Compiled by Janelle Mathis
The last My Take/Your Take for April continues with a focus on picture books. For the students involved, part of a doctoral class on critical content and visual analysis of international literature, many picture books became unique points of discussion. In light of the recent 2017 recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, German author/illustrator Wolf Erlbruch, we read Duck, Death and the Tulip (2011) as well as other books by Erlbruch and some scholarly perspectives.
Thus, for our final My Take/Your Take for April it seemed only natural to share insights to this well-known book. Bill Visco, doctoral student and high school English teacher begins the discussion around Erlbruch’s story of Death and a duck who share time together as Death answers Duck’s questions about dying. For a while, Duck becomes a seemingly welcomed companion to Death. When Duck’s time comes, Death places his body gently in the pond with a black tulip draped across his body. Janelle, the course instructor, responds as well.
BILL: Duck, Death and the Tulip is an intriguing story by author and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch that introduces us to all three title characters as the story opens. Erlbruch’s simple yet powerful illustrations are intriguing and add to the overall simplicity of the story. In the beginning, the duck is taken back by how nonchalantly Death is walking up to her. “Oh, I’ve been close by your whole life, just in case,” says Death to the Duck. This is an interesting reminder that “death” is honestly always there, in a way waiting on us.
The story is a simple one of the Duck and Death sharing experiences together like swimming and climbing trees, though the whole time the Duck seems slightly concerned about what happens when he does indeed die. Erlbruch’s Death character is very up front about his purpose and explains things rather openly with the Duck. He is never scary in his explanation but rather matter of fact. Erlbruch’s illustration of Death, in contrast, is a little off-putting as a skeleton and could bother some younger children, despite Erlbruch using facial expressions to ease the harshness of the skeleton. However, the calm, caring demeanor in which Death treats the Duck both in life and finally in Death makes the character more realistic than frightening.
Overall, I thought this was a nice book about life and death. It is certainly something that can be used in a classroom or even in a family setting that is dealing with the passing of a loved one or in situations where students or children have questions about death. Like other books about death, such as City Dog, Country Frog (Mo Willems, 2010), the author uses the season as a symbol/stage of life, which is something good for young readers to be aware of and look for in future readings.
One thing that did bother me was the discussion between the Duck and Death when they are climbing a tree and the duck is concerned about the pond. “Then you’re dead the pond will be gone too — at least for you,” Death said. This makes the Duck feel better as he thinks to himself he won’t have to mourn the loss of the pond. The problem with this for me is that it finalizes death and makes it a loss of everything that you love or enjoy. Some students of faith might find this hard to understand and not know why the duck wouldn’t be able to have the pond in heaven. So I think that religious aspect, which is essentially missing from this book, might be something that needs to be navigated by a teacher or parent if used with young children.
JANELLE: As we read and discussed this book in class, we all were cognizant of the fact we had begun April’s My Take/Your Take with a book on death — the Batchelder winner for 2017 entitled Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Ringtved, 2016). So comparisons were made across these two titles that each have a unique explanation for and about death and couch the message if sensitively told narrative. Since the U.S. doesn’t have many books that deal so boldly with sensitive issues, these books were intriguing, although the plan was not to focus on the issue of death but to tap into award winning books and their creators from different countries.
My response after this reading of the book focused on the kindness of Duck to Death, offering warmth when he was cold and opportunity to play. I wondered from his brief responses if Death had known little pleasures and received little attention from the living. I also wondered, since our class has been considering critical perspectives, if this might be a way of saying people “Other” death by treating it as a “less than” aspect of the life cycle.
In trying to highlight perspectives on Death, Duck and the Tulip, I pulled an article from Bookbird 51/4 (2013) that discusses death in four international books — all considered outstanding globally. “Death and the Empathic Embrace in Four Contemporary Picture Books” is written Lesley Clement. With a well created insightful visual analysis of Duck, Death and the Tulip, Clement makes the statement, “Duck and Death overcome their fear of one another by physically and psychologically experiencing each other’s vulnerability.” This made me reread both text and illustrations in light of my response in the above paragraph.
Secondly, she describes the stance and actions of Death when he realizes Duck has died to include the black tulip, which is a known farewell to someone dear. I was reminded of the significance of all aspects of the visual design of a picture book since when I revisited these pages, I had more emotional feelings for Death as well as Duck. The third item that I left considering in light of Duck, Death and the Tulip as well as Cry, Heart, but Never Break and City Dog, Country Frog mentioned above by Bill, is the reminder by a psychologist that “death is a social construct.”
BILL: I agree with your feeling that Death probably has had little to no interaction with others and is in fact “othered” by society. That is an interesting perspective to take, but I agree with it. This idea would probably lead to a good class discussion, even in younger grades. It is nice that Duck allows Death to share in the joys of his life and yet I go back to a point I made, that Death mentions that he is always there, for all of us, just in case. I do like that Death leaves the Tulip on Duck and takes the pains to bring Duck to the river and so forth, all very symbolic gestures of affection.
However, unlike Cry, Heart, But Never Break and even City Dog, Country Frog where death is a theme and even a character in the former, there is no one remembering the deceased after Duck dies. This can be seen as kind of a cold ending — sweet for sure with Death taking care of Duck but cold as there is no one in whose memory Duck “lives on.”
Further, I agree partly with the Clement quote about Duck and Death. I believe yes, Duck overcomes his fear of death by experiencing things with Death, however I do not think that Death overcomes a fear to speak of. Yes, he comes out of the shadows and shares experiences, but I am not sure that we can say he is overcoming some sort of fear by spending time with Duck. If anything, it is akin to Cry, Heart, Never Break where Death takes his time and tries to teach the living that death is just a part of life and one we have to reconcile ourselves with in order to enjoy what we have while we have it.
JANELLE: As I think about your last line here as well as previous comments regarding the metaphorical and philosophical perceptions on death, I am reminded about the power of picture books for all readers. They enable us to take difficult issues to more complex levels through often simple text but intricate illustrations. It is no wonder that Wolf Erlbruch has been given the 2017 ALMA honor as this is but one example of his life’s work in illustration.
I’ll leave this discussion thinking about the physical yet social construct of death and how perceptions of it can reflect a variety of cultures within the global society. I also think Bill’s acknowledgement of there being no one in Duck, Death and the Tulip to maintain the memory of Duck (as opposed to the other titles mentioned) is a significant reminder of the power of personal stories in our memory to sustain us in times of grief and to be a legacy of our lives.
Title: Duck, Death and the Tulip
Author: Wolf Erlbruch
Publisher: Gecko Press
Date Published: September 1, 2011