Children and Death
- Natalia Toledo (Author), Francisco Toledo (Illustrator), and Elisa Amado (Translator)
Light Foot / Pies Ligeros. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jean E. Pendziwol (Author) and Jirina Marton (Illustrator)
Marja's Skis. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Ouriou (Translator), Marie-Danielle Croteau (Author), and Isabelle Arsenault (Illustrator)
Mr. Gauguin's Heart. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
In life as well as in literature, people today try hard to keep children and death in separate conceptual categories. Unlike our Victorian ancestors who seemed to relish a good weep over a dying or orphaned child protagonist, we prefer to shelter fictional children as well as real ones from the visitations of the grim reaper. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find three picture books that serenely violate this contemporary taboo, and that do so without saccharine or sentimentality.
Death enters the life of the young Paul Gauguin while he and his family are en route by ship from Denmark to Peru. As recounted by Marie-Danielle Croteau, Gauguin père is suddenly “carried away by his heart,” leaving young Paul to imagine his own explanation for the sad event. The proud possessor of an invisible orange dog, the future artist spins a fine tale in which his father is transmuted into the setting sun—an object of precisely the same colour as his dog—and is borne back again every morning at sunrise. A gift of paints and paper confers on Paul the power of “bringing things to life,” and his career as an artist begins in the mysterious transformation of his loss into colour, shape, and form. Susan Ouriou’s English translation of this story is lucid and understated, and the illustrations that accompany the text echo its matter-of-fact tone: Isabelle Arsenault portrays a sober little boy at his easel, diligently restoring order and making meaning on a sheet of paper. Death is rightly shown here to be a part of life, a beginning as well as an end.
Seven-year-old Marja of Marja’s Skis is also suddenly deprived of a father and must call on an inner strength she did not know she possessed. Jean Pendziwol has set her story in a small Finnish community north of Thunder Bay where logging is a way of life, and where children ski to school from their remote homesteads. Marja’s skis are the badge both of her mobility and of her readiness to join the older children. In such a setting, logging accidents are not unexpected, but the central event of this narrative is not the collapse of the timber pile that fatally injures Marja’s father. Rather, it is the young girl’s ingenuity in using her skis to rescue another logger from a hole in the ice in which he is about to drown. Unable to save her father, Marja is nonetheless equipped to contribute to the life of her community. The warmth of that community, despite its snowy location, is vividly portrayed in Jirina Marton’s gentle water colours—as is the hopefulness of the ending. This is a comforting book in which loss is once more balanced by gain, and sadness is offset by growth.
Quite a different note is struck where death is concerned in the father-and-daughter collaboration of Francisco and Natalia Toledo. A fable rather than a realistic narrative, Light Foot/Pies Ligeros personifies death as a seemingly well-intentioned cosmic clean-up artist—grim in appearance, to be sure, but dedicated to her appointed line of work. Someone, after all, has to see to it that the world does not become overpopulated. Death therefore challenges all she meets to a skipping contest. Confident in her own immortality, she outlasts Man, Toad, Monkey, Coyote, Rabbit, and Alligator in the game of their lives. She clearly enjoys the competition, goading her victims with macabre impromptu rhymes and leaving their corpses without a backward glance.
The engravings that chronicle the adventures of Death in fact preceded the text, as the author explains in a foreword. One surmises that it was in part to preserve her father’s art that Natalia Toledo recorded the story, and that art is well worth preserving. In the tradition of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the drawings are full of motion, some of them almost electrical with energy, and all of them unsettling. (It goes without saying that Death with a skipping rope is unsettling, but Toledo makes the most of the incongruity.) The text, in both English and Spanish, brings out the humour latent in his surrealistic vision.
In the end, thankfully, the joke is on death. Overreaching herself at last, Death entices Grasshopper to join her in the skipping contest. Not only can he skip faster than she, he is also able to cling to the rope as she whirls it around, saving his energy while she expends hers. Death concedes defeat temporarily—and resolves to change her modus operandi as well as her name. Known from now on as Light Foot, she will seize her victims by stealth, quietly, without fanfare.
In their different ways, all three of these books accept death as a fact—and so diminish its terrors. Croteau and Pendziwol set the fact of dying alongside the fact of growing up, reminding us that both are on the same continuum. The irreverence of the Toledos, on the other hand, provokes zany laughter. Readers of these books will thus take a first step in coming to understand an event that is, after all, as commonplace as birth and scarcely more necessary to be spoken of in hushed tones.
- Collateral Damage by Judy Brown
Books reviewed: Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis
- Transcending Boundaries by Yaying Zhang
Books reviewed: Dead Man's Gold and Other Stories by Paul Yee and The Jade Necklace by Paul Yee
- Empowering the Heroine by Kristen Guest
Books reviewed: The Burning Time by Carol Matas, Orphan Ahwak by Raquel Rivera, and Prisoners Under Glass by R. Patrick
- Biased Visions by Yaying Zhang
Books reviewed: Tales of Court and Castle by Joan Bodger and The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales by Michael Bedard
- Children Alone by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Pure Spring by Brian Doyle and The Royal Woods by Matt Duggan
MLA: Amado, Elisa, Arsenault, Isabelle, Croteau, Marie-Danielle, Marton, Jirina, Pendziwol, Jean E, Toledo, Francisco, Toledo, Natalia, Turner, Hilary, Turner, Hilary, and Turner, Hilary. Children and Death. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #198 (Autumn 2008), Canada and Its Discontents. (pg. 115 - 116)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.