“What if we can’t make it in time for the super-special surprise?” Fern asked.
“Well, then we’ll ask a friendly chipmunk for a shortcut through the forest, of course,” Fawn replied.
“But what if a tree suddenly falls and blocks the shortcut?” Fern asked.
“Well, then we will ask a grumpy bear to lift it for us, of course,” Fawn replied.
When we worry about something, our minds can often take us to fantastical what-if scenarios. The issue of children’s anxiety and worry is tackled in the picture book, The Invitation, by Stacey May Fowles, illustrated by Marie Lafrance. In the story, Fern, a whimsical green girl with a hair and a dress made of fern leaves, receives a surprise envelope in the mail. Fern does not like surprises and begins to speculate and worry about what is inside. Just then, her animal friend, Fawn, arrives. Fawn convinces Fern to open the envelope which, it turns out, contains an invitation to the museum for a special exhibition. Fawn decides to go to the museum exhibition with Fern.
Along the way, Fern worries about all the things that could go wrong. Fawn reassures her that a parade of creatures will help and intervene: a chipmunk, a grumpy bear, and a brave dentist. Fern also worries that they won’t know anyone at the museum exhibit event, but, when she then thinks about it, she suggests that they introduce these helpful creatures to the dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies, and the blue whale from the museum. Fern now begins to propose her own solutions to her worries:
“And if they have nothing to talk about, maybe we can ask the noble knights in shining armor to serve up the rest of the grumpy bear’s toothache cake in the medieval wing.”
When they finally make it to the museum, Fern is mentally prepared for the event. Once inside, all the marvelous creatures and characters in the book dance, socialize, and have a good time. After the event, all the creatures (including the museum characters) get a ride home in the dentist’s red car. Fern waves goodbye to her friends and looks in the mailbox to see if any more surprises have arrived.
Marie Lafrance’s illustrations are a highlight of the book, particularly the movement of Fern’s live plant dress and hair, which are followed by clouds, representing her anxiety. At the end of the story, the clouds are gone. The detailed full-colour drawing style with pencil marks and shading, along with the exotic characters, make The Invitation a feast for the eyes.
The publishers suggest an age range of ages 3-6. However, without a significant amount of conversation and scaffolding, the story is so fantastical that the message will likely be lost on readers younger than 10. My own 11-year-old children did not understand the metaphorical message of the book. It was not until I prompted them to read the dedication at the end by Marie Lafrance that they realized the book was about worrying too much: “To all my fellow sufferers of pervasive anxiety, may you find –or become – your own Fawn –ML.” The ideas that mummies and dinosaurs got a ride home from the dentist (didn’t they live at the museum?) and that there was a blue whale floating in the sky, among other examples, were too fantastical and, in the end, distracting, and the other imaginative elements were just too abstract to grasp. The meaning was lost.
The Invitation addresses the important topic of anxiety among children. I like the idea of acknowledging children’s worries, regardless of how irrational they may be, and giving children agency to come up with their own solutions to worry. But, while I want to really like this book, something doesn’t hit the mark between concept and execution. It feels like a book for adults about anxiety rather than for an audience of children.
Dr. Kristen Ferguson teaches literacy education at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.