Homelessness is a complex issue, one for which many myths are frequently perpetuated — to name but two, the notion that homeless people all suffer from mental illness and/or suffer from alcohol and drug problems and that homeless people are lazy and merely refuse to work. Talking to children about homelessness is a challenging prospect, given that many adults take the myths at face value, yet children may not have been exposed to such rhetoric. They are genuinely curious about the person they see sleeping in the street. And there’s a scant number of picture books that address the topic.
Cue the Belgian import on shelves now, Sarah V. and Claude K. Dubois’s The Old Man. Originally published in 2017 and translated by Daniel Hahn, it’s a book that looks homelessness straight in the eye via a young girl in the book, who sees and speaks to a homeless man who sleeps on the streets of her town.
Illustrated in small, unassuming vignettes — soft, velvety gestural illustrations, rendered via pencil in subtle earth tones — the story is economically told through the point of view of an unknown outsider, looking in. We see the girl wake and head to school. As she leaves her home, we see the old man sleeping on the street, and we then follow him throughout his day. In fact, we see him on the page from different perspectives; at one point, as he rides a bus, we see from his own eyes how other people react to him.
In an eye-opening series of spreads, we read that he’s hungry enough to eat from a trash bin; we read about the places where he is simply not welcome (a curb where he lies down to stretch, because it “was a hard night,” as well as on the bus, where a child yells, “Maaama! That man stinks!”); and we see that he heads to a shelter for food, only to leave when he is asked his name, yet can’t recall it.
One of the many things that the author and illustrator do so effectively here is to show readers the man’s vulnerabilities — but not just his physical vulnerabilities. We see that he has interior struggles, as well. “He feels so lonely,” we read. When a mail carrier bikes by, the man remembers that, “a long time ago,” he also once delivered the mail; this is surely a reminder of happier days, ones in which he at least had employment. And we know from that visit to the shelter that his struggles transcend the absence of a place to rest his head or his attempts to find warmth and food. He is also grappling with a very real loss of his identity.
My graduate school professor used to say (and these words still ring in my head) that all children want to be noticed. This noticing is the girl’s enormous gift to the homeless man. Later in the evening, she approaches him and offers him a sandwich. She tells him, “You’re funny, you look like a teddy bear!” When he returns to the shelter and they ask him his name, he is finally able to respond. He tells them his name is Teddy. In essence, her gift to the man is not only her attention and the fact that she sees him as the human he is, worthy of engagement. But she also gives him a name — an identity of sorts, even if just for a day.
This is a book marked by a rich tenderness. It would be easy to over-sentimentalize the subject matter; to some extent, sentimentality may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think the author and illustrator do a fine job of avoiding any schmaltz. Everything about the book is marked by a wise constraint, including its tone. Never is it overbearing or treacly.
We do children no favors when we turn them, in real life or in their literature, into saints. However, children do often inhabit a sense of generosity not at all blinded by the jadedness it’s easy to acquire in our adult years. This is a moving, but not cloying, story that manages to capture that. And it serves as a thoughtful conversation-starter with children here in our own country about homelessness. As the starred Kirkus review notes, it’s a book that “can make the needed connection for young children to see human beings as more than their circumstances.”
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 OLD MAN. English-language edition © Gecko Press Ltd 2018. Translation © Daniel Hahn 2018. Illustration published by permission of Gecko Press.