by Davina Bell & Allison Colpoys
Social anxiety is an unspoken problem that, when actually spoken of, happens in some degree to almost everyone I know. For some, it’s a slight buzz of discomfort before going to a party. What if everyone is mean? What if I’m wearing something stupid? What if I say something stupid? (And then, afterwards: that thing I said? Oh god, everyone thinks I’m a monster now, don’t they?) For others, it means they can’t leave the house at all. But, dear reader, how long did you think you spend thinking you were the only one who had these thoughts? The knowledge that you’re not alone may not, in itself, cure you like some mystical potion, but it’s still a little beautiful piece of information that can make situations seem less overwhelming. People sometimes recommend looking at a crowd you’re in front of and imagining them all in their underpants. It also helps to imagine all the people in the crowd just before they arrived, in front of a mirror, saying to themselves: you got this event. You sit in your seat and you’ll be fine. Just don’t cross your legs or it’ll make your dress squinch up.
Anyway, this meandering thought process leads me to review a book I received recently from a publisher (because I work in a bookstore and what it lacks in six-figure incomes it makes up for in amazing free things I didn’t even know I needed to read.) The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade is a gorgeous book made up of only a few colours: orange, shades of blue and grey and, on the cover, a shimmering silver. It’s about a boy named Alfie who is about to attend a fancy dress parade as Captain Starfish, but the night before, he gets that feeling in his tummy. You know it, don’t you? You feel sick. Are you coming down with something? Oh no, maybe you won’t have to do that anxiety inducing thing because of a legitimate reason like legitimate totally real illness that you’re about to come down with? Anyway, when Alfie wakes up he tells his mother he can’t be Captain Starfish, after all, so she takes him instead to meet someone else who needs to hide away sometimes: a beautiful little orange clownfish with fins like butterflies. And maybe, next year, Alfie thinks he could be something else in the Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade.
It’s an interesting book in that it discusses anxiety without either demonising it or fixing it with a magic wand. Alfie feels anxiety strongly and has for a long time; his parents offer support and help (and do not tell him off like Future Me possibly would when frustrated with Future Rocket because even though I frequently feel the challenge of anxiety myself, I am also a parent who needs to work on her patience.) The ending offers a gentle nudge of hope but does not see Alfie (unrealistically) suddenly parading in front of a giant crowd. It’s a book ripe for discussion: what will he do next? Do you feel that way?
The Rocket’s a little bit too young and literal to fully get the entire worth of this story at the moment—at this point she mostly barrels headlong and screaming into new situations, but she does feel nervous around new people—but it’s still a story that is a small delight to read even if you are a bit young to understand the concept, and I’m glad to have it so she grows older with an idea of what anxiety is and that it is never, ever just you. Regardless of her age (very nearly three!), she enjoyed it so much on a recent read that she had to take it off me every few pages and explain to me what was happening and count things on the page and tell me what animals were what. Teach, listening to me reading it during the same read, said thoughtfully: “I think maybe I should take this to school tomorrow and read it to my class.” He teaches eleven and twelve year olds, so that’s a good indication of who should read this book: basically everyone. Besides, it’s sweet and tender and shiny, has a divine cover and one of my favourite book spines to pick out. And any book with a penguin driving a bus is a-ok with me.