Tommy wakes up early one Saturday morning. He goes into his parents’ room to see if they’re up, and is shocked and terrified to see a giant black fern in his mother’s place in bed. His father, still asleep, isn’t having any of Tommy’s fear and questions. Go back to sleep, he says. Prrrrr, the fern says.
Tommy spirals into anxiety. What does this fern want? Will it eat me next? Who will take care of me if my mother is gone forever? His little white dog, Moomin, follows him around the house and is equally troubled: we see in Moomin’s wordless thought bubbles that he is concerned with who will feed him and pet him now.
At breakfast, the fern lurches into the kitchen and speaks with Tommy’s mother’s voice. It even has her handwriting! How is this possible? Eventually, all is revealed, and it’s notable that neither of his parents explicitly console Tommy. His fear and pain melt away when he understands the situation, but his parents never actually grasp the depth of his worry. This articulates something true about childhood: your emotions are turbulent and all-encompassing to you, and no matter how much your guardians love you, they never really see it from your perspective. The things you fear may not come to pass today, but no one can promise you they won’t happen tomorrow.
Adults’ bodies are so fascinating and troubling to small children. They smell different, their joints make noises, they eat and drink disgusting things like asparagus and coffee. Combine that feeling with children’s resistance to change, and you can understand the horror that befalls a child whose mother’s hair is suddenly different and wrong. My grandpa once took out his dentures and put on a ski mask to scare me, and I still haven’t gotten over it thirty years later. That Night a Monster puts you in Tommy’s head effectively, in a way that I think will make young readers feel understood.
There’s so much here that can only be expressed in comics form, especially the way Tommy’s mind flips between what he actually sees and what he imagines from one panel to the next. His mounting fears about his mother changing into a fern are represented by dozens of tiny monster-ferns appearing under his feet, which explode when he’s ready to face his fears and find out what happened. He sniffs at the juice in the kitchen, making sure it’s the same apricot juice his mother usually makes, little twitch lines appearing around his nose as he does. Moomin follows Tommy everywhere, mimicking his movements and mirroring his apprehension of his parents’ bodies.
Berenika Kołomycka’s art is gorgeously painted and colorful. The implied movements are perfectly observed, and the perspectives are inventive: we see the rooms of the house from Tommy’s point of view as well as from high-angle shots establishing the characters in space. I was particularly taken with one panel that observes Tommy’s bedroom from outside his window, foregrounding his cactus collection in the windowsill. Inspired touches like this keep the book fun to re-read, as I imagine many parents will find themselves doing.
That Night A Monster is a loving portrayal of the emotional vagaries of childhood: how quickly the comfort of home and family can turn alien and threatening, and how quickly it can change back.