Jul 23, 2016

Is DEATH a Taboo Subject? Hard Conversations Continue

In the previous post  I featured two titles that open hard conversations about trauma and racism. If you had time to explore one or both you may have discovered that the right picture books, shared in a trusting environment, can allow even the youngest readers/listeners to explore and find comfort in the midst of stressful events and news. These shared experiences can be invaluable to adults as well, and to every age in between.

But there must be some minimal age at which certain subject are taboo, right? You know, TABOO. As in:"an inhibition or ban resulting from social custom or emotional aversion"\
If so, certainly DEATH would be that subject, and it would take more than a picture book to open  that conversation, right?
If you find yourself among those who share that view, I hope you'll shelve your opinion just long enough to take a closer look at these amazing picture books.

Enchanted Lion Books, 2016
Start with CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK, written by Glenn Ringtved and illustrated by Charlotte  Pardi. This Danish import addresses the concept of impending death of a loved one with the blunt and honest directness of Leah, the youngest, as she stares directly into the eyes of Death on the opening pages. 
End papers often provide a clue as to the mood or theme of a picture book, but in this case they puzzled me until I reached the story-in-a-story, told by the Visitor/Death. At that point they made perfect sense, representing the delicate balance between all of life's emotions, even it's extremes. Death is unapologetic and yet reassuring that, as the title indicates, life endures and hears can bear grief, growing stronger and more living in the process. The patience, grace, and manner of Death in this picture book make it an ideal choice to launch a group study of the narrator in THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak, with older readers.
Update- This title won the ALA Youth Media Awards Mildred L. Batchelder Award for an outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States. Click above to view the list of this and all other award winners. 

Tundra Books, 2015
Next, take a careful look at BUG IN A VACUUM by Melanie WattThis has to be one of the most unexpected picture books anyone will read, and yet it makes perfect sense on many levels. How Watt managed to conceive of this analogy is hard to imagine. She created an extended and complex story with parallel characters, a flat and muted palette, and very mature content yet manages to be totally kid-friendly, appealing, and funny. 
Here's what i said about it earlier this year during the Cybils evaluation:
Bug in a Vacuum by author/illustrator Mélanie Watt is an unusual and valuable picture book. Speech-bubbled, pun-packed reflections tell the titled story when Bug is sucked into a vacuum. Underlying that is a simultaneous story of a dog and his lost toy, told in subtle wordless images. 
Cleverly embedded text throughout the double-page spreads label the stages-of-grief, mirroring Bug's and dog's various attempts at coping with loss. Muted, mixed media illustrations merge these complex narratives seamlessly in a triple-layered story. It has much to offer children of all ages — and I do mean all. 
The witty commentary and humorous illustrations of Bug, rife with wordplay and visual metaphors, propel the story above and beyond the grief and loss references. Instead, readers will engage with bug's dilemma, dog's subtext, and breathe a sigh of relief at satisfying, surprising conclusions. 
This quirky offering by the author of Scaredy Squirrel presents a darker vibe and fills 96 pages, but it shares the ability to generate laughs, provoke thoughtful discussion, inspire meaningful questions, and draw children in for multiple readings. 

Perhaps we (as adults) could all benefit from more time spent reading and discussing picture books among ourselves. Only then, when we've decided we have plumbed the depths and have all the answers should we read them to and with young people, remaining silent while they consider and question and prove to us that we have only scratched the surface. 
Then, instead of wondering if some subjects are too intense for the very young, we'd realize that they are only too intense for those who have grown too old to listen.

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