Death in children’s stories
There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.
Maybe the only thing worse than the ‘adults being wacky’ kind of children’s book is the type of book that seeks to convey an explicit moral lesson to its captive audience. The result can easily end up hammering into children the message that we shouldn’t judge people by their skin colour, destroy the earth to make a buck, or disobey the Lord. You’d hope childhood could be spared from dogmas disguised as entertainment, for a while at least.
In defence, some people would argue that every good story has some sort of (a)moral lesson to convey. In the New Yorker magazine last month for instance, Judith Thurman argued that the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder have carried a lot of unspoken political freight: ” [They are] a poster family for Republican ‘value voters’: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice.” Which is true and also …kind of irrelevant to their qualities as stories.
Because of this factor – one person’s moral tract can be another’s rattling good yarn – I have ruled out of the argument any merely implicit morality tales. Otherwise, we’d all be looking sideways at everything from Robert McCloskey’s 1930s classic Make Way for Ducklings to Arnold Lobel’s equally classic Fables – in which Lobel set out to rewrite Aesop’s Fables with a more modern ( or even post-modern) sensibility in mind.
Lobel’s fable of the ostrich in love actually has it both ways. It conveys a ‘moral’ while simultaneously spoofing the attempt to do so. Lobel’s lovesick ostrich is too crushingly timid to get beyond writing love letters, and to actually talk to the object of his adoration-from-afar. Regardless, he lives an emotionally satisfying life all week, just thinking about it. Moral : “ Love Can Be Its Own Reward.“
To be fair, the pitfalls of serious moralizing are hard to navigate. As a consequence, most of the race-and-gender assertive, Christian or environmentalist children’s books never find an audience much beyond the children of the already converted. All of which makes Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gifts a fairly extraordinary exception.
Certainly, a hefty moral is being imparted in this book : death is final, and what endures are the memories of the departed held by the living. Yet the story and its illustrations are up to the task. By story’s end, the ‘message’ flows directly and naturally from the narrative. Yes, people die, and sometimes for the very old ( this book suggests ) death can be a release. Badger though, lives on in the memories and in the ‘gifts’ of experience that he has passed on to his young friends. Thanks to Badger, one of them has learned how to make paper dolls, another to skate, another how to knot a tie. These may not be the earth shaking accomplishments that change society, but they are the kindnesses that burn brightly in the memory.
Pretty weighty topics for a four to eight year old audience? Well, maybe so. But an awareness of death (and the anxieties it generates) are part of a child’s consciousness from an early age. These days as well. Given that the boomer generation had its own children relatively late, it is likely their grandchildren will lose their grandparents correspondingly early. In that situation, I can’t think of a better book to allow children an opportunity to talk about their grief, and anxiety. The gently amusing illustrations hit just the right note of comfort, and re-assurance.
Quite unconsciously, the book recommends itself for that purpose by its portrayal of consolation as being a social experience. It is only in the Spring, after the animals have had time to deal with their sorrow, that they join together to share their recollections of Badger, and can come to terms with his passing.
True, Varley’s book may lack the savage sense of loss evident say, in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake. That book was inspired by the author’s response to the death of his son. While powerful, Rosen’s book is really about parental grief and depression. It is not so much for, or even about, children.
Recently, Varley’s book even made the British tabloids. In February, as reality television celebrity Jade Goody was making her long and well documented goodbye, Goody told her Daily Mirror and Sun readers that she was reading Badger’s Parting Gifts to her children, to help them to cope with her eventual death. ( Oddly, Goody claims the book ‘tells about heaven and where people go.’ Well, I hate to argue with the departed, but in my copy, it doesn’t at all.
Probably, the only children’s book in the same league on this topic is Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog. Now 86, Kerr is something of a national treasure. She was born in Berlin and came to Britain with her Jewish parents as a refugee, at the age of thirteen – a process of adjustment that she recreated as fiction in a brilliant novel for young adults called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
It has been, as Kerr once wrote, extremely strange to be living for so long in England and with her own children growing up and speaking English, to realize that until she was nine, she was a German girl who spoke only German. It was her father’s prominence as a columnist and radio commentator that put Kerr’s family in special peril – and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit details their flight into exile, and what it felt like for a child to be suddenly poor, going to strange schools, and learning strange languages.
Again, any moralizing is secondary to the fidelity to the child’s eye view of events, and in this respect Kerr’s recall of narrative detail is as finely wrought as in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I loved this brief interlude for instance, from an early period before the full consequences of their flight into the unknown had become apparent :
Papa had reserved rooms in the best hotel in Zurich. It had a revolving door and thick carpets and lots of gold everywhere. As it was still only ten o’clock in the morning, they ate another breakfast while they talked about everything that had happened since Papa had left Berlin.
At first there seemed endless things to tell him, but after a while they found it was nice just being together without saying anything at all. While Anna and Max ate their way through two different kinds of croissants and four different kinds of jam, Mama and Papa sat smiling at each other. Every so often they would remember something and Papa would say “Did you manage to bring the books?” or Mama would say “ The paper rang and they’d like an article from you this week if possible.” But then they would relapse back into their contented, smiling silence.
Kerr found her way to Britain and eventually married the writer Nigel Kneale, the author of the trailblazing Quatermass Experiment science fiction television serial. By 1968, she was already a highly popular children’s author thanks to the evergreen classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In recent years, the Mog series have become almost as well known, The lovingly drawn grey-striped tabby is like some typically British yet totally feline dowager, full of imperious moods and ways.
Therefore, it was quite jolting to open Goodbye Mog and find right on page one that this was to be the last installment. As in :
‘Mog was tired. She was dead tired……Mog thought, ‘I want to sleep for ever.’ And so she did.’
Luckily for everyone, Mog sticks around in spirit long enough to see her human family settled in with a new kitten. The new kitten turns out to be fine, but as one of the children says, she’ll always remember Mog. ‘So I should hope,’ Mog says and flies up and up and into the sun. Again, the tone – briskly in character, with no surrender to cheap sentiment – is admirable.
Susan Varley was born in Blackpool in 1961, which means that she wrote Badger’s Parting Gifts at the pretty astonishing age of 23. Since then, she has illustrated dozens of books for a diverse bunch of writers, including Martin Waddell and Louis Baum. She also collaborated with Jeanne Willis – who wrote the Dr Xargle books – on the very popular The Monster’s Bed. Another Varley/Willis joint effort called The Long Blue Blazer is even better. A new child at school proves unwilling to remove its blazer – but it is for a totally unexpected reason. Finally, like E.T, he goes home.
Even better again is After Dark, written by Louis Baum and illustrated by Varley in 1990. The set-up of characters here is extremely simple – there is a working mother, an indifferent boyfriend in the basement fixing his bike, and a small child waiting upright in bed for her mother to return home from the supermarket.
Baum and Varley deftly fleshed out these three characters, and the various rhythms of their night. On various pages we see the mother doing her shopping, passing a pub where people are having a good time, watching a more affluent woman through a lighted window, and passing by an old couple holding hands on a bench – with all these images being juxtaposed with those of the awake and waiting child, who keeps moving ever closer to the front door.
The gravitational pull between the two main characters – played off against the inertia of the boyfriend – is perfectly realized, and Varley’s lovely, blue pastel shaded drawings in pencil and watercolour, are sketchily appropriate. The sketchiness serves to convey that this is just another night for a small family – getting by in a large world, that has other concerns.
In all three books – Badger’s Parting Gifts, The Long Blue Blazer and After Dark – anxiety is a common factor. Badger worries about how his friends will cope without him, the new boy at school worries about revealing a secret about himself if he removes his long blue coat, and the small girl worries that her mother will just never, ever get home from the supermarket.
In each case, the resolution is touching and amusing, which is something any didactic author should maybe keep in mind. Because when you’re out to impart a message, a touch of humour can go a long way towards ensuring that your young audience will want to read your tract more than once. – by Gordon Campbell.