Grief isn’t an easy thing, nor is it something that provides easy answers. Stian Hole’s Anna’s Heaven, an introspective picture book aimed at older children and originally published in Norway, isn’t afraid to ask the big questions.
Readers know they’re in for an intense read at the opening endpapers, which show nails raining down from the sky. (No worries. The final endpapers depict sweet strawberries.) The first spread introduces us to a young girl named Anna. Her father stands at a distance, holding flowers and dressed in black. He is restless, as church bells chime all around, and Anna knows he is this agitated when “he is not looking forward to something.”
Only the copyright page summary uses the phrase “after the death of her mother.” Readers are otherwise expected to put two and two together as the story progresses to figure out the reason for Anna and her father's grief. One spread shows her mother’s things, all boxed up, and other symbols communicate the loss and discomfort they feel. There are fragile, dying flowers, broken mugs and even her mother’s shadow looming in the sky. These photo-collage illustrations are surreal and visually arresting.
Things become even clearer toward the book’s close when Anna ponders questions about heaven, God and her mother’s absence. She and her father imagine God as a peacock, an octopus with many arms, a gardener weeding in Paradise and a librarian with a handy encyclopedia. (“It can’t be easy for him to remember everything,” Anna’s father says.) Anna’s questions, as she considers nothing short of life after death, are powerful and honest: “Why can’t he invent something to turn bad into good?”
In the end, it’s the child comforting the father in a very moving moment, when we see him for the first time with a smile on his face as she strokes his cheek. They may still be filled with questions about the mystery of death, but readers know that, together, father and daughter will be OK.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.