It’s difficult to categorize Slog’s Dad (Candlewick) from British author and illustrator duo, David Almond and Dave McKean. Anyone familiar with 2008’s The Savage knows what it’s like when these two bring us a story about a child working his way through grief.
But do you call it a picture book or a graphic novel? Both The Savage and Slog’s Dad include pages of text from Almond and then pages of wordless illustrations, graphic-novel style, from McKean. Let’s call it a hybrid. Or the publisher likes to describe it as “graphic storytelling that defies categorization.” OK. What they said. Onwards and upwards then.
Did you read Seven Impossible Things last week?
I’m a review nerd. I enjoy reading the professional reviewers’ opinions—not to mention all the bloggers with excellent taste, whose blogs I follow—when I’m done reading a book. After The Savage was released three years ago, it was met with such descriptors as “haunting,” “touching,” “illuminating,” “gorgeous,” “frightening,” “bizarre,” “disturbing” and much more.
Thematically and structurally, Slog’s Dad, released at the beginning of this year, is a similar book, though it’s shorter. McKean’s artwork is, as ever, arresting and beautiful. For these reasons, I’d apply many of these same adjectives to Slog’s Dad. It is the story of one boy’s desperate desire to reconnect with his father after his father’s death, making it haunting in more ways than one.
Slog’s Dad, originally commissioned and published as a short story in 2006, opens with McKean’s wordless art. We are shown no less than the earth from far out in space on the dedication page, and in four spreads we gradually zoom into the planet, to what appears to be a homeless man on a park bench. After a blueish-green swath of vapors swirls over this man’s head, as if a funnel cloud about to enter his body, he turns to the reader with a knowing look. Is it a soul entering the body of another?
You see, young Slog’s father has died. He was once a “binman, a skinny bloke with a creased face and a greasy flat cap,” and a “daft and canny soul,” always singing hymns, always smelling of the “rotten rubbish” that constituted his trade. Due to disease (“Slog said his mother reckoned his dad had caught some germs from the bins. My mother said it was all the Woodbines he puffed”), he loses not one leg, but both, eventually ending up in a wheelchair. Then, almost as suddenly, he is gone: “Just a week later, the garden was empty. We saw Dr. Molly going in, then Father O’Mahoney, and just as dusk was coming on, Mr. Blenkinsop, the undertaker.”
That’s Slog’s friend, Davie, speaking. Slog is convinced his dead father will visit him one more time—“I’ll follow the smells. There’s no smells in Heaven. I’ll follow the bliddy smells right back here to the lovely earth,” Slog’s father had once said, his very last words being a promise to return in the spring—but Davie’s not so sure. Is there life after death? Davie doubts, even questioning the vagrant for proof he was once Slog’s dad (“Your wife. What’s her name?”), but Slog doesn’t waver: The drifter on the park bench has been inhabited by his father’s soul, back one more time—this time not a physically broken man—to say hello and send his love. “I cannot wait till I’m in Heaven, Davie,” Slog says. “I want to see him here one more time.”
A mystery most certainly not solved within the pages of the book, it’s more of a statement on the consolatory power of faith, penned with an unsentimental honesty by Almond. Indeed, at times, it’s almost gruesome, as narrator Davie discusses the amputations Slog’s dad underwent. He recalls black spots on his toenails and how his big toe was removed, “then the foot, then the leg to halfway up the thigh…and they started chopping at his other leg.”
The book feels rushed at times, particularly toward the end, but it’s McKean’s intermittent spreads, rendered in ink and Photoshop and showing the fantasy world Slog enters in an attempt to heal from his loss, which extend the story in emotionally resonant ways. Slog plays with a cut-out of his father, removing his paper legs with scissors; crying himself to sleep, he dreams of his father returning to earth with wings, showing off his legs; he releases the balloon head of a scarecrow; and more.
These evocative spreads let the book breathe. McKean’s work as a whole possesses an underlying beauty that transcends our everyday world, making him the perfect choice for this poignant story of one boy’s search for an afterlife connection after loss.
Both Almond and McKean are terrifically talented. When they work together, the result is special. And always worth seeing.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.
SLOG'S DAD. Text copyright © 2010 by David Almond. Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Dave McKean Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.