By Stian Hole
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
On shelves now
In the head of even the most open-minded person there are still in-born beliefs of what purpose a picture book really serves. If you sat your average citizen down and played that old word association game, the term "picture book" would inspire thoughts of Seuss or Sendak or Are You My Mother? Large American publishers recognize this and tend to publish homegrown titles that fulfill these whitebread expectations. The few overseas titles they bring in tend to be English or Australian. That leaves picture books from other places like China, Sweden, or Norway to the small publishers. Kane/Miller, Simply Read Books, and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers are some of the ones who are left to take chances on books that simply do not slot neatly into the little pre-ordained picture book categories we have in our heads. So when a book like Garmann’s Summer plops down on your lap, your initial instinct is to reject it. "It looks weird!" "What’s this book about?" "Why’s he look like that?" It’s a knee-jerk series of reactions. Only when you slow down, read the book fully, and think about it do you realize that maybe there’s room in this world for a small unassuming Norwegian tale about a boy’s thoughts on death, age, fear, and losing your baby teeth. Children, as odd as it sounds, are not adverse to age-appropriate emotional complexity.
Garmann is six-years-old and soon he’ll be attending his first day of school. Not surprisingly, he’s a little scared about this. The summer is almost over and once again, as they do every year, three old aunts have come to visit Garmann’s family to drink coffee in the garden and admire the season’s show. Talking about many things with the aunts, Garmann discovers what it is that they are afraid of. Aunt Ruth is scared of having to switch to a walker soon, and the cold winter ahead. Aunt Borghild is a little scared of death. Aunt Augusta has few memories left, and so she is scared of very little. Garmann’s daddy is sometimes scared when he plays in the orchestra that he’ll make a wrong note. Garmann’s mama is scared that her son might someday run into the busy street. And soon, with little asides about teeth, Batman hats, and the summer, the aunts leave on their boat and Garmann puts his things in order for the first day of school. And he’s a little scared.
When this book won the 2007 Bologna Ragazzi Award for excellence in children’s book publishing, the citation accompanying Garmann’s Summer said of it, "The book has a poetic force that sets itself apart." True enough. But even more than this, I feel that it’s the tone of this book that stays with you. Let’s separate it out from its illustrations for just a moment here. Though translated, Garmann’s Summer doesn’t have that slightly off-kilter feel of a book written in one language and transferred to another. What it does have is a quietness. A patience. From the start, the story acknowledges that sometimes the only grown-ups six-year-olds can really connect with are the elderly. It’s almost as if at a certain point, old people have gained enough wisdom to talk to small people AND tall people in meaningful ways. Maybe that’s what it means to be wise.
Plus the translation is almost eerily seamless. Terms and names switch from one language to another without so much as a hitch. For example, it appears that the term "butterflies in your tummy" is the same in Norwegian as it is in English. And there is no fear that translator Don Bartlett took creative license with any of this since the accompanying illustration is of Garmann behind an x-ray, butterflies fluttering about clear as crystal. At another point Garmann, "realizes that the flowers have the same names as old ladies – Gladiola, Dahlia, Chrysanthemum, Marigold, and Petunia." Again, true in both cultures. We are not as different as we may think. There is one important fact that didn’t translate entirely, however. Garmann would be starting Kindergarten if he were an American child. Yet in this book his first day of school will be in the first grade. This may prove a little confusing to kids when they read the book, but it’s not a make or break detail by any means.
One of the most requested books out there is the average First Day of School picture book title. Countdown to Kindergarten, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, Will I Have a Friend?, etc. All these books tap into children’s anxieties and worries. What "Garmann’s Summer" does so deftly is tie an understandable fear (the first day of school) into grown-up fears (leaving, death, messing up) and in doing so shows kids that all human beings are afraid of something. Now in an American title this would mean that the book would inevitably end with a neat and tidy resolution. Somehow the message of "there’s nothing to be afraid of" would filter in and everything would be hunky dory by they tale’s end. There are many reasons to believe while reading Garmann’s Summer that it was not originally produced in America, but the clearest of these is the ending. The very last four sentences of the book are, "From the corner of his eye he sees the first leaf falling from the apple tree. Before going to bed he checks his teeth one last time to see if any are loose. Thirteen hours to go before school starts. And Garmann is scared." The thing is, this isn’t seen as a good or bad thing, but a fact. The accompanying image is of Garmann looking at a windowsill, his packed backpack on the floor behind him. It’s a wistful kind of ending. One that assures children, without saying too much, that they are not alone in their fears. Everyone is scared of something.
Stian Hole’s words are one matter. His illustrations, the first thing people react to upon seeing this book, are another. On a first reading I was initially repulsed by how different the images were from anything else I’d ever seen. A kind of mixed-media collage of photographs, drawings, and retro images, some adults have a hard time with this book. I’d love to pinpoint exactly why this is. For some of them, maybe it has to do with the three aunts. Hole doesn’t beautify their wrinkles or pretty up their age. These women, whoever they might be, are old old old. There’s one shot of Auntie Borghild asleep that shows every crease, crevice, and wrinkle on her face (to say nothing of the occasional white hair on her chin) that back up the sentence, "The wrinkles remind Garmann of rings on a tree" perfectly. Here in America, we don’t see many wrinkles in our media. Old people don’t have reality shows. In picture books, when we do see them, they tend to be cartoons or drawings. To see a real old person this close reminds adults of aging and death, and we react accordingly. Kids, however, don’t see it that way. Faces, both young and old, fascinate them and they are willing to ask questions about them that adults would never dare. Children will love the pictures in this book. If anyone thinks that they are odd, it’s going to be people who already are familiar with the status quo.
I tend to pinpoint time periods with books like these, but Stian Hole likes to mix up eras as much as he does images. Garmann’s father leaves on a tour bus containing everyone from Elvis to lithographed heads. Garmann imagines Auntie Ruth on his skateboard, a fabulous flame image viewable on the underside. And Garmann’s toys are an amazing mix of ages too. At one point Garmann stands before a table containing his stuff. He is wearing a Batman shirt circa the Tim Burton film (note the bat image within the circle). On the table are three Batman comics, all in English too. The top one is a late 1960s issue, and underneath that are two comics that are much earlier (probably from the forties or so). There are also objects like tin toys, a pencil case, plastic Indians, two pogs (?) and, astoundingly, an Indian head nickel. What a little Norwegian boy is doing with an Indian head nickel is beyond my comprehension. In any case, Garmann’s backpack is contemporary, so Hole is clearly messing with our minds here. Don’t try to pin this book down. It resists your every attempt to do so.
None of this is to say that the book is for everyone. It isn’t. There will be a lot of parents that eye the cover warily when you hand it to them, smile, and place it gently back on the shelf again. But a book like "Garmann’s Summer" teaches us that not everyone in this world is alike. Sometimes you’re going to find creative adults who are willing to read this story, love it, and pass it on to their children who will (in turn) read the book and love it too. I receive a lot of books for review and I keep almost none of them. Garmann’s Summer, however, is one of the few I will keep until my children (whenever I have them) are old enough to go to school. Like nothing you’ve ever read before, this is the very definition of a beautiful children’s picture book. Highly recommended.
Other Blog Reviews: Roxanne’s Journal of Stories ("from ‘Ugh’ to ‘Brilliant!!!’")