Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Whatzit and the Terrible Harry

One of my favorite books from childhood is Harry and the Terrible Whatzit (1977) by Dick Gackenbach (1927-2001).

I recently revisited it for the first time in decades. It does exist to teach a lesson, and that lesson is not as subtle as I think it could have been. Despite this, I still find it charming both narratively and visually. It stayed with me—and stayed in print—for a reason.

However, something struck me as an adult that almost certainly didn’t as a child: the Whatzit is not at all terrible. (At least his behavior; I can’t speak for his odor.)

In fact, it is Harry who shoots first and only at that point does the Whatzit get mad. But even then he’s not all that scary. (Again, talking behavior only. Some kids are frightened by his appearance.)

Here is how Harry reacts when he thinks the Whatzit is lying when it says it does not know where Harry’s mom is.

That might be sending an unintended message to some kids: if you don’t believe someone, hit him. Or more broadly, if you don’t like what someone is doing, hit him. Now that’s scary.

Harry goes on to whack the Whatzit two more times, pull its tail, threaten it, and finally twist one of its two noses. Whatzit and Terrible Harry is more like it.

Yet Harry is meant to be the hero of the book. Yes, he stands up to a creepy-looking basement dweller to protect/save/avenge his mom, but clearly he is not a believer in “innocent until proven guilty.” And he never seems that afraid in the first place.

So the book pits a brave boy against a harmless monster to inspire kids to conquer their own fears. What Harry was really afraid of all along—like most of us—is the unknown. But you can’t whack that with a broom.

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