*Starred Review* When we first received this book, I wanted to review it quickly and get it out of the way. It was so sad. Instead, I pushed it aside and kept pushing it aside--for the same reason. Finally, the book was getting late; it was time to deal with it. As I sat down to write, I realized that my reaction to Rosen and Blake's provocative collaboration was based on the same impulses people have who are faced with real grief: deal with it quickly and say it's done, or sweep it under the rug for a time and then, finally, look at it squarely and begin the struggle.
The book begins with a head shot of Rosen: "This is me being sad." But the picture shows him smiling, at least until you look more closely. Then you realize that the twist of his lips and teeth forms a grimace. The text goes on to say he's pretending because he thinks people won't like him if he's sad. In a clipped, first-person text, Rosen relates that he's sad because his son, Eddie, has died. Illustrated snaps of Eddie in Blake's signature scrawl show him as a baby, a boy, a teen. The last frame is blank. The extent of Rosen's rage is staggering, but it's quiet, not loud (wouldn't want to scare the children, eh?). It pierces with its honesty: "Sometimes because I'm sad I do bad things. I can't tell you what they are. They're too bad. And it's not fair to the cat." (And, yes, kids will understand that this is black humor.)
When the book is at its darkest--and Blake's black-and-gray line work wrests every bit of the agony from the understated words--there is despair. The ways in which Rosen tries to comfort himself--by rationalizing that everyone has his or her own pain or by trying to do things he is proud of--only work a little. An adult reader may wonder at this point, Is the book even for young people? Is it too self-indulgent?
To think that would be to dismiss the truth we all try to hide from: sadness is part of the human condition. Children know this as well as adults and perhaps feel it even more keenly since they haven't had as much time to develop defenses. This book tells them what they already intuit, and while you might not want to give it to a child who, at the moment is happy, you would most certainly want to give it to one who is sad. It shows children that they are not alone, and it does so brilliantly.
And Rosen is not left in total despair. As time passes, he begins to look at things more intently, and those moments push up happier memories, some even about Eddie. Remembrances of birthdays bring to mind candles: "There must be candles." This slow evolution allows Blake to lighten his pictures both in color and underlying spirit. The last spread shows Rosen sitting at a table, unshaven, focused intently on one lit candle, which one hopes is bright enough to lead him to a better place.
This book's power is in its utter honesty. No couching, no prettying up. It's as if Rosen and Blake are taking readers by the hand and saying, "C'mon, let's look at this now. Sadness, yes. Here it is." But they pull you just past the heartbreak, too. The journey from grief to a glimmer of hope is a long, often lonely one, but there's relief in knowing that it's possible. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved