September 24 – World Gorilla Day

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About the Holiday

Instituted in 2017, the same year that the Karisoke Research Center, operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, celebrated its 50th anniversary, World Gorilla Day encourages people around the globe to honor these majestic beasts and take action to help protect them in the wild. An annual fund-raising initiative, “Gorillas on the Line…Answer the Call,” works with zoos, aquariums, schools, and other organizations to raise funds by collecting cell phones for recycling. To learn more about World Gorilla Day and ways that you can get involved or even adopt a gorilla, visit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website.

The Boy and the Gorilla

Written by Jackie Azúa Kramer | Illustrated by Cindy Derby

 

The sun casts long shadows as a little boy, his father, and a few mourners walk away from the cemetery. In the background a gorilla, strong and watchful, knows he’s needed. At home, the boy and his father sit on the sofa, aware of the family and friends gathered, but separated by grief. The gorilla waits silently nearby, filling some of the empty space. Escaping into the backyard, the boy kneels in his mother’s garden to pick a tomato. Now that he is alone, the boy acknowledges the gorilla, who asks if he can help. “Okay,” the boy says.

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Image copyright Cindy Derby, 2020, text copyright Jackie Azúa Kramer, 2020. Courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Here, to this friend of his heart, the boy can express his deep sadness as well as the questions he has about death. “My mom died,” he says. Gently holding one and picking up another tomato, the gorilla answers, “I know.” As some of the routines of life return, the boy and his dad are separated by their individual thoughts and the tasks that need to be done. But the boy works through his questions about whether all people die, where his mom went, and if she can “come back home” with the gorilla. To each question, the gorilla offers honest answers as well as comfort. His mom won’t come home, the gorilla explains, “But she’s always with you.”

When the boy misses the things he and his mom did together, the gorilla quietly suggests that his dad might do them too. The gorilla reassures the boy when he needs to be alone or look for his mother in out of the way places. Finally, the boy asks the question that tugs at his mind: “Why did she have to die?” The gorilla acknowledges his pain, saying “It hurts not to be able to be with someone we love.” When the boy wonders when he’ll feel better, the wise gorilla says, “When you know she’s still with you.”

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Image copyright Cindy Derby, 2020, text copyright Jackie Azúa Kramer, 2020. Courtesy of Candlewick Press.

The boy is ready to see his mom in their shared activities, like baseball, baking, and gardening. Each of these are gifts from his mother that will stay with him forever, the gorilla reminds him. That day, the boy goes to find his father and tell him the feeling he’s been carrying: “I miss Mom.” His dad takes him in his arms and they share their grief. The gorilla embraces them with love and understanding. The boy and his dad sit together looking at photographs and talking about Mom. The gorilla watches them from across the room. Later, they plant new flowers together, and then as the sun sets and the gorilla ambles away across empty fields, the boy and his dad walk back to the house, hand in hand.

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Image copyright Cindy Derby, 2020, text copyright Jackie Azúa Kramer, 2020. Courtesy of Candlewick Press.

In her emotionally resonant story, Jackie Azúa Kramer gives adults a poignant way to talk with children—and readers of any age—about the feelings of sadness, confusion, and loss that fill their hearts and days after someone they love passes away. Beginning with general questions that children have about death, Azúa Kramer offers honest answers or acknowledgements that “no one knows” the answers. She then leads readers to ways they can accept a loved-one’s death and find comfort in memories, discover the constancy of their love in shared activities, and reach out to others. Told entirely in dialogue between the boy and the gorilla and, later, between the boy and his father, the story feels as personal as an embrace, allowing a grieving child to identify with it without any distancing. Beautifully paced, the story ends with a sense of acceptance, hope, and renewal.

Cindy Derby’s watercolor and mixed media illustrations will stir readers’ hearts with her touching depictions of the little boy and his father, both struggling in the wake of the loss of their mother and wife. The gorilla, painted in shades of purple and gray, is a hulking, yet soft, presence, a representation of the magnitude of the boy’s sadness but his capacity to understand too. Derby incorporates fragility and strength into her images that reinforce the boy and father’s changing awareness: On the day of his mother’s funeral, the boy goes into the garden to pick tomatoes. The gentle care the gorilla takes in helping hold these tender fruit reflects his mindfulness of the boy’s vulnerability. At the park, the chains on the swing set, where the boy and gorilla come to terms with the fact that his mother will not come back, as well as the climber appear precariously brittle, yet they are both capable of holding great weight. And a single branch, no thicker than a twig, supports them as they talk about why the boy’s mother died.

Derby also evocatively portrays how the boy and his father are each processing their feelings independently as two-page spreads allow for the boy to appear on one page while his father is on the other. They gradually grow closer—appearing on the same page, but in different places or rooms. When the little boy courageously approaches his dad, their reunion is moving, and to see them sitting next to each other after the page turn is uplifting and affirming. Derby’s use of color, especially touches of red, adds metaphorical depth to the story, and children will want to watch for the little red bird that seems to watch over this family from page to page, until the boy and his father reconnect and move forward.

For any child who has suffered a loss or knows a friend who has, or for families looking for a way to discuss death and the process of grieving, The Boy and the Gorilla is a must. The book also belongs in every school and public library collection.

Ages 4 – 8

Candlewick Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-0763698324

Discover more about Jackie Azúa Kramer and her books on her website.

To learn more about Cindy Derby, her books, and her art, visit her website.

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You can find The Boy and the Gorilla at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

 

Picture Book Review

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