A couple years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a panel at The BookCon featuring Jason Segel. The panel was to promote his new children’s book Nightmares!, and during that panel, he blew me away with his childlike attitude, his belief in the magic of stories, and his own anecdotes about his childhood filled with nightmares. I knew I had to read his book.
Fast forward to now, way after I bought the children’s book. I spent too much time putting it off, because Nightmares! is exactly the kind of book I’d have read as a child, the kind of book that teaches children to love reading.
Nightmares! is about a 12-year-old boy named Charlie Laird, who is plagued with vivid, nightly dreams about a witch eating him. The nightmares are so real and scary that he’s gone weeks without sleeping, and has become surly and mean to his brother and father, and especially to his stepmother—whom he thinks is the witch herself. Charlie’s mother passed away a few years ago, and Charlie is angry with his father for marrying again so quickly, and he’s afraid of losing his remaining family to a new mother. His fears slowly eat him alive, until finally, Charlie’s nightmares carry him into the world of nightmares itself, called the Netherworld.
In the Netherworld, Charlie has to face his fears, find out the true nature of fear, and find the courage to save what he most values: his family.
It’s all excellent children’s book stuff, chock full of funny, prepubescent characters, larger-than-life creatures (one called Meduso!), and a rich plot with plenty of action. I wouldn’t have been able to put this down if I were a sixth grader! But as always with the best children’s books, this story resonates waaaaay beyond elementary school.
I personally love this quote by C.S. Lewis, recently shared by JK Rowling on Twitter: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” This is the power of children’s books, and it’s also the reason I routinely tell grown adults to just read Harry Potter already. The lessons in children’s books are often lessons that adults forget by the time we grow up. We always need to hear them.
This book resonated deep with me right now, as I’m trying to navigate a whole new phase of my life. Fear is a common thread that binds all humanity together, but it’s a little understood emotion. Fear is sometimes seen as weakness, or it’s ignored until it completely takes over your life. In the world of Nightmares!, running away from fear will eventually lead you right into the world of monsters—an accurate analogy for fear’s real effects. I love this quote from the book:
“Fear is like tar. It sticks to everything and swallows it all up.”
How true is that? How many times do we feel weighed down by fear, and then if we don’t deal with it, feel it multiply and make everything worse?
There’s also this quote that I love:
“Look, boy, everyone’s got their own fears to deal with. The same guy who will wrestle a sewer alligator might faint at the sight of a giant squirrel. If I were you, I wouldn’t make fun of someone’s nightmares until you’ve slept a night in his pajamas.”
That reminded me so forcibly of Atticus Finch’s famous speech in To Kill A Mockingbird that I laughed, but it is very true. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it can also paralyze the strongest people. This book is about learning how to face the things that scare you the most, and so become more in touch with who you are, what you value, and how to become the person you want to be.
For Charlie Laird, that person was someone who could accept a new stepmother and find a way to become a better friend. This book is full of truisms about friendship, family, and love, and for all those things, it’s a perfect “children’s” book. I use quotes partly because it’s not just for children, and partly because I’m a child myself most of the time. 🙂
Seriously: such a cute book. And there’s a sequel now! Off to buy it!