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.