From Harry’s willing martyrdom in the seventh Harry Potter novel to the snuff-film ruthlessness of the Hunger Games series to the existential bleakness of Toy Story 3, popular culture has become surprisingly enthusiastic about forcing children to confront the prospect of their own deaths.
But there’s one literary depiction of mortality for kids so gripping and so terrifying that it has been haunting me—a fully grown man—since I read it. It is arguably the most disturbing book published in America since The Road. I refer, of course, to Mo Willems’ 2010 picture book, We Are in a Book!
We Are in a Book! is a superficially giddy tale about Gerald the Elephant and Piggie the Pig, best friends in the grand tradition of kid-book animal odd couples. Like Snake and Lizard, Mouse and Mole, and, of course, Frog and Toad, Gerald and Piggie are idiosyncratic and loving—Gerald anxious, Piggie carefree. The Elephant and Piggie books—Willems seems to publish a new one every couple of weeks—are buoyant, lightly drawn cartoons. Dialogue is sparse and replete with exclamation points and ALL CAPS. A little bit happens, then Gerald and Piggie learn something.
In There is a Bird on Your Head, for example, a bird nests on Gerald’s head and annoys him. In Elephants Cannot Dance, Gerald tries to dance. Willems’ vignettes gracefully capture the raw emotions of childhood—as many Slate parents certainly know from Willems’ Knuffle Bunny books (the dreadful consequences of a lost stuffed animal) and Pigeon books (the mood swings of a frustrated pigeon).
As We Are in a Book! begins, Gerald and Piggie are hanging out doing nothing. Piggie suddenly notices that someone is watching them. That someone, Piggie realizes, is you, “a reader!” They couldn’t be happier. “We are in a book!” They explode into spasms of joy. They discover that if they say a word, you, the reader, say it too. Piggie says, “banana,” so you say, “banana.” Gerald laughs uproariously.
Then Piggie asks Gerald if he too would like to say a word “before the book ends.” “ENDS!?!” Gerald cries. “The book ends?!” Piggie replies that all books end. Gerald is stricken by panic, then existential dread. On Page 46, he asks Piggie when the book will end. When Piggie answers it will end on page 57, Gerald freaks out even more. Each time the page turns, Gerald gets more and more worked up, filled with terror about what is coming, “This book is going too fast! I have more to give!” Finally, in tiny letters on page 52, Gerald whispers, “I just want to be read.”
We are in a Book! is not the first children’s book in which the characters are thrown into tumult when they realize their literary aspect. David Wiesner’s Three Pigs picture book, for example, imagines the little pigs blown out of their fairytale by the big bad wolf, and escaping to another story. We Are in a Book! even subtly pays tribute to the classic of this genre, The Monster at the End of this Book. In that book, a terrified Grover hears there is a monster at the end of the book, only to get to the end and discover that he, Grover, is the monster. (Metafictional medium awareness abounds in adult works, too: In Borges, in the final episode of Moonlighting, and in the movie Stranger Than Fiction, for example.)
Yet We Are in a Book! is far more moving—and terrifying—than you might expect a children’s book to be. It is genuinely freaky in its simple, direct depiction of death. What defines the human consciousness of death? It is not the fear of pain: Animals certainly can fear pain. It is our fear of the void—the idea of nothingness. I recently watched my middle child awaken to the realization that death is the void, and it was awful and disturbing to see his world rocked. One major benefit of religion is that it offers an alternative to the void, something rather than nothing. But those of us who live without the solace of belief in the afterlife (and who don’t offer our children that solace, either) instead find ourselves eyes wide open in bed, imagining … nothing. We Are in a Book! (the title’s jaunty exclamation point comes to seem like a taunt) smacks kids right in the face with that nothingness, shows them grotesquely—in the desperate prayers and mad gesticulations of a cartoon elephant—that death is to be feared because the void awaits us all. Yes, Gerald, all books end.
We Are in a Book! is for children, so it must rescue our heroes by Page 57, right? As the final page approaches, Gerald and Piggie hatch a plan, about which they are very happy: They ask us to read the book again! But isn’t this conclusion terribly grim? In essence, Gerald and Piggie are begging to be condemned to Groundhog Day: forced to re-enact the same banana joke endlessly, and, in Gerald’s case, forced to relive the mortal panic of realizing the book is going to end, over and over again. A world of endless reincarnation and constant recapitulation—that’s the only prospect worse than the void. All books do end, thank goodness.
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.