It’s a bummer how easily many adults tend to dismiss children’s literature. I’ve gotten confused looks at cocktail parties for saying I write about children’s books for a living. To be sure, cocktail parties wear me out—as an introvert, they’re basically nightmare fodder for me—but I do get out of my PJs and attend adult events every now and then.
The primary reason I find it disappointing is because I sometimes read a picture book—such as the one I have here today, Charlotte Agell’s Maybe Tomorrow?, illustrated by Ana Ramírez González and coming to shelves the end of this month—and think that the author has captured something in a way most adult self-help books can only dream of.
Given that I just typed “self-help” and “picture book,” let me clarify: I’m not at all a fan of books undoubtedly meant for adults but disguised as children’s books. You know, the ones that are filled with overly earnest, uplifting wisdom, meant to inspire the grown-up reading to the child, that are zero percent child-centered and put the child straight to sleep. But some books, like Agell’s and González's, manage to speak right to the heart of the matter in a way that resonates with both children and adults. Maybe Tomorrow? is a genuinely moving story of grief and friendship, a primer for anyone of any age wanting to support a friend struggling in sorrow.
Elba, a pink, Moomin-esque hippo, sits outside on a sunny spring day. She lugs around a big block on a string, which causes her to walk slowly. It is ever by her side, if she’s not sitting directly on it. Lighthearted Norris, an alligator, dances everywhere he goes, Agell adding “even uphill,” two words that succinctly capture a great deal about his demeanor. He’s so shiny-happy that butterflies surround him, making it hard for Elba to see him when they first meet. Illustrator González, who worked as a visual development artist on the Oscar-winning film Coco, paints their world in cheery colors, keeping the compositions simple so that the focus in on the characters.
Naturally, Norris never meets a stranger. After introducing himself to Elba, he asks her if she’d like to join him on a picnic. Her response is that essentially it is her duty to sit there with her block, even though she doesn’t find it fun or enjoyable in the slightest bit. Elba is genuinely sad—and stuck.
Norris stays. He wants to know what’s inside what he assumes is a box. Elba clarifies: it is not a box. It’s a block. Nothing at all is inside it. Norris is convinced, however, that something must be in there; he senses that this is something sad that wants release. And then—oh, how I love this—Elba whispers, “how?” It’s as if her anguish is so great that she can only manage to ask in that hushed way. It’s this understated verb choice (“whispered”) that nails this moment. Perhaps, one wonders, this is even the first time someone has inquired about Elba’s block.
It turns out, though, that Norris doesn’t have an answer for her. Isn’t this precisely the way with grief? All he can tell her in response is: “Maybe tomorrow.”
The next day comes, but answers don’t come with it. Yet Norris is still there, close by her side. They even have some tea. Norris repeats what he’d said the day before, but this time it is followed by the question mark of the book’s title: “Maybe tomorrow?” Elba isn’t so sure tomorrow will ever come, but she hesitantly agrees.
And so it goes. Agell writes in remarkably specific ways about grief and the difficulties of trying to be there for a friend suffering it. For instance, she writes of the pair’s next day together: “Tomorrow didn’t come, but another today did.” How distinctly this captures the daily slog that is grief and the futile search for answers. A friend can’t give answers anyway; a friend can be there, though, which is what Norris consistently does. He even convinces Elba to go to the ocean, and his butterflies help carry her block. It’s a long journey, given the heavy ache Elba carries, but it gives them more time to talk.
Finally, Elba opens up a bit. After all, she has a friend by her side, someone not pushing too hard, not grilling her about her pain. Norris has proven he cares, that he’s there to listen, and that he won’t leave. “I miss Little Bird,” Elba tells him out of the blue. “She is gone.” When Norris tells her in response that he misses Little Bird too, Elba pauses in confusion, noting that he never knew her. “No, but you are my friend, so I can help you miss her,” he says.
BOOM. This is a moment of such honest emotional intelligence—much like what we saw in Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened, published last year—that I think it would be nothing but gratifying to share it with children. Agell’s wisdom in the form of Norris represents the best way to honor tremendous grief, the kind that has you walking slowly because your despair feels like you’re carrying an enormous block.
And this is precisely what Norris does—he helps Elba miss Little Bird, that is—as they sit on the shore. His new friend tells him all about Little Bird, Norris acknowledging how clear it is that Little Bird loved Elba very much. At one point, when butterflies fly away and over the waves, Elba shouts in panic, “COME BACK!” Norris reminds her that sometimes we have to let things go. At the page turn, we see that Elba understands this: her block has shrunk a bit in size.
Another piece of dialogue that so authentically captures grief is the moment when Elba tells Norris that she will always have the block. Agell knows better than to give readers pat answers about such sorrow. Yes, Elba will always have that pain, even if it diminishes over the years. But, while also deftly capturing what it’s like to support a grieving friend, Norris adds that he will help her carry it when he can.
This is a story of deep empathy and elegance, sure to resonate with children struggling with sorrow. And those who aren’t can tuck the story away in their minds for a day they may need it. (The author—a teacher, originally from Sweden but now living in Maine—is said to have been inspired to write this because of her students and their ability to address life’s tough issues.) It’s a story of healing to read today, tomorrow, or maybe another today.
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.
MAYBE TOMORROW? Text copyright © 2019 by Charlotte Agell. Illustrations © 2019 by Ana Ramírez González. Illustration above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, New York.