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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Duck, Death and the Tulip
by Wolf Erlbruch
Age Range: 9-11
This is an extraordinarily poignant picture book about death by award-winning German author and illustrator Wolf Elbruch, (probably best known as the illustrator of The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business).
Duck is terrified when she realises that she is being stalked by an eerie figure in a checkered outfit that has a skull for a head. "You've come to fetch me?" asks Duck fearfully. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close by, in case of some mishap – after a nasty cold or attack by a fox perhaps?
As Death and Duck begin to have philosophical conversations about the afterlife, Duck, reluctantly at first, accepts the presence of Death in her life. They even become friendly as Duck offers to warm Death when he gets cold after a swim in the pond – ‘Are you cold?’ Duck asks. “Shall I warm you a little?” Nobody has ever offered to do this for Death before.
Eventually the inevitable happens. One snowy night, Duck feels the cold and she lies down and stops breathing. Death tenderly strokes her ruffled feathers, gently lifting her body and placing it in the river laying a black tulip on her as he nudges her on her way, watching as she drifts off into the distance. When Duck is no longer in sight Death is almost moved and ruefully remarks. “But that’s life”.
Duck, Death and the Tulip tackles a topic that rarely makes an appearance in an English picture book. Despite the scary skeletal figure of Death, the illustrations have a delicacy and humour that help the reader cope with the immensity of the subject. The tension between Duck’s love for life and her preparation to let go of it is deftly expressed in her demeanour. What this story gets across in a matter-of–fact way is that where there is life, death is inevitable.
Wolf Erlbruch doesn’t choose cosy themes with cuddly characters for his books and Duck, Death and the Tulip is certainly no exception. It raises complex issues and is likely to provoke discussion about whether death is a suitable theme for a children’s book. This is not a book for the faint hearted and many might shy away from it because of the content reflected in the rather stark illustrations. The subject of death in children’s literature can be very difficult to tackle, but Erlbruch has approached this often taboo topic with honesty and without sentimentalism.
The translator Catherine Chidgey deserves a special mention for the translation which retains all the subtle humour of the text.