By: Maria Popova
From Japanese pop-up magic to Scandinavian storytelling to Maurice Sendak, a gentle primer on the messiness of mourning and the many faces and phases of grief.
“If you are protected from dark things,” Neil Gaiman said in the context of his fantastic recent adaptation of the Brothers Grimm, “then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.” Maurice Sendak was equally adamant about not shielding young minds from the dark. Tolkien believed that there is no such thing as “writing for children” and E.B. White admonished that kids shouldn’t be written down to but written up to. In her wise reflection on the difference between myth and deception, Margaret Mead asserted that “children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know … that this is a truth of a different kind.”
And yet we hardly tell children — nor ourselves — those truths. Half a century after children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom lamented that “some mediocre ladies in influential positions are actually embarrassed by an unusual book,” most books for young readers still struggle to validate children’s darker emotions and make room for difficult, complex, yet inescapable experiences like loss, loneliness, and uncertainty.
Here are some proudly unusual books addressing these all too common yet commonly shirked emotional realities.
1. MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT
For more than a decade, Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion — an independent one-woman children’s book powerhouse — has been churning out some of the bravest and most sensitive picture-books of our time, championing foreign writers and artists who create layered universes of experience outside the unimaginative bounds of the pantheon. Among them is My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter (of The Hole fame), translated by Kari Dickson.
This tender Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and comforting answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours, where love and loss go hand in hand.
Above all, it is story about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can embolden even the heaviest of spirits to rise from the sinkhole of anxiety and anguish.
Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.
2. THE FLAT RABBIT
When death comes and brings grief with it, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection from that engulfing darkness as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.
That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.
The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.
The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.
“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.
“Do you know her?”
“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”
The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.
The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.
Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.
Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.
In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.
With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.
Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”
Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.
“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.
The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.
“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”
For a grownup counterpart, revisit Joan Didion on grief and Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent memoir of navigating mourning.
The Flat Rabbit was one of the best children’s books of 2014.
3. DAVEY MCGRAVY
If grief is so Sisyphean a struggle even for grownups, how are tiny humans to handle a weight so monumental once it presses down? Poet David Mason offers an uncommonly comforting answer in Davey McGravy (public library) — a lyrical litany of loss for children of all ages. Across a series of poems, accompanied by early-Sendakesque etchings by artist Grant Silverstein, we meet a little boy named Davey McGravy living in the tall-treed forest with his father and brothers. A few tender verses in, we realize that Davey is caught in the mire of mourning his mother.
Without invalidating the deep melancholy that has set in, Mason makes room for the mystery of life and death, inviting in the miraculous immortality of love. With great gentleness, he reminds us that whenever we grieve for someone we love, we grieve for our entire world, for the entire world; that whenever one grieves, the whole world grieves.
He walked to where his father stood
and hugged him by a leg
and wept like the babe he used to be
in the green house by the lake
He wept for the giants in the woods
for the otter that swam in the waves.
He wept for his mother in the fog
so far away.
And then he felt a hand,
a big hand in his hair.
“It’s Davey McGravy,” his father said.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Davey McGravy,” he said again,
“How’s that for a brand new name?
Davey McGravy. Not so bad.
I like a name that rhymes.”
And there was his father on his knees
holding our boy in his arms.
And Davey McGravy felt the scratch
of whiskers and felt warm.
“Nobody else has a name like that.
It’s all your own.
Davey McGravy. Davey McGravy.
You could sing it in a song.
And then his father kissed him,
ruffled his hair and said,
“Supper time, Davey McGravy.
Then it’s time for bed.”
May I call you Love?
Very well, then, you are Love,
and this is a tale about a boy
Never mind the rest of his name.
You need only know that he was born
in the land of rain
and the tallest of tall trees —
great shaggy cedars like the boots
of giants covered in green,
and where the giants had gone
no one could ever tell.
Only their boots remained
on the wet green grass,
surrounded by ferns on the shore
of a long, cold, windy lake.
That’s where Davey was born, Love.
That’s where you must imagine him,
a wee squall of tears and swaddling,
a babe, as you were too a babe,
with parents and the whole canoe,
the whole catastrophe
we call a family —
the human zoo.
Only a rare poet can merge the reverence of Thoreau with the irreverence of Zorba the Greek to create something wholly unlike anything else — and that is what Mason accomplishes in Davey McGravy.
4. WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY
The 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library), which I’ve covered extensively here, is the darkest yet most hopeful book Maurice Sendak ever created, as well as one of his most personal. It’s an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes — “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye” — reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, and permeated by many layers of cultural and personal subtext.
On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.
Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.
But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.
Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.
We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do
In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)
All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children. See more of it here.
5. LOVE IS FOREVER
In Love is Forever (public library), writer Casey Rislov, who holds a master’s degree in elementary education and has an intense interest in special needs, and artist Rachel Balsaits unpack the complexities of loss with elegant simplicity.
The sweet verses and tender illustrations tell the story of Little Owl, who loves her Grandfather Owl very much. With the help of her parents and baby brother, Little Owl processes the profound sadness over her grandfather’s death by learning to keep his love alive forever.
Our love is a gift, a treasure to hold,
a story in our hearts forevermore.
This gift of love we have been given
is one that is pure, constant and sure.
The final pages feature a short guide for parents and teachers to the basic psychological phenomena that the mourner experiences and how to address those in children.
Nicolas (public library), the debut of Quebecois cartoonist Pascal Girard, is a kind of children’s book for grownups chronicling the many faces and phases of grief in a series of autobiographical sketches that unfold over the decades since the childhood death of Girard’s younger brother, Nicolas. With great subtlety, honesty, and unsentimental sensitivity, he explores the multitude of complex emotions — sadness, numbness, restlessness, anxiety, even boredom, in Kierkegaard’s sense of existential emptiness — and their disorienting nonlinear flow.
From the confusing first days after Nicolas’s death from lactic acidosis in 1990, to Girard’s teenage years awkwardly telling kids in high school about his loss, to life as an adult paralyzed with dread over having a child of his own on account of everything that might go wrong, this moving visual narrative is at once utterly harrowing and tenaciously hopeful, told with gentle humor and great humanity.
Woven throughout the deeply personal story are the common threads of mourning, universal to the human experience — how we cling to the illusion that understanding the details of death would make processing its absoluteness easier, how we channel our restlessness into an impulse to do something (there is Girard as a boy, fundraising for lactic acidosis research in his neighborhood; there he is as a teenager, numbing the unprocessed grief with drugs), how bearing witness to the mourning of others rekindles our own but also makes more deeply empathetic (Nicolas, one realizes midway through the book, died exactly eleven years before the 9/11 attacks, the news of which resurfaces Girard’s grief as he is bowled over with empathy for the tragedy of others), and most of all how “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses.”
What emerges is the elegant sidewise assurance that while grief never fully leaves us, we can be okay — more than that, in the words of Rilke, we can arrive at the difficult but transformative understanding that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”
7. LITTLE TREE
Pop-up books have a singular magic, but even the pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books of Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari can’t compare to the beauty, subtlety, and exquisite elegance of those by Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata.
When his daughter was born in 1990, Komagata expanded his graphic design studio, One Stroke, into publishing and began making extraordinary picture-books — including some particularly thoughtful and beguiling masterpieces for children with disabilities, from tactile pop-up gems to sign-language stories.
In 2008, Komagata released Little Tree (public library) — a most unusual and immeasurably wonderful story tracing the life-cycle of a single tree as it explores, with great subtlety and sensitivity, deeper themes of impermanence and the cycle of all life.
I received this delicate treasure as a gift from a dear friend, who had met Komagata at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. The book, she said, was inspired by a young child struggling with making sense of life and death after the loss of a beloved father, one of Komagata’s own dear friends.
On each spread of this whimsical trilingual story — told in Japanese, French, and English — a different stage of the tree’s growth unfolds, beginning with the tiny promise of a seedling poking through the snow.
No one notices such a small presence … be still here in the snow
Slowly, it grows into the recognizable shape of a tree and makes its way through the season — shy leaves greet the world in spring, a lush crown bathes in summer’s sunshine and turns a warm yellow, then a glowing red, as autumn embraces it.
A family of birds packs its nest, preparing to fly away for the winter.
When winter descends — that philosophical staple of intelligent children’s books — the mood darkens.
Clouds cover the sky
The wind blows hard, almost breaking the branches
Sheets of rain fill the darkness … be still here in the dark
But spring eventually returns, and the whole cycle repeats and repeats, until the tree grows “tall enough to look around when at the beginning it was too small and everything was big.”
Indeed, the book is very much a study in perspective — the existential through the spatial — as the tree’s height increases and its shadow shifts. With his gentle genius, Komagata casts the shadows of all peripheral characters and objects — a street lamp, a man walking his dog, a bird — not from the perspective of the reader but from that of the tree, appearing upside-down on the page. (To capture Komagata’s intended vignettes, I photographed the book from the top of the page facing down, following the tree’s viewpoint.)
And so the cycle of life continues — a new crow takes the nest built by last year’s bird, and as it observes these rhythms, the tree’s “point of view keeps changing.”
The man who lost a friend lays a flower down
It can’t be helped … be still here
But as wistful as the story is, the book is ultimately optimistic — a beautiful allegory for the same notion found in Rilke’s philosophy of befriending death in order to live more fully. At the end, the seed spurs a new turn of the cycle of life, going back to the beginning.
The seed was carried somewhere unknown
Surely it will exist for someone even though no one notices such a small presence at the beginning
* * *
For a grownup counterpart, see Meghan O’Rourke’s moving memoir of learning to live with loss, Anne Lamott on grief and gratitude, Atul Gawande’s indispensable Being Mortal, and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us befriend our mortality.
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