Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: Slog's Dad by David Almond

I read a wonderful little book today:  Slog's Dad by David Almond, Illustrated by Dave MacKean.  This book reminds me of an excellent chocolate truffle; at only 55 pages, you can't believe it will fill you up, but it contains such weighty themes presented in such a beautiful way that it can leave you pondering for hours.

What themes does it raise, might you ask?  Well, pretty much the biggest one--what happens after we die?  Is there life after death?  Can the spirits of those who have passed on still connect with the living?  How do you deal with the death of someone you love, especially if you are an adolescent boy (it is never specified, but the pictures seem to indicate that) and the person who died is your beloved father?  And what do you do if the person experiencing that loss is your best friend?  Like I say, pretty weighty issues.

So Almond deals with these heavy issues in a beautiful way; he tells a simple story about a simple family and a simple neighborhood.  His story is almost like a fairy tale, expect that it is grounded in a gritty urban reality.  It is a really clever way, I think, to introduce a complex question like death to the middle school age group.

Almond's story is enhanced, however, by the beautiful, haunting, and diverse images provided by MacKean's illustrations.    Whereas Almond's story is told from the point of view of Davie, best friend of the boy who has lost his father and a sceptic about the notion of the dead returning, the wordless segments of sequenced illustrations tell the story of Slog and the ways he tries to grapple with his father's death.  The two work together, much like the pictures and text of the Caldecott Award-winning book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to tell a fuller tale than either could do on its own.

Now, sites like Amazon say that this book is for 4-8 year olds, but I think that is crazy.  Perhaps it is at that reading level, but I think the emotional maturity required to appreciate this book would begin around the middle school age.   A second analogy I would attach to this book is that it reminded me of J.K. Rawling's brilliant inclusion of the concept of thestrals in the Harry Potter series (only one more week until the movie debuts here!  I'm so excited!).  Thestrals, the skeletal horse creatures that pull the Hogwarts carriages, can only be seen by those who have experienced death.  This is a thestral book, in that I think only those who have some first hand knowledge of grief (like us adults, but also all too many tweens and teenagers) can really appreciate the depth and richness of this book.   My son thought it was good, but he did not linger over it as I did.  But I think it is a great introduction to this topic, and will be there in his memory banks when he comes face to face with something like this himself.

I would also say that I think it is particularly geared towards males.  It depicts the incoherent ways that young men, who so often don't deal with their issues with words, struggle with strong emotions they don't understand...both the loss of a dad, and the discomfort of supporting a buddy who is dealing with that.

All in all, it is a lovely book that is hard to define, but worth the consideration of both middle schoolers and their parents.

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