Reasons to Love Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

I recently discovered Michael Rosen’s Sad Book when a Facebook friend shared this image, which is the first page of the book.

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

I was intrigued. Within 48 hours I held a copy in my hands. Here are the reasons why I love it.

1. It fills a need I didn’t know I had. As a contemporary parent, I’ve been turned on to the importance of emotional literacy. I know that I’m supposed to talk to my sons about feelings, to help them learn to name specific feelings. I’ve seen handouts like this one, designed to facilitate this kind of learning.

I haven’t done much of this for two reasons. First of all, I struggle to name my own feelings with that kind of specificity. I don’t feel like a qualified instructor. Perhaps more importantly, I find these handouts a little boring. But the Sad Book takes a single emotion and blows it up. We get to see how sadness manifests in multiple ways. Some of pictures look like sadness; others look like anger, like joy, like beauty.

When my son saw the first page of the Sad Book, he let out a giggle and said: “That guy’s happy!” His initial reaction was the perfect segue to engaging more deeply with both the text and the idea.

2. It doesn’t tell a story. My main complaint about children’s literature today is that so often the illustrations surpass the writing. Many children’s books tell stories that may be serviceable enough, but they only hold a child’s (and a parent’s) attention for as long as it takes to get through the book. They don’t stick with us, or invite multiple readings.

The Sad Book alludes to the story of the author’s loss of his teenage son, but it doesn’t tell that story directly. In short, it’s not so much a story book, but an essay on sadness. This is right, since the point isn’t to make the reader feel sad, but to invite us to look at sadness from an outsider’s perspective.

3. Quentin Blake—who knew? Quentin Blake’s illustration style holds some history for me, since Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and Blake’s sketches illustrate most of his books. I always thought of his style as just that—sketchy. I liked his pictures well enough, but they never struck me as particularly impressive. (I was too young then to appreciate that sometimes simplicity is the hallmark of craft.) But look at this:

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

 

The Sad Book strikes me as the best possible showcase for Quentin Blake’s work. His illustrations here manage to balance comedy, tragedy and horror, often times all on a single page, capturing the complexity of the feelings that Rosen describes. Also, if I were an artist I could probably explain this better, but the way he captures light and shadow breaks my heart a little bit.

So that’s my pitch. I think that you should read Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Just to offer an alternate perspective, Kellie, my partner, hates the Sad Book. She thinks it’s too sad.

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13 comments

  1. I must find this book. And I too am surprised by this facet of Quentin Blake’s talent.
    I love the last line of this essay.

  2. I want to get this from the library. And the illustrations immediately made me think of Dahl’s books, which I love. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I want to find this! Your comments make me think of the saddest book I’ve ever read–not really for your kids now (or hopefully ever) but check it out anyway as a work of art about depression: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. It tells a visual story that’s utterly compelling.

  4. Okay, I have never really liked Quentin Blake’s illustrations… the BFG? Oy! Love the story, not so much the illustrations. But you’re making me rethink it. I am an artist and anything visual that breaks your heart a little bit is worth a serious revisit. So I’m off to the library. Thank you.

    1. I love the BFG. That and the Witches stick in my memory as my all-time favorite Roald Dahl books. I’m excited to read them with Smoke and see if they hold up.

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