{picture book} simply & painfully beautiful

on

my fathers arms are a boat coverMy Father’s Arms are a Boat

by Stein Erik Lunde; illus. Øyvind Torseter

translated from Norwegian by Kary Dickson

Enchanted Lion Books 2012

orig. Eg Kan Ikkje Sove No published by Det Norske Samlaget (2008)

It’s never been so quiet.

Unable to sleep, a young boy climbs into his father’s arms. Feeling the warmth and closeness of his dad, he asks about the birds. He asks about the foxes.

He asks about his mom. (jacket copy)

My Father’s Arms are a Boat begins with a boy unable to sleep, which is hardly strange. Nor is it, at first, remarkable that his father, still dressed for the day, is sitting alone in the living room. The boy is worried about the fox stealing bread left out for the bird, which is hardly a strange preoccupation of a restless child, and it is precious how the father would reassure his son about the goings on of the world outside at nighttime (dark time).

MyFathersArms6-largeA subtle and yet consciously painful awareness of loss has already seeped in by the time  the boy tells us what granny says about the red birds, before the boy asks about his mom. The loaf beside the colorful child’s swing in the first image, the external shot of the house, looks lonely—uninhabited—but mind the silhouettes. The boy’s room in the next image is vast and cold, not in the least cozy. And note where the bed is; as well as the boy is curled the edge, uncovered. In the third image, the father, amidst the domestic space, holds a mug and a posture that could read drowsy or sad and unable to sleep (unwilling to sleep). He is alone.

MyFathersArms7small1_2His aloneness didn’t strike me at all, nor that the boy had not sought out a female figure. In the topsy-turvy room of the next image, the father is the boat and this moment makes all the sense in the world. The subject matter of the accompanying text is about tomorrow and sleep—but what should be so slanted and oddly planed about such an image for a conversation with a boy who is unable to sleep like many children will often experience—we’ve stacks of children’s picture books about this very matter—sleeplessness and/or unwillingness to go to bed.

It’s dark and neither want to be alone.

There is a fox hunting outside, a bright hue against the snow-white landscape.

my fathers arms are a boat pageWe learn of the mother before the father suggests a viewing of the stars. He goes to bundle his son for a trek outdoors. From vast empty rooms to a vast empty outer landscape. The text carries us, the father’s suggestion, his move to continue and brush past that inescapable dawning of the mother’s absences, of their loss.

I look up at the stars.

I look at the moon that looks like a boat.

My dad’s arms are like a boat, too.

One that sails me out into the middle of the yard. The boat stops.

The stars are so far away and yet so close.

‘If you see a shooting star, you can make a wish,’ Daddy says.

‘I know.’

‘But you’ can’t tell anyone what it is.’

‘I know.’

The closing sequences upon returning home are warmer, colorful, more contained in composition. The text reflect the progression of comfort, the movement toward rest. The red birds appear.

My Father’s Arms are a Boat is a quietly powerful book. There is impact in the spare images yet intimate details of the exchanges between father and son. There is nothing easy about this picture book constructed of paper cut out and line work, complex dimensions and layers. The tenderness in the language is breathtaking.

In her Kirkus starred review, Julie Danielson’s concludes that the book is “raw but hopeful. Spare and beautiful. Definitely thought-provoking. It’s not often we see picture books like this, ones unafraid to be contemplative. Or even sad.” –which is appropriate to the subject-matter, isn’t it? Lunde’s and Torseter’s fearlessness in My Father’s Arms are a Boat is something to experience.

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{images belong to Øyvind Torseter}

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