Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Not Now, Bernard

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Not Now, Bernard by David McKee (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 10(2): 1.

Bernard says Hello to his father, who is trying to pound a nail into the wall. “Now now, Bernard;” the father replies. Bernard tries, similarly, to greet his mother. “Not now, Bernard;” she says.

“There’s a monster in the garden and it’s going to eat me” Bernard tells his mother. But Mother isn’t listening. “Not now, Bernard;” she says again.

Bernard goes out into the garden and greets the monster, who promptly eats him up: ‘every bit:’ (The picture shows the monster holding up Bernard’s sneaker, as a trophy.)

Next, the monster goes inside and roars at Bernard’s mother, who is now painting the wall. “Not now, Bernard;” says the mother. The monster goes into the living room and bites Bernard’s father, who is reading the paper. The response is the same: “Not now, Bernard.” Bernard’s mother puts a dinner out for Bernard in front of the TV. The monster eats the dinner, tries to read one of Bernard’s comic books, and breaks one of his toys. When Bernard’s mother says to go to bed, the monster obeys.

Sitting in Bernard’s bed with a mug of hot milk on his lap, the monster moans, “But I’m a monster.”

“Not now, Bernard;” says the mother as she puts out the light.

I didn’t actually pick this easy reader off the shelf of a library or a bookstore. It was given to me a few years ago by a teacher in Canada. This teacher had taken a workshop on philosophy and children I offered at the University of Calgary. She told me she thought I would like it. She also told me that, of all the easy readers in her school’s library, Not Now Bernard was the children’s absolute favorite.

I have tried the story out myself on a number of adults and on several children. Some adults are clearly made quite uneasy by it. They don’t like the idea that the monster eats Bernard up, especially after Bernard has offered the beast his friendly greeting, “Hello, monster.” And they are bothered by the idea that the parents pay so little attention to Bernard, and especially that the mother doesn’t even realize the monster has displaced her son.

To be sure, not every child likes the story. But, from my modest sample of six to eight-year olds, it seems that most do. And those who do tend to read it again and again. I have no trouble imagining that this book would be a favorite in the school library. Partly, no doubt, new readers are pleased at being able to understand the simple dialogue. But there is much more to the success of the story than that.

The children in my sample seem to recognize, instinctively, that the story is a fable. What I mean by that is not that children already have a category: fable, and instinctively put Not Now, Bernard in it. It’s rather that they don’t ask, “Did the monster really eat Bernard up?” or “Why didn’t the mother see that it was really the monster in bed instead of Bernard?” They seem willing to interpret the story in a symbolic way.

How do children recognize that this story is a fable? I don’t really know. But I suspect that the spare and stylized dialogue with the refrain, “Not now, Bernard;” is part of what gets them to thinking about the story this way. After all, refrains have been used in folk literature for centuries to suggest that a story is a fable

Clearly another reason children, many of them, resonate immediately to this story concerns the poignant plight of Bernard. Aristotle, in his Poetics, assigns a cathartic value to the arousal of pity and fear in the audiences who watch a great tragedy performed on the stage Aristotle didn’t assign any purgative power to humor; but he should have. In this respect, he clearly missed something. Plato in Books III and X of his Republic, suggests banning all literature that fails to be morally uplifting, or at least to play a positive role in socializing the citizens of the state. Certainly any suggestion in children’s literature that adults do not have a real and effective concern for the welfare of children would be banned in Plato’s ideal state.

Yet children know that many adults do not have their interests at heart. They also know that even their parents and teachers, who care deeply about them and wish them well, are often preoccupied with other matters and are not really tuned into their own problems and concerns.

By a “dark comedy” version of what Aristotle calls “catharsis;” Not Now, Bernard lets children address their own feelings of alienation and rejection by laughing at the ridiculous pathos of the monster’s situation. In my opinion, the revised edition of Aristotle’s Poetics should make room for a tragi-comedy like Not Now, Bernard.