Loss in Children’s Literature

The first book caught my eye from its display, the title singing to my soul, The Poet’s Dog, a novel by Patricia MacLachlan.  The second, I found flipping through the bins of picture books, its title, Until We Meet Again (Susan Jones), speaking to my family’s recent season of loss.  Little did I know how thematically intertwined they both were.

Both titles speak to children bearing and moving through the loss of a loved one.imgres

The Poet’s Dog is more novella than novel and told in sparse prose.  But it is told from the point of view of Teddy, the poet Sylvan’s dog.  And Teddy, while wise and loquacious for a dog, is dealing with the stark life left him by Sylvan’s death.  There is a beauty and simplicity to the unfolding of this tale and the healing that takes place.  Teddy, in saving two siblings from a raging storm, is himself saved by their companionship.  The siblings, Nickel and Flora, and readers don’t find out what exactly happened to Sylvan until halfway through the book, which is really quite wonderful in terms of grief.  Teddy, like so many experiencing loss, comes to a slow realization of the gravity of the absence of his loved one; even slower, comes the ability to share the painful parts of that loss.  He opens up as he comes to terms with it – and it is through the gentle love and presence of the now dear young friends.

untilwemeet-448x600Until We Meet Again, a picture book by Susan Jones, illustrated by Shirley Antak, is told from the perspective of an adorable little boy, made so both by Antak’s rendering and the amazing way he transcends death’s grip on his beloved grandfather.  The opening sequence shows the deep bond and ritual of this grandfather/grandson relationship.  The boy obviously adores the strong influence of his grandfather.  When he first gets news of his grandfather’s eventual demise, he is unsettled, of course, but this midsection of the book sets the stage for the last, when the boy becomes the strong influence.  He initiates and continues all of their special traditions, validating his grandfather, cementing their unending bond, and gathering his own strength for life without him.

Both these titles tackle a topic that is usually met with the awkward shrug of a smile, the stammering silence of not knowing what to say.  The subject matter is the stuff we try to shield our kids from, not books we willingly hand them.  But as with any tough topic, the children dealing with death need them right now.

Ironically, I chose not to share them with my children right now.  Perhaps I am being naive in thinking I can protect them from the direct blow of death for just a bit longer, but they’ve yet to be at a funeral.  They blessedly haven’t felt the stinging sorrow of a daily hole in their lives.  The deaths dealt to our family recently have been on their periphery.  But to know I have such gentle and poignant resources in literature should I need them – I’m glad the literary universe conspired to bring them both to me in the same lending cycle.

 

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if you want to see a whale

Focus – to the exclusion of everything else.

Being able to tune out any distractions or discouragements apart from the final goal can be accomplishment gold. But if it also means missing out on beautiful sights or moments along the way, the brilliant glow can become a burnished pallor.

This is the risk the main character takes in Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead’s picture book, if you want to see a whale.

On his journey to see the whale, the young boy, with his dog and a bird as companions, passes roses and pirate ships, pelicans and inch worms. He ignores them:

because roses don’t want you watching whales
or waiting for
or wondering about
things that are not pink
and things that are not sweet
and things that are not roses.

If the boy did not ignore the roses, he might have missed the whale that he finally finds on the last page. But he misses the turtle amidst the clouds, a comfy and cozy nap, the lighthouse atop the headland shaped like a whale.

Yet even with all this sacrifice, the boy still almost misses the whale. On the second to last page, he is so busy staring into the sea, he doesn’t see the whale pass right below his rowboat. Ultimately, it is the whale who breaks the surface and peers into the boy’s face.

While preparation and staying the course are essential to achieving goals, there is a certain element of chance that factors into the final result. And if we exclude all way points and detours, a failure at the termination point will be that much more crushing.

I suspect that Fogliano and Stead meant for this story to be a triumphant tale of setting one’s mind to something and seeing it through. And it is. There is a lot to be said for persistence and patience; for courage and consistency.

There is also the flip-side.

It makes me sad to see all the missed opportunities along the way for this young boy. It makes my soul ache for my own missed opportunities throughout any given day. The simple pleasures, invaluable gifts of the here and now. When goal-setting becomes tunnel-vision, mindfulness cannot occur.

If you want to see a whale, it’s pretty amazing. Just don’t miss out on what the waves wash up on the way.

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations.

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations.

Extra Yarn

“On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color.”

It was a seemingly endless box of yarn; no matter the number of sweaters or hats or cozies knit, there was always extra yarn.

Annabelle converted town bullies with her rainbow thread. She led her dog, Mars, around on a rainbow leash. She clothed her naysayers in a prism of perseverance and accomplishment.

image from School Library Journal

The very nature of the town began to change.

And she still had extra yarn.

News spread of Annabelle’s wondrous deeds and visitors came from far and wide. An archduke wanted, at any cost, to acquire “that miraculous box of yarn.” No matter the price, Annabelle declined. The archduke arranged to have it stolen, but once he returned home and opened the box, he saw that it was empty. Hurling the box into the sea, he shouted, “Little girl, I curse you with my family’s curse! You will never be happy again!”

The current carries the box back to the shore where Annabelle and Mars sit. And once Annabelle retrieves it, its magic power is once more ignited.

A box of extra yarn is available to all who want it. We need not seek it out in a secret nook of a far-flung fiber shop. We need not win a life lottery. We need not spend all our riches in acquiring it.

It is there for the taking – if we have the right combination of thoughts and attitudes to unlock it. It opens easily enough; it is how we view the contents that determines the wealth and abundance of them.

We need the wide-eyed optimism of a girl that, despite dreary surroundings, can still see wonder in the world. And doesn’t question the where and why for of happiness, but wraps herself in it like a cozy, hand-knit sweater.

Under the Big Sky

Apparently I’m drawn to morbid and depressing children’s books.  Save a sweep of the memoir section on our walk in, the children’s section is the only one I get a chance to truly explore while at the library.  So perhaps it is some deep-seated need for adult content even if it must come in child format.

Ironically, I try to keep my ‘child’ selections from my own children, keeping them with my books rather than their stack of picture books.  But if they look like ducks . . . my kids expect them to waddle like ducks and inevitably find them.

One such duck is Under the Big Sky by Trevor Romain.  The main character is sent on a journey by his grandfather, approaching the end of his years, to discover the secret of life.  If he does so, the boy will receive all of his grandfather’s riches.  Not a bad carrot to waddle after, and so, the boy sets off, querying objects, animals, and people as he goes.  The answers he collects are rich examples of metaphors, which present wonderfully teachable moments for young readers in trying to suss out both their literal and figurative meanings.

Understandably, there is no one easy or straightforward answer.  Expecting that there was one, the boy becomes discouraged.  He finally crosses the world and many years, searching.  Upon his return to his grandfather (who, honestly, I was surprised had not died by this point), he reports that he has not found the secret of life.

“But you did find it,” said his grandfather.  “Your journey itself was the secret of life.  And along the way you have learned everything you will need to enjoy a full and rich life.”

And so the boy does attain his grandfather’s riches; in fact, he had them all along.  As do all of us on this journey of life. Apparently it takes an adult reading of a child’s book to remember this.  Who knows?  Perhaps if children do read books like this, they will discover the secret sooner.

Bluebird

I hate books with sad endings.  But I love Bob Staake’s.

The Donut Chef is in heavy rotation in our house.  I cannot eat a donut without proclaiming, “There’s nothing quite like glazed, I think!”

So when I spied a new title, Bluebird, on prominent display in my child’s library at open house, I couldn’t resist removing it from its perch for a peek.  My first grader came home with it a few weeks later much to my delight.

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Every workshop on children’s writing I’ve attended, particularly those on picture books, says you must have a happy ending or at least end on a positive note of some sort.  Kids need to know they will prevail in some fashion.  Lately, I‘ve been finding many books that are heartbreaking!  After reading Bluebird, I have to say, my excitement in finding a new Staake book was quelled somewhat by the poignant moments at the end of it.

A lonely boy begins a new school year.  Two bullies have him pegged from the moment the class queues up outside.  After school, he heads in one direction, the rest of the children, the other.  He is all alone save the bluebird that has been quietly watching him all day – from tree branches and windowsills.  Immersed in his solitary confinement, he does not notice the bird flit along beside him, until she swoops in low over his head and engages him.  With a fun mixture of tag, hide-and-seek, and follow-the-leader, the two become friends as they move through the city.  These are the only times we see the boy smile.  As he floats a boat in the park, the bird perched upon its mast, drawing the attention and friendship of a nearby boy and girl, readers rejoice with the boy and finally relax.  He will be okay.  He has found happiness, even if one bright spot of it.

And then he passes under the bridge – where three bullies want not friendship, but his beloved toy boat.  At first, the bird hangs back, watching from atop the bridge.  I wanted the bird to rescue him, but the workshops have also taught me that protagonists need to solve problems for themselves.  Still, I was angry that his new friend was seemingly hanging him out to dry.  But when the situation turns dire and the boy truly needs him, she swoops in.  She blocks the blow the boy would’ve received from a stick thrown by the bullies, but sacrifices her own life in the process.  To their possibly redeeming credit, the bullies are appalled by the result of their actions.  A flurry of rainbow-hued birds lifts the boy and the bluebird into the sky for the spiritual denouement.

His friend dies?  He finally has someone that makes him smile and she’s dead?  This is not the gooey goodness of a glazed donut!  But it does adhere to that positive tenet of children’s literature: through the process of nurturing this friendship and finding what makes him happy, the boy can now fly on his own.  The bluebird has taught him how to find happiness on his own.

The plot of this book is riveting and transcendent.  What is astounding is that there is no narrative text whatsoever.  Staake tells this incredibly intricate and rich tale with nary a word.  It is a true testament to his amazing graphic skills.

This book may not have been what I was expecting, but happiness rarely is.  Bluebird joins Bob Staake’s catalog as another superb example of children’s literature.

First the Egg

My newly minted six year-old, about to enter first grade, chose this book from the bins at the library.

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I often wonder at her book selection process, as it seems to be hunt and peck, plucking a book after rifling through just a few.  Maybe something about the cover piques her interest, sometimes it’s one I later find out she’d read with her beloved kindergarten teacher – once, it was because it had the country Swaziland in the title, whose name sent her into peals of laughter the first time she heard it pronounced (no disrespect, Swaziland).  But most times, it seems she chooses a book simply because it seems as good as any other, with a shrug, an impatience with the process.

Whatever her motivation, First the Egg was a great choice.

Starting with a spin on the proverbial question of origin, First the Egg introduces and reinforces many important literacy skills.

Cause and effect, Sequencing, Prediction, Sight words/recognition for emerging/early readers, Parts of a Whole.

Graphically, it is a treat.  Cut-outs on each page hint at what comes next, further reinforcing prediction skills and creating excitement, anticipation for young readers.  Sequencing and staging of processes is reinforced as well, for on every ‘then’ page, there is an illustration in the middle of the phase.  For example, the egg hatching before the chicken appears on its own page.  My favorite, of course, is the Word > Story series.  So exciting to see all that typeface take shape into a story.

And my six year-old isn’t the only one who can read it.  My three year-old, after hearing it a few times from her sister, started “reading” it.  It most likely was memorization and parroting, but I can’t help but feel that she’s starting to put those patterns together.

Ironically, when I took a break from writing this post, my daughter told me that she had, indeed, read this in kindergarten.  So she may not be as brilliant as I thought in picking out this book, but maybe her teacher is!  And at least the lessons stuck with her.  Most importantly, the joy of a good book.

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