The lost art of Introspection:
Alex Cousseau + Kitty Crowther
Inside Me

Inside Me was published in 2007 by Editions MeMo, from which Topipittori acquired the rights to publish this Italian edition, a year later. It's a beautiful, pretty unique book, combining a clever, evocative text by French author Alex Cousseau,  and the intense, unconventional illustrations by Belgian artist Kitty Crowther (who had not won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award at the time she worked on this).
It's a book filled with courage, because of the complexity of the plot, the rich semantic content and the bold iconography.
Everything seems to make it difficult to welcome this book among children's books, as a suitable to a young audience (6-9). Which explains why this and other books by Crowther have not found an publisher for the English market yet.

Kitty Crowther tends to use two different visual languages, two registers: 
one is playful, sweet, light and humorous for little ones (Stories of the Night), which has been more easily embraced by the English-speaking market, whereas the other is more philosophical and thought-provoking. Inside Me and The Little Man and God are told with the second one.
Both books need time to be understood and sadly they are both still relatively difficult to find in Italy (I must thank Spazio Libri La Cornice for posting a copy to me last summer, when I started to think about this review:).
Why am I writing it right now? I think I overdosed on merry, sparkly Christmas-themed books and bookish advent calendars on social media, and I felt like focusing on some dissident, more understated reads:).
A couple of days ago actually, Kitty Crowther shared on Instagram a quote from this book where artist Paul Cox defines the word 'style' like something that is free from influences and stereotyped technique (mannerism) declaring to suffer from 'style claustrophobia'. I realised that's exactly what I suffer from as well:) And it reminded me that this book was sitting there waiting to be shared and to find a publisher.
In this blog I share my favourite illustrated books trying to open a window onto different publishing markets, trying not to amplify voices that are already dominant as our children (just like us!) need to be exposed to a diversity of books, to different visual languages and narrative styles. They are competent beings, they can understand and be inspired by books that are less straight-forward and stereotyped, if we give them the chance to read them. 
The Story
Inside me is a book encouraging introspection, the most mysterious and challenging journey one can start. Identity, self-awareness and self-confidence are the things we can achieve by looking inside us. 
A child tells the story of this journey, that took him to an unknown land, inhabited by fears and dreams and where everything was dark and silent. It's a journey to find the words, freedom and possibly happiness. 
Questions and fears take the form of an ogre: to find what he is looking for, the young narrator needs to face this scary creature, to the point of being eaten up by him before he is finally liberated.
The search for words is what drives the child into this dream-like adventure, but what are words for? We need them to talk about what scares us, and about what makes us happy too. In the complexity of human inner world, language is our tool to process emotions, to understand things, to connect with others, and finally to find ourselves, becoming the master in ourselves.

"I have not always been me. 
Before being me, I was not inside me.
I was elsewhere. 
Elsewhere is everything but me.

I became myself only afterwards. I discovered a land.
My heart is the capital. My dreams are the trees.
This land is inside me.
[…] But I was not the king inside me. Well, not yet. 
I had enemies and troubles everywhere. 
Inside me it was night. 
I wanted to be the king to decide impossible things.
I wanted birds everywhere, fireworks.
I wanted everything to go fast. Faster than the passing of days. Faster than reality.
I don't like reality how it is.
[…] Every night I went by the bloody river to find him (the ogre).
And every night we, each with our stone, we would gamble on our life.
Whoever's stone bounced the surface the greatest number of times won.
Whoever won, could eat the other up.
He ate me up.
So I started screaming.
I screamed like I never before.
Flames came out of my mouth. My land was burning.
I screamed so loud, for so long, that the ogre told me:
"That's fine"
Frightened, he kneeled down and finally he talked to me.
"That's fine, you win. You are the king, forever, And I will disappear forever"

[…] Then suddenly it started to rain.  A rainbow appeared inside me. Then words of all colours.
I wanted to rest.
Inside me, I decide"

In the history of fantasy children's literature the ogre sums up all ancestral fears and that embodies the monstrous. This character has slowly disappeared from children's books, although it's clear that most children still need to deal with this dark and intrinsic feeling of anxiety, which is somehow always intertwined with a feeling of curiosity.
In the child's mind the absolute evil is not death, illness or guilt generated by illegal or immoral actions.
For children evil is fear, and a quite concrete one: it's fear of an animal (traditionally embodied by the wolf) or fear of  the monster, the ogre who can take them away from their mother and where they are hopeless. 
This book does three important things: 
1. Firstly, it reintroduces in a modern way the figure of the ogre, allowing the child to meet with the shady sphere of the imaginary and the unconscious. 
2. Secondly, the narration is charged with cathartic power in order to provide the young reader with tools to manage the tension produced when meeting the unknown (first point).
3. The story finally affirms the active role of the child in self-determination, in deciding about himself as a person (inside) and about his own life (outside). The story shows that he can learn to live with the shadows of his own imaginary, and dominate them.

Why should we endorse this type of books?
Because there is no right or wrong way to visually represent something, but there are infinite possibilities.
Children need to be exposed to a variety of styles and registers,  both in terms of words and illustrations and adults should overcome the temptation of choosing simple, Disney-esque, stereotyped stories, that ultimately prevent children from developing their own awareness and ability to interpret narratives and understand their metaphorical content. 
One more role of well-written stories is to help children develop the so-called suspension of disbelief: the conscious willingness to suspend our critical faculties to believe in something fictional and surreal, for that limited period of time. We adults sign a silent contract with the narrator every time we read a fictional story, but it's not as straight-forward for little ones. 
Toddlers begin to process fictional stories more or less satisfactorily (within the limits allowed by their evolutionary level) mainly thanks to fantastic narratives (we should always offer these very carefully, paying attention to how the child receives them). Then this process continues throughout childhood, between the age of 6 and 10.

[…]It might seem a paradox, but developing the competence to activate this type of contract with the narrator is particularly useful to encourage the awareness of reality in children. as we reiterate the distinction between the fantastic dimension of our thoughts and reality.
[…] It helps to structure the ability to bring into reality the suggestions and resources of the imaginary without slipping into the traps of superstition.
[Marnie Campagnaro, Marco Dallari]

Children are born with the full spectrum of human emotions, they are not 'simplified' version of us and we can't control or direct their ancestral fears entirely. We can decide which type of stimuli we offer in those very sensitive first years, but we can't prevent them from feeling things deeply. What parents do is usually the opposite, they try to avoid crying and strong emotions, ultimately flattening the child's response to reality.
The real issue with emotions is that children don't have the experience and the tools to explore them. This is why they need to be scared and be offered a variety of beautiful stories told with a rich, varied written and visual language. Books like this are an excellent, safe way to experience fear and to look at the world's harsh realities closer enough to find an action plan.
From this safe place they can look for the words to name their monsters as well as to celebrate joy and freedom.
Reading serves our 'grown-up' mind pretty much in the same way, when it comes to process reality.

There's an inspiring,  very detailed reading of the book in Italian on the publisher's website here, to which this review is largely inspired. If you are into semiotics and semantics, and you read Italian, I'd highly recommend it:)
Dentro Me [1st October 2008]
Words by Ales Cousseau
Art by Kitty Crowther
Italian edition published by Topipittori
Reading age: 6+
Themes: Self-development, Identity, Fear, Growing up

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