The Sad Book by Michael Rosen

h1 August 14th, 2006 by jules


“The best book creators express things to a one-year old that a one-hundred-year old can also respect.” — Betsy Hearne

I’m a little bit late in getting around to this one. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (2004, but with a 2005 first U.S. edition publication date), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book, is one I’ve been wanting to read, and it really was worth the wait. Saying this picture book is moving would be an understatement; it’s heart-rending, yet very hopeful.

Writing primarily about the death of his son (but mentioning the death of his mother as well), Rosen takes us on a staggeringly honest journey of grief. This is not one of those books in which a writer puts to great creative use big, writerly, thematic metaphors for grief or sadness, and then — with no surprise to you — you read the author bio and find out that the creator experienced a great loss. The book gives us what the title promises — a frank, straight-up account of what it feels like to grieve.

On the first page, Quentin Blake (of, primarily, Roald Dahl fame) brings to life Rosen’s words: “This is me being sad.” The illustration is one of a man, with a grin that goes from ear to ear. Look closely, though; it’s a forced, almost painful-looking, masquerading contortion of a smile. And then we read, “. . . Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy. I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad.” Blake uses bright red and yellow here; suddenly, on the next page (where his “sad is very big . . . All over me”), we see a man in profile, walking — outlined in a simple, black line and filled in with only grey and darker, blunter black scribbles — under oppressive, almost leaden, grey clouds. When Blake next shows us this man — this time full-on — that contrived smile is gone, the pretense altogether dropped. We see a man with empty, hollow eyes: “What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died. I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.”

And so we begin our journey with Rosen. He’s sometimes angry, lashing out at his son for leaving; he sometimes wants to talk to others about it and, other moments, wants to think about it on his own (“Because it’s mine. And no one else’s”); and, sometimes he does “crazy things” as well as “bad things. I can’t tell you what they are. They’re too bad. And it’s not fair to the cat” (this moment of dark humor providing a gratifying, most welcome laugh). He even admits to feeling sad sometimes for no reason.

Rosen tells us who gets sad, where is sad, when is sad, and how he tries to be sad without it hurting so much. He shares a poem about it that he’s written, hinting at the restorative power of art (in this case, the art and craft of writing) to help heal. All along, we’re shown illustrations of his son when he was alive, and when the book’s tone turns as Rosen shows us how his memories help him heal (memories of his son as well as “{m}y Mum in the rain”), Blake’s colors turn bright again — a touch of yellow here, some warm greens there — as our broken-hearted protagonist takes his baby steps towards a touch of redemption. And this comes, partly, in the form of his love of birthdays. “And candles. There must be candles.” And, folks, we are treated at the very end to an exquisite double-page spread illustration, almost holy in its light and poignancy, of this bereaved man now possessed by a (literal and figurative) glimmer of hope, as he stares at one brilliant birthday candle.

I dislike books that condascend to children, and I (boldly) speak on behalf of Eisha, too, when I say that. E.B. White wrote, “{a}nyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time.” This book is almost a paragon of this principle — Rosen writes with much vulnerability, openness, and straightforwardness. Blake’s illustrations are so spot-on; I remember reading somewhere that Rosen said he believes Blake took his anguish and turned around to perfectly portray that sorrow to the reader.

I hate playing that game of having to place a book in an age category, though I know it’s necessary, especially for librarians. If we must, I’ll place this in the Intermediate category (as I believe the publisher does), but this book is for all ages, for anyone who’s ever experienced loss of any kind and can appreciate an author and illustrator speaking of it with refreshing veracity. See the Betsy Hearne quote above. ‘Nuf said.

One comment to “The Sad Book by Michael Rosen”

  1. Oh, Jules, thanks for posting about this one. It really is as truly lovely and poignant as you say, and it needs to be shared.

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