The Funeral, by Matt James (2018)

Children’s Fiction
The Funeral, by Matt JamesThis is the first of two children’s picture books dealing with death I’m reviewing today. Matt James is the Canadian illustrator who so beautifully created images to accompany the words of the Stan Rogers ballad, Northwest Passage, for a picture book that I reviewed several years ago now. (He won a Governor-General’s Award for that one!) This is his first foray into both writing and illustrating a children’s picture book, and he does it brilliantly. Funerals are difficult for children, both conceptually and emotionally, so I was expecting images of frowning and shushing grown-ups. But James captures the conflicting emotions perfectly – Norah really is sad that her Great-Uncle Frank is dead, and practises her “sad face,” but she is secretly happy to have a day off school. Plus she’ll be seeing her favourite cousin at the church where everyone is gathering to say goodbye to Great-Uncle Frank. The day itself is full of contrasts – teary-eyed, her mother stuffs her purse – the one that smells SO good! – with tissues. On the way, Norah notices a flag on the car that says FUNERAL – a word she notes starts with F-U-N … she also gets into a bit of trouble when she plays with the window buttons. James lets the reader explore the day from Norah’s view: thinking about Uncle Frank in his coffin, fidgeting and daydreaming during a llloooonnnggg service with dust motes and flowers and “a swirling song,” tasting the appealing little sandwiches at the reception, and joyfully playing in warm sunshine with a beloved cousin. Much of the story is told through the images, creating space for imagining even more to this lovely story. The illustrations are bold and lush, done in acrylics, ink, and even some collage work, showing Norah bursting with energy in some panels and suitably quiet in others. While Norah and Rae appear to be Caucasian, there are mourners all around them with different colour skin. And always there is a sense of family – hugs and tears and smiles and gentle corrections – lending a solid foundation of love to the pain of saying goodbye. In the penultimate panel, we see Norah’s feet skipping up the stairs to her home, sandwiched between her parents’ legs. At heart, this is a book about love and family as much as it is about celebrating someone who has passed on. My thanks to publisher Groundwood Books for the review copy provided in exchange for my honest review. It’s a brand-new release and has already earned starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, SLJ, and Publisher’s Weekly – well deserved!
More discussion and reviews of this picture book:


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