Rain pours outside; the wood stove hums; the dot is playing the lyrical, wandering imaginings of Yann Tiersen (he composed the music for Amelie); Merry, my oldest, toils over a practice AP History test as her friend bends her elegant head over her homework across the table from her; and I, my head wrapped in the cottonwool of a cold, am trying to focus my mind on Maria Popova‘s article on her blog, Brainpickings: Best Children’s Books of 2016.
What took me to the blog? Well, two things: first, it was hearing Popova on Krista Tippett’s On Being. Tippett calls Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age,” a mapmaker who, as she reads and collects wisdom from writers over centuries, sheds light on our current pathways. I like this description. A few minutes on Brainpickings, and my mind was flooded by quotes from philosophers, novelists, and great thinkers. . almost so much so that it began to throb (most likely this is because of the cold taking up residence in my body right now). But Popova is like the friend you would love to have at your dinner party, the one whose mind is spiderwebbed with wonderful quotations and apropos tidbits from literature and history. She bears, as Tippett says in the interview, a great quality of “intellectual confidence and generosity.”
Here is a gem from the interview:
I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. And critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. And I I try to live in this place between the two to try to build a life there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.
But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.
I love this reflection about cynicism and hope, resignation and action. I love being reminded that we have much choice in the matter, whatever our circumstances.
The other thing that steered me toward Popova? I was looking for more information on a fascinating picture book I stumbled across by Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, (Robert Moulthrop translated it into English): Cry Heart, but Never Break.
In his New York Times book review, Mark Levine writes: “Despite its icky title, “Cry, Heart, but Never Break,” a 2001 Danish work, is rich and affecting.” Death leaves his threatening tool of the trade–a sharp scythe–outside a cozy house and joins a group of children at the kitchen table. Upstairs, Grandma sleeps. She’s led a good life; she’s old; she’s ill. You know what’s coming, and so do the children. They hatch a plot to keep Death (who is likable and approachable, gentle and kind) from his designs on their grandmother, but to no avail. And in the end, it’s okay. They understand that death is part of life; they feel peace.
On the one hand, I admire Ringtved for tackling such a difficult, complex subject in such a simple way. As a parent, I’ve noted that a child doesn’t want a flowery answer to a difficult question; they want the truth. Like Vigo Mortensen’s character, Ben (a flawed, rather profane, but loving father) in the movie Captain Fantastic says after he has told his children the hard truth about their mother’s death: “I tell the truth to my kids. I don’t lie to my kids.”
But because of our culture and our own hangups, we sometimes find it hard to give the simple, hard answers. We attempt to save our children from ‘dwelling’ on subjects like death; we counter their questions and grief with “cheery” books that will “get their mind off things.” Note that it wasn’t a North American author who wrote Cry, Heart. Hardly a surprise–there is very little room in our market for what some would describe as a ‘maudlin’ book.
On the other hand, while I feel that I’d read this book to my children under normal, daily circumstances, I’m not sure I’d open it after a death of someone familiar and beloved. I wonder if the story simplifies grief or the weight of loss. Perhaps it’s telling that the character who dies in the book is an older person, someone who has already “lived a good, long life.” What if that person upstairs were a sibling, or a friend, or the children’s mother? Would the book suddenly seem unbearably simple?
There are few picture books to chose from that talk about death (especially death of humans–there seems to be a good selection for discussion dying pets), though, even for the smallest children, families often encounter and experience death.
I like Patricia Polacco‘s Uncle Vova’s Tree, which celebrates family, tradition, and love. I recently read a reader review that said “Loved it until the end.” Well, that’s because Uncle Vova dies at the end. His family carries on his beloved traditions after his death, to honor and remember him.
A friend recently put me onto City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems (of popular Elephant and Piggie), illustrated by the amazing Jon J. Muth (I adore his work in Come on, Rain! by Karen Hesse). In the book, City Dog and Country Frog form a fast and lasting friendship–but then one day when Dog runs to find his friend, Frog isn’t there. From the Children’s Book Review: The brilliance of the story is its simplicity; no long explanations are needed to explain the frog’s absence. A younger child may think the frog went to another rock. An older child may quickly understand that the frog has passed away. Whatever the level of the child’s understanding, City Dog, Country Frog introduces the concept of loss with perfect grace (Children’s Book Review, May 12, 2016).
In the realm of novels, there’s Charlotte’s Web–unsurpassed, as far as I’m concerned–as well as Bridge to Terabithia and others. But what about other picture books? I came across this article by Thom Barthelmess, who, despite the fact that “sad books are more difficult to find in the picture book canon, amidst the boisterous alphabets and sunny barnyards and irreverent pigeons,” has put together a good list to chose from, including Today and Today: “G. Brian Karas knits together a sampling of haiku from eighteenth-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, using the poems to adorn a pictorial narrative of one family’s loss of a grandparent.”
We’re big fans of Issa; the haiku he wrote after the death of his daughter has clung to me for years, illustrating in three tight lines the tension between material and spiritual, letting-go and holding-on of loved ones:
This dewdrop world–
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .
From Issa, then, we understand the world is beautiful, and that beauty is fleeting (and yet. . .)
Perhaps what I am looking for most in a picture book about death is best put in Popova’s own words–I desire to encounter hope, laid out in a critical, wise, gentle way–hope that is not naive.
So I will close with a personal and family favorite by Barbara Cooney, Miss Rumphius, which isn’t really about death at all, but about what it means to live a good life (the two are linked closely, I believe). Perhaps, as I’ve ruminated on this subject, this book keeps emerging because while Miss Rumphius does not actually die, she is recovering from an illness, and the climax of the book comes when, in the shadow of mortality, she spreads beauty in the form of flower seeds–a legacy for future generations.
What Cooney accomplishes in this book is immense–she follows a woman’s life from childhood to old age and leaves all her readers, young and old, with the question that Mary Oliver asks in her wonderful poem, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
*Update: I’ve received additional suggestions of picture books that deal with death via FB and will post them in the comments section. Please continue to share your findings with me! Thank you!