When Fun Trumps Fear

Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach


Published on July 1, 2008

Scaredy Squirrel At The Beach
Mélanie Watt

Kids Can Press

A friend recently expressed concern that his parents were spending too much time watching TV rather than getting out and experiencing life firsthand. Asked if traveling might be of interest, they answered that they preferred documentaries, which let them explore foreign places in the safety of their own living room.

The story comes to mind after a chat with Mélanie Watt, who expects her bestselling Scaredy Squirrel series- Scaredy Squirrel, Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend, and Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach – to keep growing.

As suggested by his name, Scaredy has quite an impressive number of phobias, all of which seriously complicate his attempts to just “get out and have fun.” He lives in a tree and plans every nano-second of his daily routine so that each day looks remarkably like the one before. The trouble, of course, is that life gets boring and lonely, and Scaredy faces the challenge of trying to find ways to liven his routine without compromising any of his perceived security. But real life has a way of being unpredictable, even for the most careful of planners. No matter how hard Scaredy tries to play safe, he is inevitably confronted by unforeseen twists, catapulting him out of his comfort zone.

In his most recent adventure, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, Scaredy would like to enjoy all the benefits of the beach, but without having to deal with any of the associated risks: jellyfish, seagulls, sea monsters-or, worst of all, germs (a recurring theme throughout the series). Initially he tries to recreate a beach scene next to his tree, but soon realizes that something about his home entertainment centre doesn’t quite measure up. Much to his discomfort, Scaredy figures he’ll need to visit a real beach to bring back a sample of what’s missing. True to his character, he leaves nothing to chance, planning his mission with the utter precision of an army general mapping out war strategies. In fact, by the time Scaredy takes one step from his tree, he is so laden down in zany, protective gear that he looks nothing like a beach bum.

Though Scaredy is an extreme case, one suspects that his character has resonated with so many readers because Watt has tapped into the theme of fear, a particularly hot and pertinent subject in a society that is giving up more and more of its freedom in exchange for “security.” Indeed, there is a bit of Scaredy in all of us, including Watt, who jokes that she is afraid of encountering the shark from Jaws when she goes swimming. But if there is one thing she needn’t worry about, it’s running out of material to keep her series going. (The next book will be about night fears.) “Whether you’re a three-year-old or whether you’re in your seventies, eighties, or nineties, there’s always something to be afraid of,” says Watt.

Discussing the various societal factors that add fuel to the Scaredy fire, Watt underlines the barrage of cautionary tales transmitted by well-meaning family members, and by the media. In reference of the news, she says, “They tend to just to show things that are about drama and things that went wrong, or things that we should be afraid of. That’s what they say gets more viewers.”

Watt loves it when her books get kids thinking. “One of the greatest things a kid can ask me after reading Scaredy, is ‘Why is Scaredy afraid of green Martians if green Martians don’t exist?’ For me that’s such a perfect question because I think that’s what we all have to ask ourselves: why are we so afraid of so many things?”

Watt encourages kids to seek out reliable information-“The more you know about stuff, the more you’ll be able to judge for yourself”-and suggests gaining perspective through quieting the mind, or “playing dead,” as does Scaredy when totally overwhelmed. “Be still, and you’ll realize that it’s not so bad.”

Laughter, which Reinhold Niebuhr once described as “the highest form of prayer,” is another great coping mechanism evoked by Scaredy. According to mythology, the only thing the Devil (fear) can’t stand is to be laughed at. Watt attributes much of Scaredy’s success to the fact that he’s funny, specifying that for humour to work, people need to be able to identify with it. The fact that Watt manages to deliver humour that both adults and children can relate to on their own levels, adds to the broad appeal of the books. “It’s fun,” she relates, “because I have teachers who buy copies for their students and then copies for themselves.”

While Watt has published 11 books so far, Scaredy is her first character to hit the big time. Kids Can Press, Nelvana Studios, and Nelvana Entertainment are preparing to further brighten his limelight, producing a television series and animated shorts for on-air, on-line, and on-mobile distribution. The launch of an international merchandise and licensing program is also planned. Though Watt seems very pleased, she admits that this is all “totally unknown territory.” Like Scaredy, however, she seems ready to take the leap. To her great delight, “Scaredy is starting to the pave the way” for her earlier publications. “I’m signing more of my previous books than I was eight years ago,” she says

Especially popular among Watt’s other books is Chester, about a narcissistic cat who refuses to play second fiddle to a mouse. Once again, Watt credits humour for the book’s success, underlining Chester‘s appeal to readers of all ages.

Although Watt has always loved to draw, she hadn’t at first imagined making a career of it. Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” philosophy comes to mind when she explains how everything seemed to fall into place once she abandoned her studies in administration to take up graphic design. “Immediately when I went from administration to design, I felt like I was in a new world where things came easily to me, like ideas. And it was fun.”

Following the advice of one of her professors, illustrator Michèle Lemieux, Watt submitted a school project to Kids Can Press,and her destiny was reshaped.. Her first book, Leon the Chameleon, came into being, and she dropped her plan of working in advertising.

Eight years have since passed, and though Watt admits it was sometimes a struggle at first, sticking with what she loves is paying off. In her case, fun seems to trump fear, for while she may still get the jitters exploring new territory, one gets the impression that she’ll be doing lots more of it anyway-and not necessarily from the safety of her living room. mRb



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