There’s a long tradition of so-called bibliotherapy, or recommending books to readers to assist them with one problem or another. This may be an antiquated library science term, but we still see today, in this vein, parents requesting books that will help their children with particular struggles. Take death, for instance. If a child’s relative dies, often parents go looking for books on the topic of death. More picture books than not rather ham-handedly address the topic. It’s not an easy thing to tackle.
The best ones deal with the subject in ways that respect child readers and their deep and meaningful questions about the end of a life. Since we sometimes see adults patronize children when it comes to death and the notion of life after death, we often see many books that do the same. But Canadian illustrator Matt James’s The Funeral, the first picture book he’s both written and illustrated, is not one of those books.
Here, we meet Norma, a girl whose great-uncle Frank has died. “A few days earlier, there had been a phone call,” we read next to an illustration flashing back to Norma’s mother on the phone and in tears. “[T]oday was for saying goodbye.” Norma practices a sad face in the mirror, but in reality, she’s happy to have a day off from school. She’ll also get to see her cousin Ray at the service.
Experiencing the funeral service from the eyes of a child, as we do here, we see sadness in the form of the grieving adults. But there’s also much joy. After the service, Norma and Ray run and frolic in the grass by the church, the nearby tombstones juxtaposed with the children’s exuberance and vitality. As the Kirkus review notes, the story is composed of many of these beautiful moments mingling together in a book described as “an honest exploration of a difficult and delicate subject.”
I talked with Matt via email about this sensitive book. I started by asking him about the book’s dedication.
Jules: I find it poignant that this beautiful story is dedicated to Sheila Barry [publisher of Groundwood Books, who died last November]. Had you finished it before her death?
Matt: I still can’t believe she is gone. I don’t think I have quite accepted it yet. But, yes, I am very happy to say that Sheila oversaw the creation of this book from the very beginning right through to its completion. We had finished everything—and, in fact, it had been sent to the printer. We managed to change the dedication at the last possible second.
Jules: Death can be such a fraught subject in children's books. What prompted you to tell this story?
Matt: Sheila and I were having coffee and going over ideas — talking about whether this idea or that idea would work for my first book as an author/illustrator. I described a little vignette more or less as it had happened in front of my eyes, with my own kids running around with cousins at a funeral, and we talked about how I could see it evolving into a book. It was an idea that just wouldn’t go away, but I had my doubts about whether it could be successful as a picture book. Sheila loved it, though, and it was her enthusiasm initially that made me wanna go for it.
Jules: I love how you honestly convey Norma's feelings—she knows she is supposed to feel sad but is excited to have a day off from school. She even sees the word "fun" in the funeral sign. I'm not sure that I have a question here, except to ask if you intentionally set out to include that authentic range of emotions.
Matt: I want Norma to show that these moments can hit us all differently and that there is a serious complexity to the way we all process something like death—in this case, the death of a distant relative.
The truth is, though, that this book came into being because I had a chance to observe my kids in situations that were more or less the same as the ones that Norma and Ray find themselves in. Mix in a fair amount of recollection—I remember my first funeral vividly, especially the fact that I felt really guilty for not being sad enough—and a little bit of invention, and you get The Funeral.
Jules: I also like how you leave so much of the mystery of death open-ended, such as when Ray asks, "Is Uncle Frank still a person?" It suggests that one makes their own sense of these things. Did you also intend that?
Matt: Yes! My son Julius asked me that after Uncle Frank’s funeral. (Uncle Frank was an amazing guy. He passed away last year at the age of 93.) I should follow Julius around with a tape recorder; he says far-out things. But yeah, that’s a very important part of this book. It doesn’t answer many questions. I think it encourages us to ask them, but it leaves the answering part to someone else.
Jules: I found myself poring over these illustrations and admiring the range of art in these spreads (in terms of medium). How did you go about deciding when to use collage?
Matt: Yeah, there is a lot of stuff in there! I started with a few key spreads and then worked my way out towards the covers, trying to maintain a balance of (sorta) traditional painting and the collage and also the dimensional elements of the book.
I collaged almost all of the foliage in this book. I started with photographs and clip art and then moved to using actual dried flowers. (I bought a flower press and dried some wild flowers—some stolen ones from lawns on my walk to work and some from Uncle Frank’s actual funeral.) I really like the contrast of the spring blossoms with the funereal bouquets and old-fashioned funeral parlor wallpaper.
Jules: How'd it feel to write your first picture book? Want to do it again?
Matt: It felt great! I loved it. In the past, I’ve always been given a more or less fully-realized manuscript and created illustrations to complement it.
This was more a case of building something from the ground up, developing words and pictures simultaneously to make a story, rather than just adding to one that already existed. It was in some ways more collaborative(Is that a thing? Can you collaborate with yourself?) than the other books I’ve worked on. I would never have called an author and asked them to cut text in order to have the pictures tell the story, but with this book there was a lot of give-and-take.
You will definitely be seeing more books written by me. (Maybe even more of Norma and Ray.)
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.
THE FUNERAL. Text and illustrations copyright © 2018 by Matt James. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Groundwood Books, Toronto.