Rachel Bomberger is EerdWord editor for Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and braiding her daughters’ hair (when they’ll let her).*
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I’ll confess: at first, I just didn’t get it. I’m a little naïve, I suppose.
There I was, bent over a stack of illustrated printouts, cramming for an EBYR acquisitions meeting and trying hard to come up with something insightful to say about this little enigma of a book — Anna’s Heaven — from Stian Hole.
It was beautiful. No doubt about that. Stunning, even.
It was utterly original – yes, that too. Hole’s work always is, speckled as it so often is with random Elvis cameos and hedgehogs, floating mailboxes, skateboards, and chrysanthemums in the loveliest of places.
Even so, somehow, the point of story managed to elude me. At least at first.
“You can spell kayak forward or backward and it’s the same word,” Anna says. “Like redder.”
“And Anna,” Dad says. “Hurry up now or we’ll be late.”
Even though she is looking away, Anna notices that her father is restless. She can feel it in the air, in the grass, in the scar on her knee, in the mole on her neck, and in every hair on her head. Anna knows that her dad gets restless when he is not looking forward to something.
Then, suddenly, everything came into focus, and the tears started to stream down my cheeks.
It’s her mom. They’re going . . . the church bells . . . it’s a funeral.
“Today there’s someone in the sky sending down nails. That’s not right, is it?” Dad says.
Once I finally see it, I can’t stop seeing it everywhere. Anna’s dead mother haunts every page of this book, and it’s heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once.
When I was a kid, there were three things I feared above all:
- Going blind.
- Losing my mother.
I’m all grown up now, and my list of big fears has grown with me, in intensity, if not in number:
- Snakes. (Some things never change.)
- Losing my children.
- Leaving my children motherless.
Hole’s tackled tough topics before — starting school, peer pressure, young love, aging relatives — but Anna’s Heaven goes above and beyond them all in its courage and candor.
There’s nothing solid or tangible about life after death in Hole’s almost whimsical fantasy. Anna’s heaven is not for real. It doesn’t pretend to be. There are no easy answers here, no certainties.
Answers and certainties aren’t the point, though. The path to peace for Anna and her father lies through wondering, through imagining, and through asking tough questions together.
“Why can’t he who knows everything, who can pull and push and turn over clouds and waves and planets — why can’t he invent something to turn bad into good?” Anna says.
“God should hang up a mailbox for people to send questions and complaints,” Dad answers.
You might disagree with me here, but I think this is the right way, the best way, to deal with death in a children’s picture book: not by ladling out empty answers, but simply by leaving open space for all the questions.
Children are full of questions about everything they see, hear, or feel. Many of them are especially curious about death. Each of mine has gone through a period of deep fascination with the subject, peppering me with questions that leave me feeling ill equipped and off balance.
What really happens to people when they die? they ask. Where do they go? And most heartrending of all: Why?
I have so few good answers to give them, and even the handful I can muster come only from a faith not seen: our bodies rest and wait in the earth; our souls rest and wait with the Lord. Why? I don’t know. Because this old world is broken, I guess.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got, and it scares me that I can’t tell them more.
If only . . .
“If only Mom could come back and braid my hair,” Anna sighs.
“Ah, if only she could,” Dad says.
“One day while Mom was brushing her hair in front of the mirror, she said everything had two sides.” Anna gives that some thought. “Do you think there’s anything on the other side of the mirror?”
“I don’t know, Anna, my sweet,” Dad says, squeezing his eyes shut.
Every time I revisit Anna’s Heaven, I have to stop often and squeeze my wet eyes shut as I read — but it’s a good, rich sadness. A beautiful sadness.
Click to order Anna’s Heaven by Stian Hole.
* Editor’s note: Over time, we at EerdWord have come to realize that all of our EerdWord reviews — written by Laura Bardolph Hubers, Jacob Thielman, Rachel Bomberger, and others of your favorite Eerdfolk — have two things in common:
1. They’re generally great reads.
2. They’re absolutely always 100% positive.
There are several very good reasons for #2. We do genuinely love the books we choose to write about, and we also like to offer unwavering public support for our books and authors. (If, as an author, you can’t count on your publisher to say nice things about your books online, you might need to find a new publisher.)
Even so, the fact that we’ve never published a negative — or even a mildly ambivalent — “review” on EerdWord has occasionally left us feeling uncertain about our choice of labels.
To ease our minds, we’re rebranding today’s post (along with all future blog-posts-formerly-known-as-EerdWord-reviews) a Staff Pick. It’s not quite as catchy, perhaps, but it is a fair bit more accurate, and that’s something.