My January column for Viva Brighton magazine; it’s not just about death, it’s about the wonderful Frog books by Max Velhuijs.
My three-year-old daughter and I find a dead blackbird on the pavement. It’s lying neatly with its wings tucked in, head to one side, feathers glossy with rainwater. I stop, put the brakes on the buggy and, without thinking, take two pictures on my phone. My daughter, who I have my back to, says, “What’s that Mummy?”
“A dead bird,” I reply, followed by a slightly tongue-tied “very sad,” and we carry on. I think no more of it until the next day when my daughter says pointedly: “We saw a dead bird.”
“We did,” I reply briefly, feeling incompetent. I know the word ‘dead’ needs translation, but I don’t know where to start. The only conversation I remember having with Mr about difficult questions was short and, by comparison, inane: “When S asks me what the internet is,” I asked, “what should I say?”
“Did you ever ask your parents ‘what is a book?’” was the reply.
If only death was so straightforward a topic.
A neighbour introduced us to the Dutch childrens’ author Max Velhuijs recently, giving our daughter two ‘Frog’ books tucked into a generous heap of hand-me-downs. Summarised as ‘miniature morality plays for our age,’ Velhuijs’ innocent-looking books explore some of the big topics it can be paralysing to discuss with children. I am bowled over by the beauty and poignancy of Frog is Sad, in which Frog feels like crying, but he doesn’t know why. So much so, I order the full series of 12 online, for £9.99.
Frog and the Birdsong, I save for last because a Glaswegian friend tells me it’s “well dark”. I’m feeling tentative after a worrying moment reading Frog is Frightened to a friend’s child, who cried: “THERE’S SOMETHING UNDER THE BED!” Are these books ‘age appropriate,’ I wonder?
In Frog and the Birdsong, Frog and his friend Pig find a blackbird in a clearing. The bird looks uncannily like the one we saw, making me think now must be time to read. The friends think the blackbird is asleep at first, then Duck joins them, who wonders if the bird is ill. When Hare arrives, he shares a painful truth. “Everything dies,” he says.
The friends bury the bird together; they share a thoughtful moment; then get distracted by their play. On the final page, a blackbird in a tree is singing and my anxiety about the book’s suitability is surpassed by a realization. My reaction to the real dead blackbird was far less reverent, or useful.
The next time my daughter remembers the blackbird, however, we are prepared. “Like in the Frog book,” I say, and she smiles in agreement. She demands I read Frog and the Birdsong three more times and afterwards she starts a game, burying her toy owl. She takes strips of ribbon and lays them carefully over him. “Owl is a little bit dead,” she says calmly, and together we carry Owl gingerly across the room, trying not to spill the ribbons.