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.



Pomp and Snark: Drawings by Svjetlan Junaković

*click images to view full size

One needs no further proof of Croatian illustrator Svjetlan Junaković’s industriousness than the following photo:

books in studio
image source: dossier on Junaković’ prepared by the Croatian section of IBBY for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Jury

Granted, some of these are translated editions. But still!

I can’t read a single word of Croatian, but Junaković’s books still made me laugh out loud. I will get to the hilarious stuff, but first, here are two examples of Junaković”s technique:

Tesla, cover
Nikola Tesla: Snovi koji su nam donijeli struju (Nikola Tesla: the dreams that brought us electricity) by Vera Vujović

A glance at Tesla’s abbreviated bio reveals that in addition to being known as the brilliant inventor of, among other things, the Tesla coil, he was also perceived as a “mad scientist.” In the United States, we tend to white-wash inventors (among other things), but Junaković’s pastiche-like take on Tesla’s life–and madness–takes the young reader on an educational, and refreshingly topsy-turvy, ride.

Next is the darling and clever Pequeño gran mundo (“Small big world”), which luckily for me is available in Spanish! All of the poems are delightful, but the following was one of my favorites:

Pequeno gran mundo, image

Here is my approximate, and imperfect, translation:

“The Sheep and the Mouse”
Why don’t sheep have wool on their feet?
At times it gets very, very cold, and it is almost impossible
to find socks for a sheep.
But luckily, they have so much wool that
thanks to the help of a good friend, their feet never get cold. 

Riddles are almost always better in the original Spanish; there’s just something about the language that’s inherently more playful than English, and I think even a non-speaker can sense that if he or she reads the original text.

But where Junaković really shines is in his sarcastic take on fine art. In Ti racconto L’Arte del ‘900 (“Let me tell you about the Art of the 900s”), for example, Junaković introduces kids to famous 20th-century artists by reinterpreting and subtly mocking their work. Below is a typical page focused on Renee Magritte. I didn’t have time to write down all of the translated text as presented in the dossier, but I do remember that Junaković took substantial liberties when recounting each artist’s biography, their careers, and the meanings of each of their works–all to hilarious effect!

Ti racconto L'arte, image 2

Which leads me to my favorite book, both written and illustrated, by Svjetlan Junaković: “The Big Book of Classical Animal Portraits.”

Das grose buch, cover
Das große Buch der klassischen Tierporträts, translated from Croatian to German by Alida Bremer

Do you recognize Scarlett Johansson Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring?” But this is no girl–nay, it is a modest, young female sheep. According to Junaković:

“this painting represents a masterpiece in art portraiture of the 17th century…it portrays a beautiful sheep with a blue turban gazing softly… Due to the immense popularity of this painting, the model chose to remain anonymous in order to retain her privacy. Even today in the region where the painting originates it is said that ‘one has the charming gaze like the sheep with the pearl earring.'”
-translated to English by Nikolina Jovanovic

The fun has only begun.

No longer is La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat), the famous painting of the murdered French revolutionary, a solemn affair. Junaković subverts artist Jacques Louis David’s classical masterpiece by substituting a chicken for the dashing and unfortunate Jean-Paul Marat.

Das gros buch, image 4

“Dying in the bathroom isn’t a rarity. Dying by the hand of your lover, even less so, but to allow oneself to be portrayed whilst dead in the bath – that’s surely a rarity! Precisely this bizarre theme, just as the unusual technique of the painting, classify this portrait amongst the most vital of Neo-Classical paintings. What more to say than the line between perfectionism and death is very fine.”
-Reimagined by Junaković, and translated to English by Nikolina Jovanovic

It goes on and on, each painting and description more ridiculous than the last. The book shatters the pretentiousness of fine art, while simultaneously taking a more sophisticated approach to the overdone “animal story” for children. The result is a book that delights children and adults alike.

For more information about Svjetlan Junaković, visit his website. (P.S. Apparently some of Junaković’s books are available in English as part of the “Animagicals” series).

A reminder, as always, that this is part of a series I’m doing on outstanding illustrators nominated for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. I’ve still got two more illustrators to feature before the winner is announced on Monday, March 24! Click the permanent link to “Children’s Literature” in the right side panel to view previous entries.