Missing Mummy – Rebecca Cobb

Missing MummyMissing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books about bereavement are a big interest to me and I collate ones that I come across in a reading list. I am such a fan of Rebecca Cobb’s work and this book is beautiful.One of the things I think Cobb does really well is that she understands a child’s viewpoint. It’s a book written from the viewpoint of a bereaved child who is trying to understand where Mummy has gone: “Some time ago we said goodbye to Mummy. / I am not sure where she has gone”. There’s so much there in that simple, precise statement. The totality of bereavement is overwhelming to an adult but to a child who is still learning to process concepts such as life and death, it can be blindingly unfathomable. Cobb’s sparse simple text captures that confusion but also that ache of trying to reason out what has happened: “We have been leaving her flowers / But she doesn’t seem to have been collecting them”

Space is another thing that Cobb plays with to stunning effect throughout Missing Mummy. Some of the spreads are so bare and powerfully so; in one, an isolated child stands in the bottom corner of the double page spread and watches the opposite page which is full of children and their mums: “The other children have their Mums. / It’s not fair.” It’s not. It never is. How can it be?

One other smart thing to note about this book are the hidden, non-textual messages in it. I’ve talked a lot before about the complex and elaborate literacies that picture books can teach readers, and it’s something which occurs in Missing Mummy. The endpapers are coloured in a sort of loose squiggle which means nothing at present. It’s one of those features which looks a little bit as though it’s just decorative – and at the start it is. It’s only upon reading that we see that it’s actually the texture of Mummy’s jumper – which has been turned into a sort of comforter by the young bereaved boy, which hasn’t left his side.

Heartbreaking, sensitive and full of a sparse visual and textual elegance, Missing Mummy is rather outstandingly wonderful.

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Rabbityness : Jo Empson

RabbitynessRabbityness by Jo Empson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have several children’s literature reading lists on my blog, one of which is titles which feature bereavement / grieving / loss. You can view the actual list here (and it’s crowd-editable, so please feel free to add to it!). One of the titles which often crops up in talk of titles of this nature is Rabbityness.

And last night I read it and I tweeted this: “So I just read ‘Rabbityness’ by Jo Empson. Dear sweet God. *bawls at everything* *eats all the chocolate* *bawls some more* (It’s amazing)”

That, dear reader, sums up my instant emotional reaction to this brilliant, perfect book. It’s one to go into blind in a way (though if you are working / reading it with children, read it first and have a think about your reactions to it beforehand), and it’s one that is just stunning.

Rabbit is a ‘very special rabbit’ who enjoys doing rabbity things such as jumping and running and un-rabbity things such as painting and dancing and making music. One day Rabbit disappears and the other rabbits are heartbroken with his loss. But then they discover what Rabbit left behind for them…

There seems to be a ploy between Empson and Richard Adams to make me bawl at the sight of rabbits. Empson’s so smart and subtle here, and quiet, almost, in her work. The endpapers are a delight, a graphic and quite moving repeated pattern of rabbits doing rabbity things against a vivid green background. And even the title page is a joy, the title scrawled in childish letters and being studied by three silhouetted rabbits whilst another races across the copyright page leaving footprints (or leaves?) behind him in a spectrum of autumn colours.

Once you’re into the book itself, there is a lot of white space centred around the central activities of rabbit. There’s also possibly one of the best uses of a splash page I’ve ever seen which I won’t spoil, but it did make me gasp with utter joy.

Empson is a gift in this book and Rabbityness is one of the best things I’ve read in a long while.

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Slog’s Dad : A Bereavement Counsellor’s Perspective

Welcome to the second post of our Slog’s Dad special! If you missed the last one, it’s available here

I have a great pleasure in inviting Jackie to talk about this book. Jackie’s an incredibly talented bereavement counsellor based in Henley-on-Thames (Twitter, Website, Facebook) and her passion and skills never fail to impress me. She’s one of those people who is genuinely committed to what she does and so, because she was as blown away by Slog’s Dad as I was, it felt logical to invite her on to share her thoughts. And this is what she thought. 

Where to start with Slog’s Dad!

I absolutely agree with the previous post on the counterpoints it describes. The story flows so well between the illustrations and words. And yes, the story is about grief which is what initially attracted me to it. As a bereavement counsellor and book lover I am always looking for books which combine talking about death, dying and grief with child friendly and age appropriate language and illustrations.

When talking to children about death it is vital to be honest as children will make up what they don’t know and these fantasies can create anxiety and a feeling of isolation. Children can deal with harsh realities much better than grown-ups realise.

Slog’s belief that his dad has come back as he promised reminds me of the theory of children and magical thinking. Children of about primary school age sometimes strongly believe that they can influence the world around them with their thoughts (see Jean Piaget’s theory of developmental stages). This is quite common when an important person dies.

When I read the story I switched between Slog and his friend Davie’s perspective. I absolutely love the connection those two characters have and how Davie supports his friend not by ‘doing’ much but by just staying beside him. I think Davie is bewildered but also intrigued by the idea that this man on the bench could be Slog’s dad. He creates a bit of space for himself by going into Myers’, the butchers, but he is never far away. I adore the way this book is illustrated. In fact the story doesn’t start with words but with the illustrations zooming in from a view of our universe through a cloud on the inside cover to the man on the bench on page 13.

When working with children, bibliotherapy is one tool in the box of a counsellor. Stories can help us to access feelings and emotions as we connect on an individual level with the story. ‘Slog’s Dad’ doesn’t prescribe; it offers a wonderful balance between illustrations and text. The reader can choose what speaks to him most.

If you are intrigued and thinking about using the book in a therapy session I would strongly suggest that you should read the story beforehand. Reflect on it and check what is happening for you. Is it taking you to some of your own experiences as a child? What kind of feelings are you left with after putting the book down? What impact do the illustrations have on you? If they evoked strong feelings where do you think they came from? Which character did you connect with most and why?

How could it be used for grief work? You could read the story together aloud or silently. Go with the rhythm of your child. Some children will read/listen until the end, others may want to talk about certain parts of the story/illustrations right away. Gentle questions may help to discover the child’s take on the story. You could ask “I wonder what you think was the most important bit of this story.” or “I wonder whether any part is about you and your own experience.” This could be done in an individual session but also suits a group environment.

Activities around the story could include making paper-people like Slog does. They could represent the loved one that has died or the child itself. Use this activity to talk about how the child understands their loved one has died. Alternatively your children could mark parts of the body where they experience certain emotions the strongest. Colours could be used to represent feelings.

A balloon features in the story. How about an activity where the child uses either real balloons or printed/drawn pictures of one to write/draw memories shared with the dead person on it, including happy and sad ones? Offer another balloon to write about what the dead used to do/say/like or what they would like to tell them now. When finished, how about letting them fly off into the sky just like the end of the book ?

These are just a few ideas for you. You will know your children best and chose what suits their way of communication. Let me know how it went and most of all: HAVE FUN as it’s okay to grieve and have fun.

Slog’s Dad : David Almond and Dave McKean

You know, sometimes, how a book catches you? How it sits there very quietly until you notice it and then, just, holds you to it? This is one of those books.

I’ve talked about the wonder of David Almond before, and about his skill in capturing the quiet, and yet somehow immense, magic of the everyday. He makes me rampantly, vividly, awfully,  jealous of his skill. If you look back at his books that I’ve reviewed (The SavageMy Name Is MinaMouse Bird Snake Wolf), they’re all five stars. All of them. Joyously, incredibly so. And I love his work with Dave McKean. I love it with a passion that startles me. I love  the bravery of it, the wild darkness, the just-that-little-bit-on-edge feel of a McKean line. I love that they are producing such intensely superb, challenging, heart-breaking, lovely books.

It is because of that, all of that, that I am beyond thrilled to be able to talk about Slog’s Dad with you in this  post (and I am hugely indebted to Walker Books for giving me permission to use the enclosed images which truly do justice to this book). This post is the first of two which will come at the book at slightly different angles. The second post in the series is a perspective on the book from my incredibly talented friend Jackie Grant, a trained bereavement counsellor (coming tomorrow!).

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Sunday catch up

Hello! Here’s some of the news and articles I came across this week from the world of children’s literature.

1. After reading the excellent and poetic Red Ink (which I then added to my books about bereavement reading list), this article in the Guardian had a lot of relevance for me. In it, the author asks whether young children should go to funerals or not. There’s also some guidance from counselling professionals in the article which is very worth a read should you be struggling with a decision of this nature. Articles and moments like this remind me why I keep my reading lists. It’s in the hope that somehow one of these books may help to mediate a child and a family through one of the darkest of moments and that’s why I keep them. Please do let me know if there’s any titles you would particularly reccommend. You can comment below or, if you’d be more comfortable, email me.

2. On the topic of diversity in children’s and YA literature, here Non Pratt from Catnip Publishing talks about “The Lack of LGBTQ YA in the UK” and here Mark McGlashan argues that LGBT inclusive texts should be utilised in primary schools. I need to look more at McGlashan’s research in order to comment more thoroughly on his findings, but it’s clear to me (and has been for some time) that children deserve a right to see themselves and their familial contexts reflected in our societal literature. I’ll let you know once I’m able to find out more on his findings.

3. Patrick Ness and Shoo Rayner had an epic, articulate and polite discussion on the ‘suitability of YA literature for ‘children”. Rayner’s blog post which sparked it all off is available here and a roundup from the Guardian is available here. I think there’s a world of issues with Rayner’s blogpost and the fact that our adult perspective is nowhere near that as a teenage or child readers. You can’t map your experience of childhood onto todays. However, as with a lot of these things, it is worth taking the time to read these posts and comments and formalising and confirming your own stance of things. If there’s one thing I’ve ever believed regarding children’s literature and the critique of it, it is that you have a voice and your opinion matters.

If you’d like to view other posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next week!

Red Ink : Julie Mayhew

Red InkRed Ink by Julie Mayhew

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a strange sort of poetry in sadness. The poetics of grief, if you will. Think about it. When sadness, darkness, pain hits us, it hits hard. We feel it. It’s an almost physical impact, this great black nothing that swings out of nowhere and makes us fall out of the rythm of our daily lives. And when it’s fallen, when we’re stumbling round in our grief and our hurt, we’re lost because our world doesn’t make sense any more. Yesterday, it did. Yesterday it was perfect.

But today, it does not.

And so, in this today world, this grief-tinged pain-filled world, we see things differently because we do not understand them. Our grief consumes us. Makes us unable to see straight.

Makes us blind.

Mayhew’s extraodinary novel is quite something. It’s full of this jarring, beautiful poetic prose that captures the heightened impact of pain so very well. Her voice is something else. Soothing, scared, hopeful, lost, quite often all at once.

This is the story of Melon Fouraki and the day her mum died. But it’s also about the before, flitting backwards throughout her own story and then, gloriously, soaring into her mother’s story. This is the story of Melon, true, but it’s also a story about story. About the way words connect us to each other, about the way sometimes words can come true, and about the way words sometimes dance around the truth and hide away in the shadows.

This is such a graceful, artful book. It’s one of those that sort of isn’t just about the story. It’s about how it’s put together, about how it is a story, and it’s so very good. I loved this. I cried, hugely, gapingly, at it, and I was so hugely impressed when I finished it.

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I have read a death

I have read a death, and I am falling, failing, falling. I am living this life, this life already and never lived, and I am living it as my own. It hurts – 

– I have read a death. I am holding her, wishing I could hold her, and yet still so far away. She is touchless, locked from me. Lost inside me. Lost from me. Outside, inside, never quite there.

I have read a death. I have read it a thousand times before and yet each time it comes to me new. It comes without warning, and it comes with knives, sharp and ready to cut me open.

I have read a death, and I am lost. I am caught in the shadows, the rising darkness that pulls me to the edge and makes me see the nothingness beyond it.

I have read a death. I will never be unable to unread it. I will never be able to take it back. I will never be able to stop this from happening. I will never be able to just – be – with this person. I will never be able – 

I have read a death.

And I am blinded by it.