Written and Illustrated by Stian Hole
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014
“You can spell kayak forward or backward and it’s the same word,” Anna says, “Like redder.”
The plot in a nutshell: A girl takes her father into her imagination
Anna’s father wants her to get ready to go to church for her mother’s funeral. She is distracted and tells her father all of the little observations she makes about everything around her. They talk about God and heaven and Anna wishes her mother could come back to braid her hair. Then she sees a hole in the sky and tells her father to jump through it with her. They swim through the ocean, following flying fish and listen to the song in a seashell. Then they fly through the sky, looking down on people they can’t see anymore, like Grandpa and the old postman. They don’t see Mom, so they muse that she may be in Paradise, tending to the garden or visiting an old friend. Dad thanks Anna for taking him to see everything and she tells him she’s ready to go.
The death of a parent is such an intense subject for a picture book to tackle. Norwegian author/illustrator Stian Hole takes an interesting approach to the difficult subject here and the result is a book that’s surprisingly relatable and comforting. The fact that her mother has just passed away isn’t explicitly spelled out anywhere in the book’s text, but the inferences are so strongly there that I imagine even young children will be able to sense what’s really going on here. Musing on what the afterlife might be like is a logical step for anyone facing the loss of a loved one and Anna’s imagination sees it in a non-traditional way, while still envisioning it as someplace where her mother can be happy.
Mr. Hole’s artwork is done in photo collage and mixes images that are traditional and lovely with pictures that are surreal and maybe a little unsettling at times. Both the text and the illustrations leave much open to the reader to interpret and one thing that I saw was that Anna is hanging upside down in a swing when we first meet her, which feels to me as though it’s saying that her view of the world has been altered (which it is, inexorably, when you lose a parent) and the final image shows her father in the same position, with Anna beside him, lovingly touching his smiling face. I took this to mean that she has changed his perception as well, and that they are closer now because of it. A beautiful sentiment, to my way of thinking. I can see this book spurring a lot of fascinating post-read conversations.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes a little mental escape can help you deal with the real world.