Three Books about Death for Children

Death is not one of those topics that’s easy to talk about. Luckily, three uber-talented children’s book authors have tackled the subject beautifully & calmly.

For the youngest ones: Death, Duck, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
(recommended for ages 7 and under)

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, cover

Although I haven’t read the English edition, I still adore this book. The illustrations are charming, simple, and tender, and from what I can tell, so is the text. The storyline is basic: death befriends a duck, accompanies her throughout life, and eventually mourns her passing.

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 4

Although his head is a skull, Death looks childlike and even friendly thanks to his short stature and checkered outfit. He and Duck hold a series of basic philosophical conversations which seem to reassure Duck that Death is the natural complement to life.

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 2

I should mention that although Wolf Erlbruch was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2006 for his lifelong contributions to children’s literature, Death, Duck, and the Tulip, which was published three years later in 2009, is probably his most acclaimed book. Not everyone would consider it a book for children. Guardian writer Meg Rosoff compared Erlbruch’s thematic focus and tone to those of Shaun Tan, a well regarded, but controversial, children’s books author. Personally, the sparse, existential approach to death and life in Erlbruch’s picture book reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. 

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 6

For a more thorough review of Death, Duck, and the Tulip, check out LightLit’s blog.

For the slightly older ones: Can you Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark
(recommended for ages 8-12)

Can You Whistle, Johanna - cover

This book had me crying for a good 15 minutes. It is achingly sad, sweet, and lovely all at the same time. Like many of the best books, it has been received not without controversy outside of its country of origin, Sweden. It deals frankly with the issue of death; in this book, death is not a metaphorical relationship between an animal and an abstraction, but rather affects a young boy profoundly.

Can You Whistle, Johanna - adopting the grandfather

Berra is jealous because his friend Uffe has a grandfather, and he does not. Uffe suggests that Berra could easily “adopt” a grandfather at the nearby senior citizens’ home. This is precisely what they do.

…[W]e both go in and Berra hands [the old man] the flower.
‘There you go, Grandfather,’ he says.
The old man looks first at the flower, and then at Berra. He starts scratching his thin white hair.
‘What?’ he asks, ‘Am I your grandfather?’
‘Yes,’ Berra says with a smile. ‘And now here I am. It sort of hasn’t been possible for me to come see you before.’
The old man gives Berra a hug.
‘Look at how big you’ve gotten!’ he says, and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. ‘How old are you now?’
‘Seven,’ says Berra.
‘Well, I’ll be darned,’ says the old man. ‘Here I was feeling all alone, and then you come along.’

The elderly man, Nils, happily becomes Berra’s grandfather. He flies kites with Berra and Uffe, invites them to drink coffee, and, best of all, teaches Berra how to whistle. The book is complex in that it not only deals with death in a loving and comprehensible way, but also demonstrates that the deepest familial relationships are not necessarily biological. The process of adopting a grandfather may seem simple, but it’s actually quite profound: both Berra and Nils were in need of a specific kind of fulfillment, and they selected the familial equivalent to describe their intergenerational friendship.

Predictably, Nils grows increasingly senile and finds it difficult to complete everyday tasks. His appreciation of and affection for Berra never wanes, though.

Can You Whistle, Johanna - grandfather's birthday

When the ending inevitably arrives, Berra is crushed. But he is nonetheless enriched by the experience of getting to know his not-so-pretend grandfather. The ultimate lesson is less about how to cope with death, and more about the realization that the more a person is mourned, the greater an effect they had on their loved ones while they were alive.

For the even older ones: Harvey: How I Became Invisible by Hervé Bouchard and Janice Nadeau
(recommended for ages 11+)

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau

A slow, bleak zooming in, moving from gray, snow-swept landscape to a huddle of small houses, a dusty car, a small boy on a bike. So begins Harvey, narrated, in diary-like form, by a boy of the same name. We are briefly introduced to Harvey’s brother, Cantin, with whom Harvey has a resentful relationship — Cantin is young, but significantly taller, and Harvey hates being small. Harvey’s mother, on the other hand, has an antagonistic relationship with the weather and a fondness for damning everything.

Harvey - bike

“But this time of first spring is also the time for the races in the gutters. And it’s also the time when Cantin and I lost our Father Bouillon. And it’s the time when I became invisible. So there are lots of things to tell.”

Harvey recounts his father’s death with a soft sadness, a lonely detachment, almost as though he is watching himself move through the events instead of being present to witness them. The somber illustrations, cast in a muted color palette of browns, light blues, and ochre, underline the sorrowful text, as does the shape of the text itself. The handwriting is deliberately neat, in all caps, with occasional eraser marks that show how Harvey struggled to tell the story. A bell-shaped priest offers little comfort; all of the neighbors shamefully watch as Harvey’s father is rolled away in an ambulance.

Harvey - ambulance

The illustrations almost seem like they are fading away before your eyes, much like Harvey’s happiness. Their house is no longer a house, but a black box in which the three unhappy residents — mother, Harvey, and brother — are doomed to wait out their sorrow. Harvey further conveys his hopelessness through a retelling of the film The Incredible Shrinking Man. Just as Scott Carey shrinks in the movie, so does Harvey’s sense of self shrink in the face of the tragedy. While attending his father’s wake, Harvey disappears within the pain. Late at night, the memory of his past life keeps Harvey awake.

Harvey - bed

Is this an uplifting book? No. But it’s very simple. And sometimes, when talking about something as empty as death, simple is all that you can deal with. The book doesn’t end on a false note of happiness, nor does it suggest that happiness is the natural state to which Harvey should return. Instead, the story ends in the middle of Harvey’s sadness, a powerful argument for the utility of mourning. Furthermore, the book is completely devoid of condescension, a quality that, by itself, marks it as a work of quiet dignity, a seemingly private story to which even I could relate.

Full biographical details:

Ages 7 and under: Death, Duck, and the Tulip written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch. Translated from the German by Catherine Chidgey. Available in English from Gecko Press

Ages 8-12: Can You Whistle, Johanna? written by Ulf Stark and illustrated by Anna Höglund. Translated from the Swedish by Julia Marshall. Available in English from Gecko Press.

Ages 11 and up: Harvey: How I Became Invisible written by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. Translated from the French by Helen Mixter. Available in English from Groundwood Books.



A Trio of Hikes in Whangarei

We spent a week Whangarei, New Zealand’s northernmost major city, which admittedly might have been a little generous considering its most famous landmark is the Clock Museum. Nonetheless, Whangarei (like everywhere in New Zealand) is surrounded by forests and nature reserves, so we spent a significant chunk of our time there hiking.

Our first venture was a 2-hour hike through Tangihua Forest, which is accessible only after driving past hills filled with grazing sheep, a long gravel road, and an easy-to-miss brown sign. Because we got a late start, we opted for a more modest trail, the Whakapono Track, though we encountered a father and son who had nearly completed the longest path.

Tangihua Forest, Whakapono Track

Tangihua is a good example of what New Zealand’s northern forests look like. They contain an eclectic mix of palms, ferns, conifers, shrubs, moss, and flowering plants. Because it rains frequently and the temperature rarely dips below freezing, the forests are lush, verdant, and brimming with all shades of green.

Tangihua Forest, outside of Whangarei

What’s more, because the vegetation is so dense, it’s almost impossible to detect noise from the surrounding farms. Apart from your own rustling footsteps, the only other sounds are the countless chortling calls from the birds living among the trees. In fact, there’s not much else in the way of wildlife in New Zealand’s forests; no snakes, no large mammals, and barely any poisonous insects. I’m still surprised and pleased each time I remember can walk through tall grass without fear.


Our next day trip was to Tutukaka for the Lighthouse Walk along the coast. It was absolutely stunning. It’s a relatively short walk, but don’t be deceived — the steep ascent to the lighthouse is certainly a workout!

After a quick walk across the Tutukaka headland, there’s a sharp descent to the beach that separates the mainland from Kukutauwhao Island, where the lighthouse is located.


We paused for a few minutes to take in the beach and miniature harbor, which was filled with the most gorgeous azure-blue water.


From there, we continued along the ascending slope to the “lighthouse,” which didn’t look exactly how I’d pictured. It’s basically just a lamp stuck on top of a white box, but, impressively, it’s powered entirely by solar panels.


The surrounding views, however, were spectacular.



We took our time on the way back, stopping to sit at one of the many wooden benches to drink in the views.


On the drive back to Whangarei, we stopped for takeaway fish ‘n’ chips in the cute little town of Ngunguru and had to defend our dinner from pesky seagulls. It was a day well spent!

Our final hike in Whangarei was also the longest, and certainly the most challenging. It’s the hike that finally convinced me that I needed a decent pair of hiking boots — my Asics just weren’t cutting it!

Pukenui Forest has two lengthy trails clocking in at 8.2 and 8.9 kilometers, respectively. We opted for the shorter and less steep trail, the Pukenui Forest Loop. If you decide to hike in Pukenui Forest, be mindful of the fact that the trailhead is accessed after passing through 3-4 fields that may or may not be filled with grazing cows and sheep!

fields on the way to Pukenui Forest trailhead

If we thought that our hike through Tangihua Forest was immersive, then our four-hour journey through Pukenui transported us to another dimension. It felt as though we had traveled back millennia to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. We were the only hikers in the entire forest, and the immense ferns, birds, and kauri trees, combined with the root-strewn path and babbling streams, made for a primordial experience.

Pukenui Forest, gully tree ferns

Pukenui Forest

stream in Pukenui Forest

Like all of the forest areas we’ve seen, Pukenui was brimming with ferns. Most noticeable were the tall and slender black-trunked gully tree ferns, which dominate the following photo. Anytime you looked up, your view of the sky was mediated by radiating branches.

Pukenui Forest, gully tree ferns

Apart from the ferns, the most common resident of the forest was the enormous, slightly iridescent wood pigeon, which flapped loudly as it flew from tree to tree.

Four hours, two granola bars, and 5 miles later, we emerged from the forest just as the sun started to set. The hills and fields were lit by crepuscular rays. It was the perfect, magical close to our strenuous hike through an unbelievable forest.

sunset outside Pukenui Forest

Photo credits: All taken by me with an iPhone 4s standard camera, with the exception of the photos from the Tutukaka Lighthouse Walk, which were taken by G. on a Nikon D5100. 

‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

I got a good deal on this book — $5 for a brand new, remaindered paperback with a pretty, minimalistic design from this lovely place. The Orion Publishing Group reissued twenty books with freshly designed covers to celebrate their 20th anniversary, so if you’re keen to have a set of classic, matching books, then you might check them out

The reader, close, bench

But onto the book. It was better than I expected, especially since I didn’t like the movie adaptation all that much, but still left me somewhat disappointed. I enjoyed part one the most, in which a 15-year-old German boy named Michael strikes up a sexually-charged relationship with Hanna Schmitz, several years his elder at age 36. Michael is slightly mature for his age; Hanna, energetic and capricious, so they make a good, if conflicted, match. It’s clear that Michael is narrating the story after several years of rumination and acquired wisdom, but the first section doesn’t have the pompous style that sometimes arises from past tense mode. As you can imagine, Michael is deeply affected after becoming severely enamored and involved with someone decades older, and lacks the experience to stand up to Hanna when she behaves unreasonably. However, despite the frenetic and fractured tone of their relationship, I still found myself rooting for Hanna and Michael. That alone, I think, marks a great accomplishment from Bernhard Schlink.

I was also surprised by how much I liked the writing style. The story is relayed in a direct and somewhat simple manner, with occasional, brief asides that enhance rather than detract from the main plot. One such aside is the observations Michael makes about his father’s demeanor towards his family:

Sometimes I had the feeling that all of us in his family were like pets to him. The dog you take for a walk, the cat you play with and that curls up in your lap, purring, to be stroked — you can be fond of them, you can even need them to a certain extent, and nonetheless the whole thing — buying pet food, cleaning up the cat box, and trips to the vet — is really too much. (p. 28)

I’ve seen a lot of people behave this way over the years, though I never found a way to articulate it. I think it’s especially risky for the primary provider of a family to unconsciously lapse into this kind of behaviour because of the close association between money and ownership in Western philosophy. Families are downgraded from social units to financial ones.

Bernhard Schlink is also quite good at capturing an adolescent boy’s perspective, which surprised me as I think that most people have a hard time remembering what it’s like to be young after a certain point. Michael is plagued the types of questions you’d expect to arise over the course of a complicated relationship characterized by a huge age difference between the two participants. But he also benefits from being sexually active with an older woman, especially in terms of confidence and bodily awareness. Although Michael raises and considers many important questions, he never overanalyzes or reaches concrete solutions.

The Reader, avocado tree

Then, for seemingly no reason, Hanna disappears near the end of part one. Michael is devastated, but eventually learns to live with himself — or so he thinks. He pushes thoughts of their relationship to a dark corner in his mind, earnestly trying to forget.

It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you? (p. 86)

As luck would have it, Michael’s decision to pursue a law degree means that he encounters Hanna again, seven years later, as a student observer in a courtroom. Thus begins part two of this three-act novel. It turns out that Hanna was a Nazi and responsible for hundreds of lives lost at the concentration camp where she worked as a guard and during the subsequent death march. Hanna is unusually truthful, unlike the other defendants on trial for the same crimes, and quickly becomes cast as the instigator. She is pegged as the author of a report that describes the guards’ criminal activities in detail — and this is when Michael, a silent, stunned spectator, suddenly realizes that Hanna is illiterate. During their relationship, Hanna would ask Michael to read to her, anything and everything. Michael is horrified when he learns that Hanna selected girls at the concentration camp to read to her in exchange for lighter workloads or other special treatments. Although it means she will receive a harsher sentence, Hanna is too proud to admit that she cannot read, and therefore could not have written the damning report. Michael grapples with whether he should inform the judge and affect Hanna’s fate, but ultimately decides not to.

While Hanna is on trial for her Nazi crimes, so is Michael, and, by extension, the rest of Germany. Bernhard Schlink’s treatment of the post-WWII guilt in Germany, the generational divide and incredulousness with which children regarded the crimes of their parents and elders, is superb. Reflected in the fractured relationship between the naive, 15-year-old Michael and the uneducated, proud, and reticent 36-year-old Hanna is a huge chunk of the country’s collective residual guilt from the Holocaust. Can Michael be held accountable for Hanna’s sins, even though he knew nothing of her former life? How could he possibly have loved, and still love, someone capable of such brutality? Michael visits the concentration camp in an effort to understand, but does not find enlightenment:

At first I was embarrassed to wander home through the Alsatian villages looking for a restaurant where I could have lunch. But my awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp. (p. 154)

These ambiguities comprise the bulk of part two of this novel. At the end of the trial, Hanna is unsurprisingly sentenced to life in prison, and Michael again tries in vain to forget her.

The Reader, leafy, bench

Part three is where the book gets significantly weaker. I wish it had ended after part two; I found it unrealistic that Michael would allow a year-long relationship from his youth to ruin him emotionally for the rest of his life. Bernhard Schlink developed an apt metaphor for Germany’s post-WWII guilt, but eventually stretched it too far. It was all summed up a little too neatly, a little too predictably, a little too tragically. After all, moral ambivalence was the strongest aspect of the book, so was it really necessary to recount everything so thoroughly until the bitter end?

On the whole, I still recommend this book, especially since I think it’s significantly better than most books that become hugely popular. It’s thoughtful and well-written, but not groundbreaking, and makes for a calm read on a rainy day. Isn’t that odd, a calm novel about the memory of the Holocaust? But there it is.

Overall rating: 3.5/5 stars

Favorite Posts from Aug + Sept

In the runup to my dash to New Zealand, I got severely behind on reading others’ blogs. But it’s raining today and the Wifi signal at this Airbnb location is strong, so here are my top picks from the months of August and September.

Return of the Infidel | Carrying the Gun

Don Gomez from Carrying the Gun has been publishing a lot of great posts lately, but I especially enjoyed his mini-lecture on the use of the word “infidel” among American soldiers deployed to the Middle East. He makes it clear why the word doesn’t belong anywhere near the military.

The Scottish Highlands, Junk Food, and Structuralism | Rottin' in Denmark

In another of his excellent photo essays, Michael Hobbes considers why Scotland is plagued by such high levels of overweight and obesity, while Danes living just across the North Sea are, on average, very fit and in good health.

Dirk's Film School: Sounds | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative

Dirk Malcolm runs an informative series on his blog called “Dirk’s Film School.” The latest installment, “Sound,” covers the history of acoustics in film. Previous entries have considered tracking shots, point-of-view, close-ups, and the chase sequence.

A Pen & Oink interview with Dan Santat: The making of Beekle

In an absolutely fascinating and thorough interview, Robin from Pen & Oink discussed the children’s book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend with its creator Dan Santat. Read the transcript to learn about Santat’s unique illustration technique, as well as the lengthy creative revision & editing process.

This Post is Not Safe for Work | I Am Begging My Mother Not to Read This Blog

The ever-snarky Katherine from I Am Begging My Mother Not to Read This Blog wrote an uproarious post revealing how she messed with a ridiculous marketing rep who wanted to place an, ahem, sexual advertisement on her blog. Warning: true to its title, the post contains some graphic images!

Asian Herbs & Vegetables | Ngan Made IT

The lovely Ngan put together a very helpful and picture-filled post about common Asian herbs & vegetables. I certainly learned a lot, and have bookmarked the post for future reference!

Five Indispensable Read Alouds for Boys

Read Aloud Picture Books put together a list of five books that kindergarten-aged boys enjoy based on real classroom testing. Of course, the girls enjoyed the books, too!

Abandoned Mansion | Forgotten NZ

The premise of Abandoned New Zealand is simple: the photographer behind the blog seeks out decrepit and decaying structures, then immortalizes their loneliness in the form of blog posts. I especially loved this post featuring an enormous abandoned mansion in an Auckland suburb.

Finally, I wanted to congratulate Anna of Film Grimoire for reaching the one-year blogging milestone! She’s even got a snazzy new header to celebrate. I look forward to continuing to read her critical & insightful film reviews and having hearty discussions in the comments section!

P.S. All photos are screenshots from each author’s blog.


An Afternoon in Devonport

Everyone we talked to in Auckland told us we had to spend a day in Devonport. After several rainy days, we finally got our chance. We hopped onto the ferry, and a short ten minutes later we were strolling through the quaint seaside town.

Devonport, NZ

Devonport is located on the tip of a peninsula that extends into the Waitemata Harbour, meaning that the ocean is visible just about everywhere you walk. Because New Zealand is located at a relatively low latitude, its climate resembles that of the British Isles, not Fiji or other Southern Pacific outposts. As a result, Devonport is reminiscent of a New England fishing village combined with the laid-back California coast.

Seaside architecture | Devonport

Sidewalk | Devonport

It’s all hills, beautiful houses, flowering sidewalks, and little stores. Seriously, the architecture had me gasping. Lavender and ivy line the streets; even the fire station is adorable. It’s definitely the most charming part of Auckland that I’ve seen, and I suspect many locals would say the same.

Devonport fire station

Like everywhere in New Zealand, you don’t realize how small Devonport is until you’re walking through it. We made it to Mt. Victoria, one of Devonport’s most famous landmarks, without even meaning to. The path, though, was slightly hard to find.

Red house | Devonport

We walked 3/4 of the way around the mountain, passed a unique-looking red house, sniffed some more lavender, and finally spotted a sign that appeared to lead up someone’s driveway.

Path to Mt. Victoria | Devonport

Hint: you do have to walk up someone’s driveway. But at the end there’s a wooden stairway lined with delicately drooping white flowers. The walk to the summit was gorgeous — all of the slopes were covered with those elegant little flowers.

White flowers | Mt Victoria

On the southern side of the mountain was an elementary school. We saw a mom stop by to pick up her son. Can you imagine?! Walking up a mountain every day to drop off your kid at school? Such is life in New Zealand.

Hike up Mt. Victoria | Devonport

It’s a pretty easy walk, especially considering the views you’re afforded at the top.

from Mt. Victoria | Devonport

I’ll take this opportunity to wax lyrical again about the preponderance of tiled roofs in New Zealand. Juxtaposed with palm trees and a glittering harbour, the aesthetic is simply lovely!

View from Mt. Victoria | Devonport

It was also possible, of course, to see several islands from the top of Mt. Victoria — most notably Rangitoto Island, most of which is comprised of a scenic reserve.

view from Mt. Victoria | Devonport

There are also some things that you wouldn’t expect to find at the top of a mountain, including a field of metallic mushrooms…

Mushrooms! @ Mt. Victoria

And a folk music club. Of course there’s a local music organization that holds its concerts in a tiny concrete structure at the top of the mountain, of course.

The Bunker | Devonport, NZ

Predictably, you also get a nice view of the Auckland skyline.

Auckland from Mt. Victoria

After we stumbled back down the mountain, we were in serious need of nourishment and stopped at Corelli’s cafe to enjoy a remarkably delicious penne pasta, crispy shoestring fries, and an absolutely enormous brownie. The prices were quite reasonable, and I definitely recommend Corelli’s mismatched chairs and cheerful ambiance if you happen to find yourself in Devonport.

Corelli's | Devonport, NZ

Then we just wandered through the little shopping center, unwilling to get back on the ferry until after the sun had set.

Blue car | Devonport

Lavender, hill | Devonport

Bookmark had a promising selection of used books, but unfortunately the used book prices in New Zealand are more than I’d normally pay for brand-new paperbacks. Nevertheless, it’s another store I can recommend based on quality of merchandise.

Bookmark | Devonport, NZ

This wouldn’t be a proper post about Devonport without mentioning that Lorde grew up in this suburb. She played some of her first shows at the Victoria Cinema, which is located just a few meters away from Corelli’s. “No postcode envy,” my ass! Devonport is nothing but lovely.

Yacht & chain | Devonport

I may have only spent an afternoon in Devonport, but I could have happily continued to wander through its winding streets if not for the impending rain, oncoming chill, and lure of a hot cup of tea.

Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, and 19 by GvL. Remainder by me.