The deeply painful events in Connecticut a few days ago make me think about sad books—and about hopeful books. Some books are one and the same. All three of these books have been out for a while, and the second one is out of print. They all make me think, not only about hurt and sorrow, but also about the great goodness in so many people.
Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti
The time is World War II. Rose Blanche, who is probably about 8, doesn’t know what that means. She doesn’t understand why soldiers and trucks have come to her town. But after she sees a little boy try to escape from one of the trucks and get recaptured, she follows the truck beyond the edge of town and comes to a barbed wire fence with people inside—including the boy. The people are thin and hungry, so Rose Blanche begins bringing them food, not telling anyone.
Then one day the soldiers start leaving, and soon the townspeople themselves flee. Rose Blanche has gone out to the camp again with food, but no one is there and the fence has been torn down. “Shadows were moving between the trees. It was hard to see them. Soldiers saw the enemy everywhere. There was a shot.”
Next we see that different soldiers have come to town. “Rose Blanche’s mother waited a long time for her little girl.” Spring comes. Flowers begin to bloom where the barbed wire fence and the camp used to be.
The End. Yes, it’s heart wrenching, but it's beautifully done. The author switches from Rose Blanche’s first-person account partway through, when the German soldiers begin to leave. Innocenti’s artwork is realistic and rendered in sober hues. This is a wonderful, terrible book that I think you’ll like very much. Because at some point, kids figure out how awful humans can be, like when they hear on TV that 20 first graders have been shot at school. And children need, we all need, to be reminded that humans can also be kind, even in the midst of dark days on this earth.
Sleeping Boy by Sonia Craddock, illustrated by Leonid Gore
Another war-themed book, this allegory is based on the story of Sleeping Beauty. A family named Rosen is celebrating the birth of their son in Berlin. All of the guests give their blessings to the baby except for poor old Tante Taube, who has dropped her knitting and can’t decide what to say. Then black-cloaked Major Krieg bursts in. He has long been angry at the baby’s mother for not marrying him, and now he puts a curse on the child: when Knabe Rosen is sixteen, he will hear the drums of the army marching by. “Off to war you’ll go—and you will not come home.”
The major leaves, but Tante Taube softens his curse. When Knabe Rosen hears the marching army and its drums, he will fall asleep. “He will sleep through poverty and war, bad times and sadness, until PEACE comes to Berlin.”
The Rosens forbid music in their home and keep marching bands well away, but on Knabe’s sixteenth birthday, he does hear the army marching with its drums. Knabe tries to run outside to join the army, but he and the entire household instantly fall fast asleep. They slumber just as Tante Taube said they would, “through poverty and war, bad times and sadness,” until at last peace does come to the city of Berlin. The wall is torn down, and Knabe and his family wake to celebrate.
This story is for older children and adults. The text is fairly dense, and Gore's illustrations are dark and a little blurred—a stylistic choice, but one that makes them harder to read. However, Sleeping Boy is a book I rather like: it works in its own way. Perhaps it would be best used as a read-aloud for older students who might then write their own allegories or fairy tale variations about some kind of trouble in the world.
Of course, the fact that we can’t magically sleep through troubled and troubling times gives this book a kind of reverse power. What will we do instead of sleep? Is “sleeping” what people are doing when they ignore the social ills that lead to things like war?
I dearly love this book. I own three copies, the most copies I own of any book. (Not even sure how I wound up with all of them!) Here is my post about author-illustrator Shaun Tan from last year. In it, I also talk about his book The Arrival, which astonished me by being even better than The Red Tree. (Truly. It’s one of my Top 5 Books of All Time. And I've read a lot of books.)
But today I want to talk about The Red Tree because it shows us despair and hope. Some have said that the book is specifically about depression. But I feel it has a broader meaning, as well.
The book starts with a girl sitting in her bed. A few black leaves (maple leaf-shaped) are scattered around her room. The text reads: “sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to”. On the next page the girl’s room is full of the black leaves. The text says, “and things go from bad to worse”.
Each spread then shows the girl struggling with different symbolic situations. Which makes the book sound dull, but instead it is absolutely gorgeous. For example, “darkness overcomes you” shows the girl and a few other people walking down a city street, and an ugly giant fish hangs over the girl’s head, casting a huge shadow. Other scenes follow, such as “the world is a deaf machine” [page turn] “without sense or reason”. And the artwork for these seemingly abstract statements gives form to the difficulties each of us sometimes faces, whether inside or out.
By the way, you’ll find that this is one of the world’s only second-person books that actually works!
Now. Watch. Because in each of Tan's marvelously challenging spreads you can find a small red leaf shaped just like those black ones from the beginning of the book. And when the book ends, that small leaf turns into hope, “bright and vivid/quietly waiting” [page turn] “just as you imagined it would be”.
Sometimes hope does feel small, especially in the wake of overwhelming sorrow. But hope can grow, becoming an entire bright tree.
Let’s hold on to hope.
Note for Worried Parents: Because of their difficult themes, these three books are for the older child, or for teens and adults. They are well worth reading and discussing, however.