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There’s something beautiful about grieving on the internet, all of us offering up our losses to each other, hoping to be touched and understood by each other when we’re at our lowest and most vulnerable, and there’s also something strange about expressing grief here. No matter how true and deep our sadness, when we offer it up online, it can get confusing. It can feel less real, but also more final.
My heart is heavy with sadness and love, for an old friend and his family, and for all of us.Add a Comment
So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.
Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.
The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.
It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.
Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.
As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.
Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.
When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.
I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Misc: Be sure to check out this profile of Jessixa Bagley over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.Add a Comment
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Fifteen-year-old Shiv doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive herself for what she’s done. And she’s not sure she wants to, either. Her young brother and best friend, Declan, is dead, and she’s to blame.Add a Comment
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I just lost another family member, this time very unexpectedly and in a strange, almost “was meant to happen because it makes no sense” kind of experience. There were too many bizarre variables in this loss equation. I am in the What the Heck? stage. All this loss has me looking at the different stages of grief and realizing I need to rewrite them for myself. This will also help me explain to my friends when they ask how I am doing. If you ever lost an animal or person, you will relate. (And yes, this pretty much applies to all kinds of losses). Here it goes.
Shock or “I am half in and half out.” “Half in and half out” is a really nice place to be. If you are able, you can communicate with the departed loved one. You can hear your Guides, helpers, God as if they are next to you, because you are half in. It’s not a good stage to be driving or using heavy equipment, or even utensils. It feels really good to be numb, but someone needs to remind you to eat and bathe.
Shock starts to wear off. It’s the “remembering.” You realize your animal or loved one is not here and you are searching. I hate that feeling. It feels like LOSS in capital letters. It’s a loss you can’t fix, change or do something about. You can’t put them back into their bodies, but if you could, you sure would.
This is also the “WTF?” stage. Why? Why? Why? You think about what you should have done or could have done. There’s a lot of pissed off-ness to this stage. You could probably kill an army if you weren’t so tired all the time. Hearing “it was their time” makes you want to pull heads off Barbie dolls (sorry, Barbie). The spirit of the loved one is hanging around and you may have dream or physical spirit contact, but the spirit is probably too afraid to approach seeing your incredible pissed off-ness from the Other Side. They aren’t stupid. There’s a lot of crying in this stage that comes and goes and makes you look either crazed, menopausal or unmedicated. It’s difficult to resume your every day life. Plus, gotta admit, there’s a bitterness there sometimes too–how can life around you continue when your life pretty much just stopped?
When stage three comes it’s usually good to find some kind of communication with the departed in order to get over the “the sadness” and still feel connection. You are swimming around in the grief. The healthy thing to do is just dive into it and FEEL so later on you don’t experience a loss and then all the losses you have ever had come crashing into your face at once and you feel bulldozed and catatonic. Keeping really busy helps not feel “the sadness.” Any kind of distraction helps avoid feeling “the sadness.” I’ve been there many times and there’s no way around but through it. Sadness comes along with spontaneous bursting out crying at the weirdest things like walking down the frozen aisle of Walmart, or seeing a dog bed in a commercial, or for me yesterday, realizing I don’t have to buy red lettuce anymore while shopping in the supermarket. It feels like a giant hole in your tummy–something is definitely missing, hopefully not a major organ in there. Oh by the way, this is an excellent time to watch every past episode of the Ghost Whisperer. That show is so darn comforting.
Stage Four isn’t so much a stage, but a mix-up of stages. Like after realizing I didn’t have to buy red lettuce anymore I was catapulted into the “pissed off stage” and I could visit there for awhile. Then I bounced into “the sadness.” Then back into the “pissed off-ness.” Having a creative outlet to express all the stages is also good. For example, like writing a blog post. :)
Acceptance. Like I read in a post on FB the other day, you just learn to adapt to living without the physical soul there. You might have peace. When Bun Bun my parakeet passed in February, I knew she really wanted to be with my other parakeet in spirit. She missed him so bad after he crossed over. He would pop over and visit in spirit a lot and taunt her with his freedom and wild birdness, so how could she not want to hang out in the light too? So I understood. The loss I am having now I am not there yet. When I do hit acceptance, I will have a greater understanding, I suppose. In this stage you might have even established a constant, clear connection with your departed. (I think how now when I go through big stuff it feels like Grand Central Station of spirits visiting, all checking on me. There’s lots of lights, ear ringing, messages, and thoughts. It’s kinda cool if I wasn’t so pissed and didn’t have Giant Hole Feeling.) Acceptance just means you are able to put away the dog bed or blanket, clean out the cage, put away the belongings. You have to move on with them in spirit, and you in body, but you are ready for a different kind of connection now.
I am positive in the way in the future I will experience loss again and I can look over this post and be reminded of the stages so I will get through it. The crappy part of life is loss, but if we remember that there is no true death, that we can still connect, even see them again, it helps us get through the process in one piece and with meaning. In the meantime, I am off to watch season four of Ghost Whisperer where even Melinda experiences great loss, and I will definitely avoid the frozen and leafy green aisles in Walmart, for now.
If you want to explore communication together, I am offering Animal Mediumship starting September 26th, a Friday. Enrollment is open now over HERE.
Death. Grief. Sorrow. Those aren’t words that any of us like, especially when they involve those closest to us. I don’t pretend to understand sorrow, though I have experienced it many times. I experienced it when my grandparents died. I experienced it when my own father was in a car accident, and again when my…Display Comments Add a Comment
Here is a list of 11 books that address a wide range and variety of emotions that young readers may experience when faced with serious illness, loss, grief or trauma.Add a Comment
This is an incredible exploration of grief, family and identity and the pressures of expectations that come from each. The book opens with a death, one that nobody else knows about yet, the death of Lydia Lee; middle child of Marilyn and James and sister to older brother Nathan and younger sister Hannah. Lydia’s death […]Add a Comment
In preparation for an upcoming 4-week club for kids that I'll be hosting, I created a book trailer for A Dog Called Homeless, winner of the 2013 Middle Grade Schneider Family Book Award, The Schneider Family Book Awards "honor an author or illustrator for the artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences."
A Dog Called Homeless is written by Sarah Lean and published by Harper Collins. I hope you enjoy it.
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
This image is from one of Marie’s childhood notebooks; she shared it with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop when they visited her writing studio.Add a Comment
Author Michel Faber is tinged with enigma and exotica. His name sounds both European and British, with its allusion – probably fictictious – to the famous publishing house, Faber & Faber. The 54 year-old was born in the Netherlands but educated in Australia – and so could be regarded as one of our own, […]Add a Comment
Narrative non-fiction is generally the only type of non-fiction we review here at Wonderland, 'cause we're all about the story. This novel isn't non-fiction, despite the jacket copy calling it an authentic immigrant story. Those writing historical... Read the rest of this postAdd a Comment
One of the things I love about mysteries is how much they vary. This mystery could be described as "cozy," because of the presence of old ladies, but the main character is an out of work child actress who really is the most reluctant of Miss... Read the rest of this postAdd a Comment
Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our two cents at the same time. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the purple owl...we're not telling!)... Read the rest of this postAdd a Comment
Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our on-the-spot commentary as we read and team blog a book together. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the... Read the rest of this postAdd a Comment