It is a great age for picture books. These days, nearly anything goes in the 32-page picture book form. This is what comes to my mind as I look at two new books—Eva Eland’s When Sadness is at Your Door, on shelves now, and a Norwegian import coming to shelves soon, Gro Dahle’s Angryman, illustrated by Svein Nyhus.
Something else that comes to my mind as I read and think about these books is the complex construct that is bibliotherapy, or the use of stories for therapeutic purposes and well-being. In the field of children’s literature, you may see folks bristle at the notion of direct bibliotherapy. Unless, say, a therapist is working one-on-one with a child by giving him or her a book addressing a particular struggle, people would rather (and, to be clear, I mean during instances such as story time in the library) let the story simmer in the readers’ hearts and brains and not explicitly teach any sort of message. But did I mention it is complex? Many of us turn to words to heal (in various ways) when reading for pleasure, right?
I think that this article by Maeve Visser Knoth from the Horn Book archives captures well why some people find traditional bibliotherapy limiting. Knoth is more in favor of what she calls “advance” bibliotherapy—the notion that reading equips people with a kind of emotional awareness upon which they can draw when they are met with troubles in life. She’s in favor of “sharing emotionally complex books before a difficult experience occurs [which gives] children the ability to practice their own personal bibliotherapy.” In other words, the children who have already read Bridge to Terabithia will have wrestled with the emotions that compelling story evokes, which may prove helpful if they find out that, heaven forbid, a classmate has died. This, Knoth believes, serves them better than the more traditional bibliotherapeutic approach of saying: “Your classmate died? Here. Read this book now.” She makes a great point: that’s too narrow. Instead, we need to read emotionally complex books to our children on a regular basis. She likens this to a kind of vaccination.
She also notes that, as a librarian, she can …
“incorporate some of those tough or sad books in story hours even when I know that the funnier, less emotionally charged stories are the crowd-pleasers, the easy sell. I can make sure that I don’t isolate the death books off in a ghetto with other issue books where they will only be found when a parent or teacher asks specifically for one.”
Here’s where we get back to these two new picture book offerings. One addresses depression (without ever using that word), and the other addresses domestic violence and abuse. Will they make your best story time choices? Well, they aren’t going to bring the laughs, by any stretch of the imagination. But do you need to know about and share these books? Absolutely.
Angryman is unlike any picture book I’ve seen before. It was first published in Norway in 2003 and has been translated by Tara Chace. The author and illustrator are evidently husband and wife, and Dahle (the author) is also a poet and Nyhus (the illustrator), also a writer. It is not often that we see Norwegian picture book imports here in the States.
This is the extraordinarily intense story of a young boy’s experience with his abusive father. Daddy is in a cheerful mood at the story’s opening, but there is tension. It’s as if the boy, named Boj, is holding his breath, knowing his father’s good mood will not last long. The mother, “laughing in her finest dress” and even offering her husband a cake (as if to celebrate and elongate the mood), is acting the same. Suddenly, Daddy gets quiet. His mood shifts; his anger builds; and he explodes. The mother shoos Boj into his room, shielding his doorway with her body. Hiding in his room, the boy escapes in his mind to a moment of reverie. Daddy calms down, and the boy’s mother attempts to soothe him, excusing his behavior. Eventually, Boj reaches out to a neighbor and the father gets help.
And that was an absurdly cursory summary of a complex and powerful story that rather defies summary, despite my best attempts. The story is laden with symbolism and metaphor—the help for the father comes in the form of “the king” (there is a monarchy in Norway after all)—and it’s a tree that shouts for joy and lifts the boy up when he finally writes to the king: “Dear King, Daddy hits. Is it my fault?” It is “Angryman” who climbs up inside his father’s body and starts what is named a fire: “Red face. Red neck. Contorted mouth. … Embers in his eyes. Dark mood. Man on fire.” Nyhus never depicts the man hitting the boy or the woman, though it comes close to this—and it all adds up to a hold-your-breath, agonizing series of spreads. The violence is likened to this fire that rages, as colors grow in intensity, the scale shifts dramatically, and Angryman looms large.
Dahle’s use of figurative language—in a text much lengthier than we are used to seeing in the typical contemporary American picture book—is particularly striking. Waiting for Angryman to appear is like “shadows in the wallpaper” and “a cupboard that’s open just a crack”; the father’s voice “gets padlocks on it, and sharp edges”; the mother becomes “a wall” to protect the boy and “shouts with scissors in her voice”; and after Angryman leaves and the father calms down (here the palette and lines shift dramatically), he is “soot and ash.” Those are but a few examples in a story filled with lyrical, evocative language. And it is a story that also genuinely understands the troubled dynamics of a woman dependent on a man who abuses her and excuses him for it; a child who wears the guilt for it like a heavy blanket; and the necessity during healing and recovery for an examination of the abuser’s own childhood. (Yes! ALL OF THIS is covered here, the latter in just one paragraph—and it works.) Hope wins in the end, though, and the family begins to heal.
When Sadness is at Your Door is the picture book debut from Eva Eland, a Dutch author-illustrator living in England. It depicts sadness in the form of an amorphous, light-green blob, who “arrives unexpectedly” at a child’s door. It sits close to the child (who could be a boy or girl), who resists it. The tone shifts when Eland — speaking directly to the reader, as if giving a set of instructions — suggests we not fear Sadness and that we give it a name. We can, she goes on to suggest, even listen to it and ask what it needs. If we give it our time (“Try letting it out sometimes,” we read, as we see the child invite the creature outdoors) and if it knows it is welcome, it may disappear. This is all laid out on cream-colored pages with drawings only occasionally filled with color, though the color grows as Sadness quite literally shrinks.
I think of this eloquently-crafted story as, essentially, “The Guest House” by 13th-century Persian poet Rumi brought to life. For children, no less. It may be that a child with whom you share this book has a parent or caretaker experiencing a visit from Sadness—a one-time visit or recurring ones—and this book will shine some much-needed light.
As a parent or librarian, where will these books fit? Are they too intense and/or troubling for story time? Are they best for straight-up bibliotherapy? Are they best for when someone asks specifically about books on abuse or depression? That’s for you to decide. (The starred Kirkus review for Angryman, which comes to shelves in early March, includes these wise words: “Not for the timid, this may be most appreciated as bibliotherapy, its powerful saga signaling to hurting readers that they are not alone—and that asking for help can bring relief.”) At her website, Eland writes: “I like …. to see how far I can stretch the boundaries of what a picture book and illustrated project for children can be.” Each of these books succeeds in doing just that, and I enthusiastically recommend exploring each one.
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.
ANGRYMAN. Text copyright © 2003 by Gro Dahle. Illustrations © 2003 by Svein Nyhus. English translation copyright © 2019 by NorthSouth Books, Inc., New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of NorthSouth Books.
WHEN SADNESS IS AT YOUR DOOR. Copyright © 2019 by Eva Eland. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Random House, New York.