Friday, July 25, 2008

Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole - review

Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole
From the land of Edvard Munch and Roald Dahl and the inventor of the key-card lock comes this interesting, introspective picture book.

Garmann is having a quiet, idyllic summer with his family - Mama, Dad, and his three extremely aged aunties. He feeds the sparrows in the hedge, he practices crossing the main road with Mama. It's his sixth summer, and he has all kinds of worries about entering first grade.

Garmann polls his family members about their fears. Each one confesses to a fear: the dentist, winter, death, except for Auntie Augusta, who doesn't remember things very well and so isn't afraid of anything.

You might expect each of these people, who love Garmann very much, to ask him about his own fears, to reassure him, to tell him that school is nothing to be afraid of. They don't. At the end of the book, on the evening before his first day of school, Garmann is still afraid.

I love this. I read it to my two kids, one of whom entered first grade last year, and one of whom is starting 5-day kindergarten this year, and we talked about Garmann and his fears. Both kids told me that Garmann would discover for himself that school is nothing to be afraid of.

"Do you think it's better to find that out for yourself? Or would it be better if his mom and dad told him not to worry?"
"Nobody can TELL you not to worry, Mom!"

There you have it. It's not that I disdain reassuring books with happy outcomes - we need lots of those books, about everything from starting school to head lice - but I think that we also need a book that reassures kids about being afraid. Everybody is afraid of something, and that's ok.

Garmann's Summer does for fear what Where the Wild Things Are does for anger: brings it in from the wilderness of hairy scary emotions and acknowledges the part it plays in our daily symphony of experience. It is telling that the only character who is without fear is also without most of her memories, gradually dropping away from Garmann and the rest of the world.

All of which is not to say that this book will be a beloved favorite for everyone. First of all, the illustrations, which I adore, are not everyone's cup of tea. My husband doesn't like them, for one. Characters have oversize heads and slender bodies - the aunties in particular are extremely realistic, hairy chins and all. My kids thought the book didn't have enough action, and they were pretty confused when one of the aunties described dying, after which she would "ride the great sky wagon to the great gate" etc.

I would love to read it to a small group of first graders, though, maybe after the first week or so of school. We could talk about what each of us is afraid of, and they would make fun of me for being scared of heights, like my own kids do.

Would make a spectacular book for a grownup who loves illustration, or introspection, or Norwegians.

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