessons that the books are intended to teach. The family structure here is highly unusual and may be irrelevant – but parents who are interested in the book should be prepared to answer questions about it, and to try to redirect young children’s attention to the coping-with-big-feelings message that is the stated main point of the book.

     The very best parts of Sometimes I Am Furious are ones that parents will likely recognize immediately and that will probably be familiar to young children as well. There is the frustration of a smaller ice-cream cone than others have, or one that falls on the ground; the anger at playmates who take over all the toys; the upset at juice spilled on a plate of cookies; and more. A wonderful two-page spread explores half a dozen sources of extreme irritation, from non-fitting clothes to an unplayable recorder (which the little girl is blowing into from the wrong end). The exclamations here are wonderfully expressed and beautifully illustrated: “I don’t want THIS! It’s just NO GOOD! It won’t do things I think it SHOULD!” Knapman and Berger are at their best on these and the other pages showing all the trials and tribulations of everyday life – and those showing adults cowering when the little girl has one of her very vociferous meltdowns. The family context and the comparatively short shrift given to solutions to the “aaugh!” problems are not as helpful as they could be, but adults willing to think through the situations and supplement the book with their own loving support of unhappy children will find Sometimes I Am Furious a wonderful jumping-off point for real-world teachable moments.

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