Monday, February 20, 2012

Duck, Death and the Tulip

My sister was staying with me last weekend and she asked what was that strange picture book in my office. Displayed on my shelves are The Long Journey of Mister Poop, Pat the Beastie, and The Festival of Bones, among others, so I needed a bit more than that to answer her. Turns out she was referring to Duck, Death and the Tulip, a book I intended to review but hadn't gotten around to yet.

The reason is that it's not your usual picture book, and I wanted to do it justice. The story is simple. Death, wearing a fashionably long plaid coat and bearing a black tulip, comes to stay with Duck. Understandably nervous, Duck asks, "Are you going to make something happen?" But no. "Life takes care of that," Death tells her. The two pal around, going to the pond, perching high in a tree. Duck wonders about dying and Death listens to her speculate. Winter comes, and one night Duck lies down. She does not get up. Death gently places her body in the river, the tulip resting on her chest.

The last lines are:

For a long time he watched her.
When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.
"But that's life," thought Death.

Written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch, a German author, (and beautifully translated by Catherine Chidgey), the book's simple text and sparse, elegant illustrations combine to create a moving yet unsentimental treatise on death. It also has a sly, deadpan humor throughout, as when Duck first notices Death's presence. "Duck was scared stiff, and who could blame her?"

The book is not for every child, but I so wish it was around when my daughter was six or so. She went through a stage when the thought of death panicked her, just looking at her reflection in the mirror could set her off. This book, with its calm, unblinking look at death, might have eased her fears and helped our discussions. Who knows? She may still get a copy.

Duck, Death and the Tulip
by Wolf Erlbruch
Gecko Press, 38 pages
Published: 2008


  1. I read this a few years ago, and it stuck with me. Not the details of course, but the impression that it was different, memorable. The Europeans have a different sensibility about death and other things I think. I haven't found your blog before- I do love the name. I stumbled over from the Carnival.

  2. I witnessed a baby duck coming to its death today and it really shook me up. I wound up stumbling across this blog. I'm way older than the children this book was originally written for, but it helped me too.