Feb 25, 2019

Dealing with Death: THE YELLOW SUITCASE

Death and grief are difficult experiences at any age. Even the youngest infants and toddlers experience disruptions to schedules and sense the emotional intensity radiated by family members in grief. 
School age children are developing awareness of the finality of death, feeling deeply the immediate loss of loved ones from daily life or from the matrix of extended family and memories. Discussions about death and loss at that age are challenging, at best, and often avoided rather than explored. That's why death-at-a-distance is particularly jarring for children. Picture books offer surprisingly powerful scaffolds on which important and necessary conversations can be built. 
Penny Candy Books, March 12, 2019

Many picture books rely on the comfort of animal characters, fables, or metaphorical tales to allow portrayals of death to move from the immediacy of personal sorrow into a safe zone, one at arm's length.
THE YELLOW SUITCASE, a debut offering from author Meera Sriram, was inspired by her own family's experience and confronts the subject directly. 
The pain Asha feels at her  grandma's death is complicated by the distance between their homes and the loving routine she had established when she traveled from California with her parents to visit in India every year. Asha has lugged her vibrant yellow suitcase back and forth each time. She brings it stuffed with special treats for her Grandma who, in return, fills that case with special surprises and remembrances when it was time for Asha to return home. 
Once they arrive at Grandma's home in India, Asha observes her family's grieving and remembrance rituals, smells the incense, notes familiar pictures, sorting the familiar from the unfamiliar. That process begins as soon as they arrive when Grandma's chair sits empty on the porch. Asha asks questions of her father, even though she knows the answers in her heart. 
The yellow suitcase becomes a symbol of unwelcome changes: the losses, the helplessness Asha feels, her emptiness. Only when it is time to return home does she realize that the suitcase has been filled with a special gift, a quilt Grandma made for Asha from the comforting fabric of her favorite saris. Only then is Asha able to spill her tears, gather Grandma's portrait, and carry with her the love that will never die.

This is a universal story with dynamic specificity in the illustrations, including a variety of two-dimensional art. On some pages it is sticker-like, on others somewhat surreal, and on others it is comfortingly familiar. Illustrator Meera Sethi's career encompasses design, textiles and clothing, and it shows. 
Asha is a character of nonspecific age, with a distinct sense of collage-like fashion. Although I found myself wanting Asha to be younger on my first read, I came to appreciate her potential strength in a preteen(?) identity, suggesting a developmental stage of deep emotion, firmly anchored memories, and cognitive capacity combined with a longing to regress, to NOT understand death. 
India is not named in the text, but iconic indicators throughout make that clear to adult readers or those with global awareness. For others the colors, images, and intensity will intrigue and encourage further investigation. This distinctive style, story, and setting are a welcome addition to picture book shelves. My "virtual" friend, author/publisher/entrepreneur Richa Jha, is a leading voice in picture book trends in India and I believe this book will be welcome there, too. I've featured Richa Jha's work in a prior post, HERE. As the world is shrinking I welcome the opportunity for our hearts to grow, to embrace global stories and styles. The Yellow Suitcase is a wonderful place to start.

It is available now for preorder and will officially release March 12. I was able to review an advance, untrimmed copy thanks to the publisher, PENNY CANDY BOOKS in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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