Sunday, March 29, 2015

Books for Children on Grieving

Gabriel Garcia Marquez curiously intended his macabre short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” to be a tale for children. In planning a magical realism unit for eighth graders, I have paired this story with a chapter from Skellig, by David Almond, which was based on Marquez’s story and is perhaps more suitable for children. 

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is deep and mysterious. The angel, who remains motionless for most of the story, is like a surface against which flaws of the human characters ricochet for the reader to scrutinize. When the angel falls ill, a man and woman's immediate response reveals their indifference to the angel’s well-being. “That was one of the few times they became alarmed, for they had thought he was going to die and not even the wise neighbor woman had been able to tell them what to do with dead angels.”  Instead of fearing for the angel’s life, the human are preoccupied with what to do with his corpse.


E.B. White and Maurice Sendak would have appreciated Marquez’s approach to writing this “tale for children.” Neither of them believed in sheltering children from the realities of the world. When I was a child, after my dad died, I took comfort in the news that my heroine, Pippi Longstocking, talked to her dead mother in the clouds while her father was off at sea. My mother was a travel writer, so in a way, she was also off at sea. As an adult, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, have given me insight into the grieving process. But it’s important to remember that children also need books to help them make sense of their emotions too.

Maria Popova has included reviews of seven children’s books that tackle the subject of grieving on her website, Brain Pickings. All these books look amazing. I might also include Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, written from the perspective of a father who lost a son. Sorry to be such a downer, but I think giving children books that teach empathy is crucial. Otherwise, they might end up like the people in Marquez’ story who put iron bars on their windows to keep angels out.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

She's Leaving Home (Bye Bye)

I returned home after purchasing a Carlos Fuentes book and a dark purple scarf from the thrift store in my neighborhood and was startled to see a book of Paul McCartney poetry fall mysteriously from my jacket. I retraced events and concluded that I had inadvertently stolen this book. You see, at the thrift store the books are displayed awkwardly with covers facing out, concealing the spines of books that are shelved normally. This means book browsers have to shuffle books around if they want to see what’s available. I was trying to maneuver books around on the shelf over my head when several hardcovers cascaded down on me. I bent down to pick up the books, and offered an apology to the stern woman at the counter. I didn’t realize that one of the books landed in the hood of my jacket. 

I sat in my comfy armchair, leafing through the pages, trying to decide if I should go back to the thrift store and pay for the book or return it. I found it impossible to read the poems without singing them.  Singing, “She’s Leaving Home” in my fake English accent to an audience made up of myself, I noticed that I didn’t need to read along. I’ve already committed the lyrics to memory. However, I decided to add the book to my collection, perhaps to add to my classroom library. It would be great for English language learners. Maybe fate had planted that book in the hood of my jacket and it has some deep purpose in my life. That sounds reasonable to me. When I went back to pay for it, the clerk didn’t say anything and her face was impassive.

I myself am planning to leave home very shortly. Where exactly, I don’t know. I have a few ideas, but am not even sure in which direction I’ll go. The gloom of “She’s Leaving Home” got a little tiresome, even when I imitated John Lennon’s voice for the chorus, so I switched to “Honey Pie,” about another kind of lady, one who needs to get out and see the world. That one I can sing while pretending to tap dance.