In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Death, religion, and the afterlife

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm so sorry the Comment Challenge happened when I was ostriched in my end-of-term work.  Maybe I'll have to challenge myself unofficially during summer vacation.

The books you and Denise have been talking about sound extraordinary and powerful, and are certainly some that I will want to read with Eleanor and Isabel when they get a little older.  War and slavery and the terrible things people do to one another are certainly tough topics to broach with kids; I know there are many difficult conversations ahead.

Right now, for me, the issues that are looming large and difficult are those of death, religion, and the afterlife.  The Christmas season brought with it a first-time awareness on Eleanor's part of the story of Jesus, and there were plenty of nativity scenes in our neighborhood for her to notice ("Look!  It's Baby Jesus!").  As you know, I come from a non-religious family.  While I want my kids to be exposed to and understand various religious traditions and beliefs, I'm not teaching them that one religion is the right path, or that I, or anyone, knows what happens after we die.  Sometimes I'm sorry I don't have this certainty, and can't pass it on to them.

Our conversations about death have stemmed sometimes from books -- fairy tales in particular, where people are always dying and coming back to life -- and sometimes from real-life conversations.  Eleanor understands, sort of, that my grandparents all died before she was born.  Recently, we were talking about Grandma Ruth, and I said I missed her, and Eleanor said, "That's okay, Mommy.  You'll get another grandma." and I had to explain that no, unlike in so many stories, death is permanent.

Last weekend at my parents' house, Eleanor wanted me to read her one of the books from their kids' bookshelf (happily, they saved everything from Michael's and my childhood): The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola.  I had itchy I don't like that book feelings about it, but couldn't remember exactly why.  The visit before, I put her off, but last weekend we sat down and read it.

dePaola's drawings are, as always, beautiful and expressive.  The Clown of God is a retelling of an old French legend about a poor boy who raises himself up by becoming a talented juggler and clown.  He performs all over the country, making audiences happy with his act, which culminates with a rainbow of balls, the last a golden sun.  His success fades as he ages, and he gets to a point where he stumbles, and the audience throws things at him.  He quits juggling and wanders the country, begging, until he ends up at a monastery, where he sees a statue of Mary and baby Jesus being worshiped during a church service.  After the rest of the people leave, the old clown puts on his makeup and juggles for the stone-faced baby statue.  The show is amazing, best he's ever done.  Then he drops dead.  When a scandalized monk comes to see the sacrilege that is happening in the church, he finds the Jesus statue holding the golden ball, a smile on his face.

There's a lot going on here: death, the idea of doing something beautiful to make God happy, the question of why people would throw things at an old man.  I'm not sure what aspect of the book left me with my initial negative feelings about it; it's quite sweet in a number of ways.  But then there's the question of how Eleanor is taking this talk about God, coming from our house: is this a story to her like all the other stories we read?  Or does the fact that her friends are starting to talk about their belief in God make religious stories read differently to her?  (She has, in the last week, attached two necklaces to the headboard of her bed, and when I asked her why, she said, "To make God happy.")

The other book that came to mind for me on this topic is a very different one, a chapter book for older readers about a pair of brothers, aged 10 and 13, who embark on a saga-like adventure after death. The Brothers Lionheart was written by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame, though it bears little resemblance in tone to its more famous cousin.  The narrator, Karl, is a terminally ill 10-year-old boy; his older brother Jonathan is strong, smart, and brave.  Karl learns at the very beginning of the book that he is about to die, and Jonathan tries to reassure him by explaining that after death, they will both go to Nangiyala, the land where sagas come from.  In saving Karl from a fire, Jonathan unexpectedly dies first; Karl follows him, and the two brothers find themselves in an afterlife filled with adventure, battles of good against evil, and traitors.  It is, and is not, the land they were hoping it to be.

I remember loving this book as a kid; tonight, rereading bits of it, I was immediately sucked in again.  There is an immense seriousness to Karl's narration -- it's an adventure story, but a weighty one, and even the ending is not easy or happy.  The Brothers Lionheart, too, makes me itch a little uncomfortably, but in a productive kind of way.  It's a vision of the afterlife which, I'm sure, will spark all kinds of interesting conversation down the road.

Love, Annie

1 comment:

  1. Both new to me, but both very timely. We have a similar situation to you - we're a nonreligious home and yet want our daughters to know about different religions (and the possibility of none). Nevertheless I feel uncomfortable when religion comes up in picture books, especially christianity - probably because it's the dominant religion in our culture. We've recently been reading two lovely books about death from Sweden (Goodbye Mr Muffin and All the Dear Little Animals, both by Ulf Nilsson) and here you are with two books about death, one of which is also from Sweden!