Mother’s Day is just around the corner. There will be more than a handful of children’s books marketed as perfect for Mother’s Day, I’ve no doubt. Some may even be good, while others will surely be saccharine sweet.
Emil Sher’s Away, illustrated by Qin Leng, isn’t going to be marketed as such (which is a relief), but the mother-daughter bond in this story is an impressive one. It’s funny, smart, and real.
Now, I say “daughter,” because the book’s jacket flap says the same, though one of the many things I like about this book is this gender-bending child, named Skip. I didn’t check out the jacket flap before reading the book and wondered, as I read, if this was a boy or girl on our hands here. I didn’t care either way, mind you, but that is to say that the illustrator isn’t exactly bringing us any dainty feminine stereotypes. Skip is rambunctious, hangs out with at least one male friend, and wears things like Bigfoot tee shirts.
This is not a wordless story, but it is without dialogue – or at least without dialogue represented in a traditional manner. All the text takes place on small sticky notes that the mother and her child leave for one another. “Good morning, Skip!” the first note says. “Your lunch is in the fridge. Let’s have one more movie night before you go.”
Go where? Soon, it’s clear: Skip is scheduled to head to a two-week camp and doesn’t want to leave. She’s got all kinds of excuses. For one, Lester (the cat) needs her too much. Also, her own grandmother told her that Skip’s mother, when she once went to camp as a child, cried when the bus arrived. “My tears didn’t last,” another of the mother’s sticky notes says in response. “My memories are as warm as biscuits.” Here, the illustrator momentarily flashes back to the mother’s own childhood camp adventure; she preferred dresses, unlike her daughter, and she carried a fuzzy walrus.
Communicating the parent-child conversation via sticky notes could have flopped. It’s a clever conceit but never clever just for the sake of being clever. It really works. So do Leng’s breezy, relaxed-line ink and watercolor illustrations. They’re appealing, and Leng, who lives and works as a designer and illustrator in Toronto, is quickly becoming one of my favorite illustrators.
There’s no father in sight. Furthermore, the mother is white and the daughter, dark-skinned. Was she adopted by a single woman? Is there a father, who is a man of color? Perhaps he is only temporarily away or they’re separated. Perhaps there’s another mother, away on business. Who knows. It doesn’t matter, given that this one mother is clearly there for her child, and the grandmother in the story, Mimsy, is a strong and reliable presence too. Leng seems prone to bringing readers non-traditional families, thank goodness, as she did in Sara O’Leary’s A Family Is a Family Is a Family, which I wrote about here last year. (And is there a hard of hearing character? The calendar in the family home notes “hearing aid battery” in one square, but if the mother or daughter wears one, we readers can’t see it.)
Skip heads off to camp, but not without first asking if she can take the photo of her mother as a child, holding her fuzzy walrus. There’s a lot of humor here: it’s a photo Mimsy has found of Skip’s mother as a young girl, standing with a suitcase in hand, her fuzzy walrus at her side, and a big frown on her face. She didn’t want to go to camp either, but in the end she had a great time.
As does Skip, we readers learn via a letter sent home. The letter is really a series of sticky notes. But of course! “So far I have two new friends. And 3217 enemies.” (Here is a drawing of a mosquito.) “Next year’s goodbye will be easier,” it also says. And on the final page, we see Skip and her mother reunited. The two weeks have passed, and this loving mother and her spunky daughter have made it just fine.
So, if you’re looking for a stack of Mother’s Day picture books to share with your own child or students in your library or classroom, look past the ones loudly marketed as such (which may also be worth your time, depending), and be sure to take note of this sweet, quiet, charming one. You’ll be rewarded.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
AWAY. Text copyright © 2017 by Emil Sher. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Qin Leng. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Groundwood Books, Toronto.