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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen

Once, a long time ago, I worked in the Children’s Center at 42nd Street, in the main location of New York Public Library. One of the perks of the job was speaking with tourists from all over the world that, one way or another, would somehow find themselves (often accidentally) on the ground floor of the building where the children’s room was. One day, two young Norwegian women entered. They perused the books and then asked, quite seriously, if there were any books in the room by Norwegians. Being of Norwegian descent myself I exclaimed, perhaps a little too over-enthusiastically, that OF COURSE there were Norwegian children’s books here! But upon reflection, the only author I could think of was Jo Nesbø and his “Fart Powder” series (which, now that I work with adult materials, seems odder to me than ever). They nodded, sort of expecting Nesbø, a little disappointed that I couldn’t really come up with much of anyone besides him and Asbjorsen (which would be the equivalent of me walking into a Norwegian library, being told the only children’s books they had from America were James Patterson and the Grimm Brothers). And so, over the years, long long after those women returned to the land of fjords and midnight sun, I have kept a sharp-eyed lookout for any and all children’s books from Norway. They crop up from time to time but none have ever caught my eye, my ear, and my heart as firmly as the thoroughly charming Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko and Mari Kanstad Johnsen. A different kind of dying dog book, this is a story that takes seriously the notion of celebrating a loved one’s life, even in the midst of their death. So the next time I run into Norwegians, any Norwegians at all, this is pretty much all I’m going to talk about.

Paws is dreaming. In this dream he is running with rabbits, but when at last he opens his eyes he has no desire to run anymore. Twice a day he and his boy, Edward, go for a walk. Today is no different, but today Paws is particularly tired. When he pauses, he dreams of rabbits again, and more than once Edward has to urge him along. They return home and now, “Paws doesn’t have to walk anymore. Paws doesn’t have to do anything anymore.” He climbs up into Edward’s bed. It’s strange that Edward’s eyes are now wet. So this good dog gives the boy’s hand a lick (“Edward needed that”) closes his eyes, and doesn’t wake up again. Later Edward returns to the places where they used to visit. And when he dreams, he sees his dog again. “He barks and wags his tail. Finds sticks. Chases rabbits. Just like before.”

When you set out to write a book about a dog, it is a good idea to make it clear how wonderful you believe them to be. But if you actually write the sentence, “Dogs are great because . . .” then you have a problem. The best picture books aren’t afraid of a little subtlety. Paws wouldn’t initially strike you as any kind of a canine ideal. He is old, and very large, and rather slow. He doesn’t want to play, just sleep. But knowing all this, watch how he still wags his tail, “just enough for Edward to notice,” when the kid suggests a walk. How he can justify the endeavor with a simple, “Edward could use some fresh air.” Dekko’s short sentences convey novels. Even on his last day on Earth, Paws attends to his boy. In fact, one of the most telling sentences in this book is when the two are in the park and for Edward, “The park is empty. No smells. No noises. No rabbits.” Right there on the page the reader can see rabbits and ducks and a whole host of other things, but for just a moment you’re seeing the world through the dog’s eyes and his foreshortened senses. The economy of these sentences floors me every time I read them.

I am always pleased to see a new picture book translation hit American bookstore and library shelves. But every new translation poses a challenge to its publisher. Alas, Kids Can Press does not credit the translator of this particular book by name, which does that person a disservice. After all, one of the many things I liked about Paws + Edward was its willingness to retain the sentences’ length. The subtlety of the translation shines through. This begs the obvious question: Will the average American consumer know at a glance that this isn’t from an English speaking country? The answer to that may lay in the art. Considering that artist Mari Kanstad Johnsen only recently was selected for Norway’s “New Voices” program at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair, it is probably safe to say that this is the first time one of her works has come so far. Certainly her style is European. I can’t tell you precisely how you can tell. It has something to do with the free-flowingness of the line. Of how expansive the figures in her book are. Maybe it’s the color choices. Maybe it’s the inks. Whatever it is, it’s different. Different in all the right ways.

I don’t think the book would necessarily have worked with a different artist attached either. You’d still have Dekko’s lovely words, but it’s Johnsen’s art that conveys this bone-deep exhaustion Paws feels. Look at that picture of Paws resting while Edward chats with a friend. He isn’t just slumped against a tree. His entire body is using that tree as a sole means of support. So much so that by the time you get to the end of the book, his quiet death feels as much a relief as anything else. Even the endpapers propel the story forward. The front ones show Paws and Edward in younger, happier days. The back endpapers are seemingly bereft of the pair. Bereft, that is, until you peer closely. For the record, when the tiniest of black silhouettes on the endpapers give you a little catch in your throat, you know the artist is doing something right.

I haven’t talked much about the fact that when you get right down to it, Paws + Edward is a book about the death of a pet. We’ve had a lot of those in recent years but most, as with this year’s The End of Something Wonderful concentrate primarily on what happens when the pet is already gone. This book is a little different. It shows an old pet at the end of its days, accepting what it can no longer do, dying in comfort and peace alongside someone who loves it. Imported children’s books have always had a different attitude towards death than we tend to see in the States. Admittedly, books like the Dutch Jellybeans by Sylvia van Ommen or the German classic Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch tend to be a little too metaphorical for American readers. We do better with straightforward situations. As such, I would, without hesitation, hand this book to any kid with an elderly pet. As a means of showing them a glimpse of what is to come, there are few books to compete.

When is a book about a dog more than just a dog book? Or a book about grief more than just about death? To make their lives easier, publishers like to slot books into categories. This one goes in the pile of books about holidays, while that one is for kids afraid of getting haircuts. But no matter the type, the best picture books transcend their boxes. Paws + Edward never tries to do anything more than tell the end of the story of two best friends. It begins with a dog dreaming of running. It ends with a boy dreaming of that same dog running. It is sad and hopeful and moving. Dog lovers will love it. Dog agnostics will love it. Because in the end this isn’t about a dog dying. It’s about living a life so well that when it’s time to go, you do not hesitate.

You meet it in your dreams.

Running.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.