Every night when a little boy goes to bed, his parents wish him good night and turn out the light. Then a little creature floats down from a black hole where the ceiling once was, followed by many more. This is a story of the terrors that lurk in the dark, and the power of the imagination.
When I was a child, I was convinced that there was a creature hiding under my bed, eager to grab me by the ankles and drag me into the darkness. If I ever I got up at night, I would leap across the room to reach the safe haven of my mattress afterwards. For me, as for many children, nighttime fears were very real. In What There Is Before There Is Anything There, Liniers explores these fears through the eyes of young boy. Narrated in the 3rd person with a focus on the young boy’s character, the story explores what happens at bedtime. It all starts when the boy’s parents turn out the bedroom light. This scene is of particular significance: it features on one of only two double-page spreads in the book. The left page is negative space – empty apart from black cross-hatching; only part of the foot of the bed intrudes on the page. The emphasis falls, therefore, on the printed words: “And they turn out the light.”
The absence of light is significant because it is in the darkness that the little boy’s world is transformed. The ceiling opens into a gaping black hole and then we are told: “He knows they are coming.” Liners whets our appetite by hinting at the next stage of the story. We wonder what lies ahead and feel a sense of alarm, especially when we see the accompanying illustration of the boy clutching his bed covers and looking nervously upwards. As a strange little creature floats down towards the bed, we discover why the little boy is apprehensive. The creature looks like an off-colour broad bean with big eyes, funny little horns, long pointed beak, and a tattered black umbrella. I think that Liniers eases us in gently with this first creation; the little creature is kind of cute. Some of the ones that follow are far scarier-looking – yup, there is a whole host of them. But, more frightening than their physical presence is their silence: None of the creatures say anything. Liniers reinforces the drama and suspense with short, choppy sentences: “They don’t say anything. They just stare. At him.”
But wait! There is worse to come. The little boy buries himself in his bedclothes until only his eyes and nose are showing. We learn that he has started to feel scared “because he knows what is coming next”. Yet again, Liniers is preparing us for the next stage of the story. And this time it is the stuff of true nightmares. The new creature doesn’t have a hint of cute about it. It is a mass of blackness, with empty white eyes and mouth, and a tangle of branch-like growths that extend across the double-page spread, trapping the boy in his bed. And, unlike the other creatures, it speaks: “I am what there is before there is anything there.” Terrifying. No wonder the boy takes off down the hall to his parents’ room. I would too. He doesn’t find a huge amount of comfort – or a resolution – there though. His parents don’t believe him: “It’s just your imagination.” They grudgingly let him sleep in their bed, one last time. But as soon as they turn out the light … well, I’ll leave that bit to your imagination!
I love everything about this picture book: the storyline, the simple prose and perfect pacing, the humour, the masterful illustrations that convey emotion through expressions, gestures and perspective. I don’t read it to my daughters as a bedtime story, however, although Miss 2 is particularly taken with “that scary book”. Maybe I should give it a go, but I’m not sure how happy I would be if “I am what there is before there is anything there” appeared to one of them in the middle of the night.
What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story, by Liniers, translated by Elisa Amado (Groundwood Books, 2014)
Original title (Spanish): Lo que hay antes de que haya algo (Pequeño Editor, 2006)
Liniers is a world-famous cartoonist from Argentina. He has published a daily comic strip Macanudo in the Argentine newspaper La Nación since 2002. His work has also appeared in many publications around the globe, including New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Spirou. He lives with his family in Buenos Aires.
Elisa Amado is a Guatemalan-born author and translator. She has written a number of picture books, including Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead (Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos), Cousins (Primas) and Tricycle (El triciclo), which is on the Américas Award Commended List and is a USBBY Outstanding International Book. She lives in Toronto.