Archive for December 12th, 2016


by Sam Juliano

         And we buried you/In the ground/With ferns and flowers  

Some of the most beloved and acclaimed works of children’s literature have handled the theme of death with grace and dignity.  John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Wilson Rawl’s Where the Red Fern Grows and Pearl S. Buck’s The Big Wave have examined this most delicate of subjects from both an intimate and universal vantage point.  Though none other than what may well be the most venerated of all books written for the younger set, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White subtly weaves in the poignant understanding of death as a part of life and continuity, most American picture books have opted to steer clear, knowing well that some young readers would not be able to approach the subject with any semblance of maturity, some others still would be disturbed.  Contemporary picture books featuring the theme are rarer still, and in some instances like City Dog, Country Frog (2010) by Mo Williams and Jon. J. Muth, it is partially obscured by the concurrent cycle of life motif.  The resurrection theme is examined in Bob Staake’s Bluebird, to exhilarating resonance.  European picture books have generally been more audacious in exploring the subject, with achingly beautiful works like the Norwegian My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Oyvind Torseter and the Danish Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi  dealing with death candidly and with keen psychological insight.

In 1938 one of most beloved writers in the history of children lit -Margaret Wise Brown- wrote The Dead Bird, a spare situational story about four children who find a lifeless bird and proceed to send it off with a ceremony, a song and a burial and grave marker.  The story’s re-release in 1958 featured new illustrations by the renowned Remy Charlip, who consigned this somber narrative a mournful tone throughout, via exceedingly dark hues in a restrictive three color scheme.  Charlip’s interpretation was one of austerity and reverence for the dead.  This past year, the extraordinarily gifted Christian Robinson, an avowed fan of Brown’s work re-imagined this seminal work more in the vein of a celebration of life.  His palette is brighter, his scheme more colorful, his space far less claustrophobic.  His characters are no less saddened than Charlip’s but they are shown as more upbeat.  Charlip’s interpretation was largely a spiritual one, Robinson’s more ritualistic.  While there can be no question that the earlier version possessed a sedate beauty, an earthiness and ethereal quality, Robinson has opened up the pictorial possibilities of this melancholic tale, employing his acrylic paint, mixed media and photoshop techniques to create art that is breathtakingly beautiful in design, richness of the chalky pastel colors and striking contrast.  Like a veteran filmmaker working to maintain shot virtuosity, he moved from mid-range panels to close-ups, fusing the capabilities of the form with a harrowing realistic tone. (more…)

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