This was such an incredibly poignant picture book – I kept waiting and waiting for the resolution, the truce, the realization that for all that had already happened, there was no longer any reason for the strife to continue because obviously the flower was the last thing on everyone’s minds, but it is precisely Popov’s unflinching portrayal of the story and how unthinking action could lead to such devastating end, that renders Why? such a powerful book: there is no truce, there is no resolution. And when we are left, at the end, seeing how things spiral out of control, and the eagerness – the zeal – with which soldiers on both sides entered the fray without questioning why, it makes for a stark contrast against the frog who started out peacefully, admiring the flower that launched a full-blown war.
Part of it was, I think, due to the fact that both sides had already invested so much into the war, into hating the other side, that they could no longer justify stopping: there had been too many sacrifices already. Whatever the reason was originally, the deaths on both sides fueled the fighting ever more, until the flower no longer mattered.
It’s great to see picture books that tackle heavy subjects such as war and death without trying to make the story any easier to swallow. Both adults and children alike will, I think, take away similar messages from these books, although adults might relate them to specific events. And while it’s important to learn from specific events in history, from which these books no doubt draw their inspiration, I think it’s also quite important that they are able to stand on their own; that way, readers are able to connect with them on a more general level, and people from all walks of life will be able to do so.
I’ve been referring to “these” books in the plural, so here are a couple of books that make a great companion to Why?:
Terrible Things by Eve Bunting
The Arrival by Shaun Tan, is quite different from both Terrible Things and Why?, and a much happier note to end on, though not much lighter in terms of subject matter, I think. The experience of being an immigrant, having to learn a new language, a new landscape, and navigate a new identity, all while separated from your family, is one that is given proper weight here.