Ruth Brown is the master of spooky picture books. She has written and/or illustrated dozens of books for young children covering a wide variety of topics, but her creepier works are the most distinctive with their balance between fear and charm.
Brown was born in Devon, England in 1942. The first five years of her life were spent playing and exploring the surrounding countryside, and as she describes it “The cottage, the garden and surrounding country were one big fascinating playground which has stayed with me always.” This sentiment is palpable in the majority of her books with their focus on nature, feral animals, and domestic scenery.
In 1947, her family moved to post WWII Germany when her father got a job with the Control Commission. Brown states that “It was an early childhood of extreme contrasts – the freedom of my first five years in the country and then the contrast of post-war Germany.” Perhaps her early exposure to the aftermath of war equipped her with an inclination to include scary elements in so many of her picture books.
She studied at the Bournemouth College of Art, the Birmingham College of Art, and the Royal College of Art, after which she began work as a freelance illustrator. Later, her friend and fellow writer Pat Hutchins piqued her interest in writing her own books and in 1979 her first of many works was published: Crazy Charlie.
In the spirit of Halloween (and also because the dark stories are my favorites), let’s take a look at her spooky titles, shall we?
Toad uses evocative language to drive home the point that Toad is gross. He is “odorous, foul and filthy”, “nasty, septic, toxic, and bitter”, and “worm-slurping”. The adjectives are punchy and fun to say, and they hang overhead Toad on each watercolor, swampy page. The pages are so saturated that you can feel the mud squishing beneath your feet. A touch of danger takes form as a pair of reptilian eyes come closer and closer to him with each turn of the page, until the final reveal of an alligator snapping its jaws shut over our disgusting little hero. A hero so nasty that the “monster” spits him out. Toad then happily settles back into the sludge and feels “carefree and self-confident”, demonstrating that facing danger can result in survival.
One Stormy Night follows a small, white dog seeking shelter on a windy, frigid night. He is chased away by every other animal until sunrise, when he returns to his tomb. It was a ghost dog. The imagery is in shades of grey, white, black, yellow, and blue until the shift to include warm shades of greens and reds on the final pages. The art also includes precise detail, including the texture of tree bark, the tiles on the rooftops, the individual hairs on the animals’ bodies, even single straws of hay. This story borders on the bittersweet as you realize the dog is a spirit visiting its old home and returning to his family’s tomb. One Stormy Night is a narrative that introduces a scary scene (a dog being pursued through a stormy night) and gives a heartwarming yet eerie conclusion.
The Ghost of Greyfriar’s Bobby follows a similar theme of dogs that have passed on. The first pages display bright, vivid watercolors of two kids on vacation in England listening to a story about an Old Jock and his dog Bobby. This color scheme is consistent until the crushing scene with the old man and his pet guard the cattle pen in the winter cold. The fluffy, white flakes of snow gathering into the drifts look magical, until you focus on the hardened faces of the man and the dog. They look chilled to the bone sitting in the snow storm. Bobby’s story is told with a backdrop of white and grey as he sits by his owner’s grave, but the bright palette returns as the town comes together to help him. Scenes of the townspeople feeding and playing with him are light and every face has a smile. Brown’s retelling of Greyfriar’s Bobby, while about a dog’s spirit haunting a town, is uplifting rather than scary.
Last is the classic A Dark, Dark Tale. Following a dark, weather worn aesthetic, the reader is brought along a black cat’s journey further and further into the back room of a remote, seemingly abandoned mansion. Each step of the progression is shrouded in fog, dense woods, thick curtains, or heavy doors. Suspense is built through each cobwebby corridor, until the cat finally locates a small box in the back of a closet that turns out to be housing a sweet little mouse. Whether the cat eats the mouse or they’re friends is a matter of opinion, but it’s another case of fear building up and then having it’s air let out in a light anti-climax.
A natural question that arises after reading a spooky juvenile book is “what are the positive and negative aspects of introducing kids to fear?” This is a question that reiterates throughout every form of media, including whether kids should be exposed to violence in movies, disturbing scenes in video games, fighting in comic books, etc. But the essential question that it boils down to is “should we introduce children to concepts that might scare them?”
The answer is yes. Being brave is handling a situation even though it scares you. Without familiarizing ourselves with the sensation of fear, we cannot tackle the world’s problems. An element in fear in children’s books plays an integral role in character development. As Tomi Ungerer said, “In my children’s books, you’ll always find an element of fear. I think children are thrilled with fear, and they have to be taught how to get over it. Why am I the pedagogues’ nightmare? They think I traumatize children. They think children should be loved and protected. But if you do only that, they’re not ready for life.” Ruth Brown’s work holds true to this idea of the thrill of fear, and is adorable to boot.