Book Bites: Love and Loss in Picture Books
I am a staunch believer in normalising life and keeping it as real as possible for kids. I endeavour to present these convictions through my own picture books, daring to tackle subjects that many adults may argue have no place in picture books. Yet as these superb examples demonstrate, desperately hard to accept subjects, namely loss and grief can be beautifully dealt with in ways that enlighten, embrace and evoke calm. Love and loss are irrevocably linked. They represent life. What better topic for small humans to encounter in picture books?
Lynn Jenkins and Kirrili Lonergan’s Lessons of Lac series is handful of simply executed but powerful exposes into the lives of the LACs (aka Little Anxious Creatures) and the Calmsters (aka their friends who counterbalance concerns with gentle advice and abundant support). In this episode, Loppy the LAC relies on a giant Tree as a place to practise mindfulness and entreat calm especially when he is worried or upset, like before taking a test. Tree is tall and steadfast, non-judgemental and reassuring, always there like a friend but one day, Loppy and his Calmster friend, Curly notice Tree’s decline as she nears the end of her life. Distraught and filled with sadness at the impending loss of his friend and special place of refuge, Loppy wallows in grief until he, Curly and the rest of village unite, spending each of Tree’s last days with her; hugging her, reading to her, bestowing her with gifts and just sitting quietly by her.
Tree focuses on the grief of losing someone even before they are gone. Those feelings of loss may amount to abandonment and confusion born from an inability to reverse the inevitable. Loss is unavoidable and presents in many forms: the loss of a pet, family member, cherished friend or thing. These feelings are real and indisputible even in very young children. Books like Tree allow youngsters to recognise these feelings and process them in tender surroundings. It encourages them to commemorate a loved one’s life and prepare for endings which like sunsets, may still be beautiful no matter how painful. Tree is a useful resource for guiding youngsters through the odyssey of grief.
A Gentle Story of Love and Loss
Author: Lynne Jenkins
Illustrator: Kirrili Lonergan
Publisher: EK Books, $19.99
Publication Date: February 2020
For ages: 4 – 8
Type: Picture Book
The aftermath of death can be as overwhelming as the loss itself. And while a picture book entitled, The Funeral may at first seem confronting and incongruous with the general acceptance of books suitable for young children, closer examination shows how this story is perfectly attune with the workings and understanding of young minds. I applaud its boldness and embrace its artful sensitivity.
Norma is aware she has lost a cherished family member, her great-uncle Frank. She misses him too but when she is told she has a day off school for his funeral, she rejoices. No amount of sad-face-practising can diminish her happiness because she gets to spend the whole day with her favourite cousin, Ray. On the way to the funeral, she wonders at the solemnness of it all; Uncle Frank was ancient after all, right?
The funeral service is unbearably long and tedious, utterly unkid-friendly and Norma endures by finding comfort in the smell of her mother’s purse and watching Ray suffer several toilet breaks. Amidst the drone of religious talk, there is little said about Frank. There is food and refreshments for the taking. A coffin buried under flowers and framed photographs goes nowhere; a clash of so much familiarity in the strangest of environments that Norma struggles to understand. She repairs to the cemetery outside to play with Ray and together they enjoy an afternoon of adventure and discovery. And then, late in the afternoon, as the adults hug their goodbyes, Norma announces the one certainty she has of the day, that Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral.
Matt James’ narrative and stunning artwork compel the reader to experience what many of us prefer to avoid, attending a funeral. Norma’s responses to everything she sees smells and feels that day are unfiltered and genuine. The very essence of being alive pulses through everything that she does and says, spilling across the pages in striking swaths of textured colour; notable paradoxes to the emotions that the adults are exhibiting. Collages of blossoms bloom in the trees about the churchyard. They go unnoticed by the funeral-goers yet they blaze with colour and joy like love hearts drawn by a child. It is this intoxicating perspective from a child’s point of view that allows children and adults to relate to this story about death with joy and soothing acceptance and proves that serious subjects need not be avoided in (young) children’s literature.
Author: Matt James
Illustrator: Matt James
Publisher: Affirm Press, $24.99
Publication Date: July 2019
For ages: 3 – 7
Type: Picture Book
This gentle picture book examines grief and loss from a child's point of view, peeling back the layers of emotional responsibility they may encounter following the loss of someone especially close to them, namely, a parent. Lucy's endeavour to assist a small flightless sparrow find its wings again is full of tender parallels (it's just she and her dad after the loss of her mother) but ends in failure, underpinning the main theme that not everything that breaks can be fixed.
As the author of the picture book, The Fix-It Man, this is a notion I wholly embrace and encourage young readers to explore; that death is permanent. It can’t be undone. It can’t be avoided but with patience, love and time, it can be better understood. I applaud picture books that address this very real part of life. Author illustrator, Jess McGeachin uses a colour palette that is neither too sombre nor too bright with just enough whimsy stirred in to suspend doubt and allow imagination to take flight. He too focuses on the father-daughter relationship that is as poignant as it is uplifting.
The heart melting illustrations accompanying his thoughtful text suffused with subtle side-themes of wild-life care, inventiveness and tenacity, magnify the importance of healing after loss. The last spread treats readers to a tree-full of beautifully rendered birds, some exotic, some migraters, some Australian, providing an interesting way to promote environmental caring and extend appreciation of this touching story.
Author: Jess McGeachin
Illustrator: Jess McGeachin
Publisher: Penguin Random House, $24.99
Publication Date: August 2019
For ages: 3 – 8
Type: Picture Book
Buy the Book: Penguin Random House, Boomerang Books, Booktopia