On the cover of Rose Lagercrantz’s My Happy Life, illustrated by Eva Eriksson, two girls splash in a rain puddle at a school yard, huge grins on their faces and arms around one another. The “i” in “Life” is even dotted with a heart, as a buoyant elementary-aged school child might decorate it. Happy, indeed. They are clearly having a good day, are obviously the best of friends, and the rain isn’t going to bring them down.
But problems lie ahead for these two girls, though not problems they can’t overcome.
My Happy Life is a chapter book release from Gecko Press, a New Zealand-based publisher of English versions of award-winning international children's books. Originally published in Sweden in 2010 (both author and illustrator are Swedish, too), it was released here in the U.S. at the tail end of January.
For those parents looking for new and interesting chapter books—maybe you and/or your child, say, need a break from Junie B. Jones or Captain Underpants or your child’s exhausted all the titles in a favorite series—I recommend this appealing and emotionally resonant story. And not just because one of the characters has a hamster named Partyboy. (I’m well over the recommended reading age for this book, but I laughed at that. It’s those kinds of details that snag child readers, too.)
When we first meet Dani, the book’s protagonist, she can’t sleep. Instead of counting sheep, she’s counting on her fingers the happy times of her life. Yup, she’s that kind of generally light-hearted child. Lagercrantz knows how to engage children right off the bat, what with Dani’s very specific list of joy-inducing events; they authentically reflect the detailed observances of young children. There was that time when she was younger and her cousin gave her a frog. Then there was that time that she “managed to swim three strokes without drowning.” Finally, there was the day she got her new backpack for the first day of kindergarten.
Though she’s happy, she’s got her own challenges: She might be thrilled about the first day of school, but she’s struck with shyness when she gets there. Fortunately, she spots a similarly bashful girl on the playground, and they become instant friends. They always eat the same number of sandwiches for lunch, though Ella eats rectangle-shaped ones and Dani eats triangles. They have sleep-overs at each other’s homes (where we meet the aforementioned rodent with the great name). And, save one stubborn fight, all is well.
Then comes the devastating news: Ella and her family move away. Dani is heartbroken, and it begins to affect her school, her behavior and her overall mood. Dani’s own mother passed away previously, after all, and Ella’s departure is a second unwelcome blow: “That’s what people said when someone died,” Lagercrantz writes. “They said she had passed away, but how could a dead person pass anything? And away to where? Now Ella had gone, too.”
Lagercrantz isn’t afraid to let Dani really crash, and Eriksson doesn’t shy from the sadness in her pen and ink illustrations, too: In one drawing, Dani barely crawls out of bed, shoulders slumped, still so depressed about the news. And the resulting drama isn’t sugar-coated either: When in frustration Dani gets in trouble at school, it’s for taking her anger out on a classmate, whom she pushes to the ground, breaking his front tooth. (“Blood poured out.”)
What was that about a happy life? Things aren’t looking up for Dani, and Lagercrantz paces the tension well throughout the story.
But children are resilient, and Dani’s no exception. She learns to adjust. For one, a really shy child can become pen pals with the departed best friend, as well as plan visits. Dani also comes to understand the elements of her life for which she can be grateful—her father, for one: “She wouldn’t manage without him. She was so lucky to have her father.”
This is a sweet, but not saccharine, drama of friendship and family, a universal tale I’m happy to see available here for American readers.
MY HAPPY LIFE. First American edition copyright © 2013 by Gecko Press. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
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.