The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer, Illus. by Cindy Derby

Review by Logaine Navascués

Candlewick, October 2020

48 pages, hardcover, $22.99 CAD, ISBN  978-0-7636-9832-4

Ages 4–8, Grades Pre-K–3

Picture Book, Contemporary Realism

Sometimes, grief fills up everything in and around us, like an enormous dark gorilla standing in the middle of the room: present and inevitable, yet still unimaginable. With this striking image, illustrator Cindy Derby introduces us to The Boy and the Gorilla, author Jackie Azúa Kramer’s moving story about a young boy who loses his mother, and his effort to find some answers.

The story is built on what is spoken out loud, as much as in its silences and long pauses, which are dramatically represented in the visual layout of the sparse text, floating on each double spread. Azúa Kramer’s words are simple, almost blunt, yet chosen with such precision and care that they imbue the weight and density of death with a touch of playful and poetic beauty. “Your mother’s garden is beautiful. May I help?” asks the gorilla. “Okay, says the boy.” And with that, we enter their intimate dialogue, written in deep questions and strikingly profound answers. “My mom died,” says the boy, just as the great ape responds, “I know.” “Will we all die?” the boy continues. “Yes. We all do. But you have many more kites to fly,” replies the robust and sensitive animal.

Derby’s illustrations evoke all the blurriness and confusion of experiencing the death of a loved one. Although the characters and situations are clearly identifiable and seem perfectly real, the looseness of the watercolour and ink images, the soft strokes, and the predominantly dark colour palette add an extra layer of symbolism. They almost seem to be rendered through the child’s own sad, lost, gaze. And even if there is some light amid the darkness towards the end of the book—as the colours turn a bit brighter and warmer too—this is a challenging and compelling read. It is an important read about the meaning of life and death, and separation and connection. This is a book that is sure to provoke more questions than propose answers, and one that requires time, and a strong, courageous heart.

Logaine Navascués is a Peruvian artist, writer, creative director, teacher, and book maker, currently living in Vancouver. She is the proud mother of a beautiful daughter and two artist’s books. You can find her reading, collecting picturebooks and eating chocolate while pursuing her MA in Children’s Literature at UBC.

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