On Sunday when I was interviewed by Jojoebi she asked me what advice I had for parents who want their kids to become more engaged with reading and books. I don’t know that I’m the best person to turn to for such advice, but what I did suggest was that kids could be taken to see authors and illustrators live as a way of enthusing them about their books. I’ve seen this work both for kids, and for me.
I’m not Judith Kerr‘s biggest fan – I’ve always loved The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but the Mog stories have rather annoyed me – yet when I heard her interviewed over Christmas she came across as such an amazing, graceful, thoughtful person I was inspired to see out her books again and read them afresh. Ok, so it wasn’t quite seeing her “live”, but the point is, hearing her speak as a person, not words on a page… well it made me feel excited and interested and curious.
My Henry by Judith Kerr is a eulogy on a loved one, who has died. An old lady sits in her comfy care-home chair and imagines all the trips she can still take, albeit in her dreams, with her husband who has passed away. He may be physically gone, but she is still able to enjoy adventures with him whether they be riding dinosaurs or unicorns, hunting for lions or climbing Everest.
This heartbreakingly tender love letter, dedicated to Kerr’s deceased husband Tom, is told in lilting rhyme, making it an enjoyable book to read aloud. Kerr’s pastel pencil illustrations are soft and gentle, matching the tone of the text perfectly. Whilst tinged with sadness, it’s actually so full of love and imagination the book feels optimistic. I can’t help but wonder if, when I am old and alone, I will remember it and find solace in Kerr’s passion and poetry.
I think My Henry would be a great book for talking about people’s inner lives, and building up an awareness that we all have so much going on in our heads that other people never find out about, or even consider is happening. A book that can help develop skills of empathy is one to be valued!
This also might be the right book to read before going to visit old relatives – especially if the kids consider it “boring” or unpleasant. M has actually rather taken to this book – I think this is because the dream adventures undertaken are exactly the sort of adventures M would like to set off on!
Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? by Amelie Fried, illustrated by Jacky Gleich is a book I chose to read as part of the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge over at Gathering Books. Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for best picture book in 1998 (by coincidence Kerr has also won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, for the German translation of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit).
Bruno’s grandfather has died. At the funeral Bruno is confused and curious – has Grandpa really died or is he just sleeping? Where has he really gone – into the ground or up to heaven? The answers the adults give to his questions don’t seem to make sense. Contradictions abound; after the funeral when so many adults were in tears, the mourners share a funny stories over a meal. “Bruno can’t understand why there was never a celebration like this while Grandpa was alive.” Then there’s Grandpa’s room, which looks like it always has, except tidier. So has Grandpa returned?
Bruno turns words over in his head like “burial”, “inherit”, “soul” as he tries to make sense of what has happened. He is not frightened but instead curious in a calm sort of way. However, as days pass his feelings change. First he is furious with his Grandfather for leaving without making good his promise to take him fishing. Then, suddenly sorrow catches up with him and Bruno cries for the first time.
At first, Bruno feels a pain in his chest. He thinks that maybe there’s a hole in his heart. Every night before going to bed, he looks at his grandpa’ picture and says, “I’ll never forget you.”
He makes this promise every day. Sometimes he can feel Grandpa smiling at him from far away.
Bruno feels the hole in his heart slowly closing up.
Time moves on, slowly life returns to a sort of normal, and a new baby is born into the extended family. Bruno comes to terms with his Grandpa’s death but he will never forget him.
Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? deals with death and grieving in a very honest, upfront way. There are descriptions of the wake with an open coffin, the funeral procession and service, and the burial as well as the range of emotions the family experiences in the months after Grandpa’s death. Whilst some parents might find the content too “explicit”, I felt the story was told with a quiet, reassuring calmness that made me quite happy to share this story with M and J.
If I’m honest the illustrations – rather grimy looking pictures mostly in various shades of brown – did not immediately grab me. But now, I can’t imagine any other illustrations to go with this text. Having read the story numerous times, Gleich’s pictures match the sombre but un-threatening approach taken by Fried, and also speak to me of the European village setting of this tale, with wooden houses and a time perhaps now gone.
Despite the sobbing, I’m so very glad I’ve read this book. It’s powerful, sensitive, thought-provoking and reassuring. If you thought A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was a great book, I think you will feel similarly about this one. I do hope you’ll be able to find a copy to read.
As with all children’s books on death it’s perhaps hard to know who would pick up these books, and when. I’ve read several books about death (these and these) with my kids as just part of our everyday reading. I’m not sure how much they’ve “got” them, but in reading the books on ordinary everyday-days I hope I’ve done a little bit to dispel fear and taboo around death, and that when that time does come and death is part of our family, the kids might remember the books and feel less alone, or less confused, or somewhat comforted as they pull them off our shelves.