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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)
Do Fish Sleep?
by Jens Raschke
Age Range: 6-8
Ten-year-old narrator Jette, through heartfelt comments and recollections, describes the tragic death of her terminally ill six-year-old brother Emil. Her parents are devastated and unable to offer much comfort to Jette who feels lost and alone. The feelings that Emile’s loss evoke are huge and confusing. Jette soon realises that adults don’t always have all the answers either, especially what happens after you die, even though they might talk as if they do. Jetta recounts an episode before Emil’s death that emphasises this point. When they were on a family holiday Jette asks her father whether fish can sleep. “Dad gave me a funny look and mumbled something. I saw that he didn’t know.”
In another poignant episode, Jette relates a conversation she had with her brother about death where she offers Emil a version of Heaven that he likes: “pizza heaven, where he can eat as much pizza as he wants all day.”
Do Fish Sleep? by German author and dramaturge Jens Raschke, translated by Belinda Cooper, tackles its central theme of death head-on. The heartrending angst is there from the very first page. Raschke’s narrative is brutally honest about the suffering that follows the death of a young sibling and as well as being compelling, it is at times an excruciating read.
The pen and ink cartoon-like illustrations by Jens Rassmus provide a very visual display of sadness and pain. The images of Jette’s parents framed in a doorway united in their grief makes the reader feel as if they are intruding or Jette, as she sits forlornly in the back of the car on the way to the funeral parlour with Emil’s seat empty beside her, are stark and full of emotion.
Originally performed as a one-girl play, Do Fish Sleep? was a major success at the box office in Germany, and received both the 2012 Mülheimer Children’s Theatre Prize and the 2014 MDR Children’s Radio Play Prize. It has also been a bestseller in Germany since publication and has been translated into several languages.
A deserving honor winner of the Mildred L. Bachelder Award 2020, this is a book that has so much depth with its honest and wry look at bereavement and the search for answers.