WHAT’S THE MATTER, MARLO?
By Andrew Arnold
By Matthew Cordell
“We only have 42 more Christmases until we are dead.”
This is what my 4-year-old told me in mid-December before bedtime. He has been testing out these kinds of musings on mortality a lot lately. I quickly changed the subject, asking which he would prefer, “PJ Masks” or dinosaur pajamas. The truth is, I am terrified of engaging him in these death talks for fear of devastating him. “Everyone you know will die someday. Many in your own lifetime and the more you love them the harder it will be to say goodbye.” Where do I begin?
Picture books are the perfect medium by which to introduce one of the more difficult and complicated of life’s challenges: grief.
Andrew Arnold’s “What’s the Matter, Marlo?” follows a child and her best friend, Marlo, spending time together laughing as they read a joke book and playing hide-and-seek. One day Marlo is upset. He’s sad and angry. So angry that his rage, a mass of dark scribbles, fills the page and obscures him. Just as in hide-and-seek, the friend looks and looks until she finds Marlo, hiding in his grief. (His dog’s death is hinted at visually.) The book concludes as they hug and cry together, “because that’s what best friends do.”
It’s beautifully precise, and accessible in its simplicity. Not only does it speak to grief in others, insightfully separating the person from the (sometimes eruptive and unpredictable) emotions, but it also models empathy. The role of the friend is to be present, patient and compassionate.
In Matthew Cordell’s “Bear Island,” we are offered a similar canvas, and the picture is painted with Cordell’s signature sensitivity.
We follow a girl, Louise, on her own emotional trek after the death of the family dog. The book begins with sepia-toned illustrations, bleached and faded like a forgotten T-shirt in the back of a station wagon. In her malaise, Louise rows out to the titular island, where she encounters an ill-tempered bear in whom she recognizes a familiar anger and sadness. Over time they become companions in their respective wanderings through grief.
“Some days, only Louise was better. Some days, only Bear was better.” Colors are introduced to the palette as grief fades and happiness returns.
Unlike “What’s the Matter, Marlo?,” “Bear Island” depicts a layered and complex journey. We are shown the true tragic nature of grief as it happens to all of us. It’s a slow process with ups and downs and no quick fixes. Cordell speaks eloquently and respectfully to the universal experience of loss and recovery.
Authors such as Andrew Arnold and Matthew Cordell appreciate the unique privilege of creating safe spaces for our children to explore these multifaceted emotions. Their books promote self-awareness and understanding. After they are closed, there may be hard conversations, and questions that have no answers, but we’re left with a comforting message: It will be OK if we are here for one another.