CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 11. . . .November 13, 2015
Carolyn Beck. Illustrated by François Thisdale.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015.
40 pp., hardcover & PDF (Follet and Overdrive), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55455-293-1 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55455-827-8 (PDF).
Grief in children-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Barbara McNeil.
I cry till there are only empty gulps coming out and the cold and wet hurt more than my feelings do.
Carlos must be colder than I am with just that sweater on.
I’ll help you polish it up, if you like.”
“No,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
“I know how.”
“No,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
I don’t take your bike home. I don’t ride mine. I just walk and let the rain get in my eyes.
Children and young adults encounter a variety of challenging experiences. Death is one of them. Children’s literature can play an important role in acknowledging this reality and in confirming to them that they are not alone—that other children, other people have experienced the gnawing loneliness, pain and sorrow that accompanies the death. Children’s literature is also instrumental in revealing that rebound and revitalization are possible after the sudden death of a childhood friend. Reflourishing of the bereaved is possible when s/he, in spite of the loss suffered, remains open, creates space for engagement and care from a willing and generous ethical other. Such is the story gently unfurled by Carolyn Beck and François Thisdale’s That Squeak. There is particularity and uniqueness here; they can be found in Beck’s deft handling of the subject matter, the plot and the protagonists she sets before readers, and, of course, the sensitive softness of Thisdale’s melange of paintings and digital illustrations. There are surprises here, good ones, worthy ones, ones that ennoble the human spirit and its capacity for resilience through loving kindness.
The narrative unfolds with illustrations and text in admirable synchrony: two silhouetted figures on bicycles on a long “grey ribbon of road.” The narrator, Joe, in an act of lovely, lonely remembering, recalls a time when he was in the company of a “you” with whom he shared precious and playful summer moments biking alongside fields, past cows, and into a special place marked and valued by childhood friends.
Memory and memorializing are commixed, entangled, and do powerful work in Joe’s idealization of the times he spent with his deceased friend Jay. Joe, the focalizer/narrator, addresses himself to Jay as if he were there beside him—a performative text invoking the departed. In remembrance, he says to Jay, “I loved the way the juice bubbled up on your teeth—sort of like the river” recalls the narrator while remembering his comrade—the one with whom he defied adult authority when they sneaked away on their bicycles: he on his Red Devil and Jay on blue Monster Man. The persistent squeak of Jay’s bike, from whence the title comes, is the nucleus around which the plot pivots and is part of those small yet big things that inform Joe’s missing, remembering and memorializing of Jay.
“Joe,” you said.
“Jay,” I said.
“Gotta find that squeak.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Just you and me and our dreams and our bikes, on most days last summer when it didn’t rain. But sometimes even then.
Jay’s bike, the blue Monster Man, still chained to the rack at school, is a potent symbol of the relationship Joe shared with Jay and is what keeps him connected to the past and possessive, and protective of the bike: it is a memento that he wants to make “shiny” again before he takes it home to Jay’s family. In the bicycle is stored much of the love and loss Joe experiences. “The lock was the last thing on [the] bike [Jay] touched.” It is for these formidable reasons that Joe is nervous, unsettled, suspicious and angry when Carlos, a new boy to his classroom, questions him about the bike. Joe already has some knowledge about Carlos. He is one who “they say... lives in a car with his father and brother out by the old rail lines”, one whose family has had “horrible bad luck,” a boy whose open and beautiful smile cannot shield him from Joe’s observations about his “wrinkled” shirt under a “too-small sweater.”
Learning from Joe that the bike he is trying to remove from the rack is not his own, Carlos jokingly asks if he is “[s]tealing it?” He does not know, cannot understand the love work in which Joe was engaged—Joe’s strong investment in tending to Jay’s bike. He was as deeply invested as any other who, tenderly and lovingly, looks after and restores an object of love cherished by the beloved who is suddenly and untimely taken by death.
Carlos’ light-hearted but, nonetheless, presumptuous and stereotypical questions stir up strong emotions in Joe, who, until this point in the story, has been a silhouetted image. Only now do we see that Joe is a black boy, a beautiful child who cannot hold back the torrent of emotions he feels inside. Joe is “working hard at not crying.” He is in the throes of grief while trying to unjam Jay’s bike. To paraphrase Beck, tears get ready to spill down his cheeks. Acting with understanding, Carlos places his hand on Joe’s shoulders and offers to help. Joe accepts the offer and “just like that, the lock is opened by Carlos and that place inside [Joe’s] chest where [his] feelings are twists up so tight [he] think[s] it’s going to bust,” the dam of pent up emotions do burst and “[e]very thing explodes at once.” With wrenching candour, Joe externalizes his heaped up feelings and thoughts to the reader. As if speaking directly to Jay, Joe relays the following:
I hear the sound of your name bounce off the brick wall of the school. Inside my ribs, big aching sobs suck and heave like tidal waves. There’s snot everywhere. And so many tears that I can’t see anymore.
All the while, Carlos is there, his hand on my shoulder. He keeps saying it’s all right and he’s sorry for whatever he said. His voice is low and hollow and full of soft echoes.
The rain starts. It’s mean and nailing, full of the last edges of winter.
Me, Carlos, and your bike in the rain.
Joe cries and cries in the “nailing rain” in remembrance of Jay, the friend who, while not corporally present, is addressed as if he were. Thisdale captures the idea of Jay’s spiritual presence in a sombre and compelling double-page spread with two large, generous eyes (one on the top part of each side of spread) looking out and down at the scene below: Carlos on the left standing beside the blue Monster Man (Jay’ bike) and Joe, stooped, walking home alone with “rain” falling from his eyes. Joe is unaware of the presence looking out for, and watching him. Children are well-served by the visual artist’s dramatic image and staging that shows Jay’s spiritual presence and the emotional distance that exists between Carlos and Joe at this point in the narrative.
As captured above, Beck’s prose calls forth my conviction that in writing reviews of children’s literature, there are some things that cannot be left unsaid, and, in this instance, it is Beck’s careful and sensitive characterization, introduction and presentation of Joe, and readers’ growing empathy for him. Long before they meet him face to face, readers are positioned by author and illustrator to develop caring and empathy for Joe.
Maybe it is my limited knowledge, however, I cannot think of many Canadian picture books that position readers to have empathy for a black boy, a boy on whom has been imposed much historical freight of negativity—his tenderness left out, his softness not mentioned, his feelings not elaborated, and his gentleness not called forth; his vulnerability not sufficiently identified and evoked. Up there above, in words by Beck, the humanity and compassion of the black boy is contextually and appropriately materialized, developed, and, like a photograph, brought slowly to light and transmitted through the expertise of a gifted and thoughtful literary artist. This kind of writing by Beck and image/picture making by Thisdale are welcomed in the geography of a racialized state.
Up there above, in Beck’s words is a counter story to the one-sided stereotype of hardness of the black boy. This kind of representation is needed by parents, teachers, social workers, community workers at large—by all (including me) who have been exposed to images, metaphors and representations of the black boy as “little man.” This is writing—literature and art that can be used to challenge shallow and skewed representations that we sometimes harbour of the “Other.”
Distrust and fear of the “Other” are pervasive in the real world and in the fictional world informed by it. Such behaviour is exemplified early on when Carlos asked Joe if he was stealing the chained bike and in Joe’s distrust and unwarranted suspicion that Carlos is either after Jay’s bike or his. This skewed reading of Carlos’ intentions, even after the latter wheeled home Joe’s bike and willingly and lovingly helped him to restore Jay’s, is not only attributable to a distrust of “the Other” and an “Other” who is poor but may also be explained by Joe’s depressive state and protectiveness toward property of the deceased. Jay’s bike is the physical thing that connects him to Joe; it is to be defended at all costs. Caught in the vortex of anger fed by pain, learned and internalized prejudice based on social class (Carlos’ poverty), Joe rebuffs him. The grieving boy’s fury is effectively expressed in Thisdale’s close-up illustration of Joe’s profile—mouth open, lips curled, eye squeezed and brow-knitted. And even in anger, Joe’s beauty is not overlooked here; it is present in the soft shades/tones of brown used to depict his skin and in the thick beautiful lines the artist employs to create Joe’s fabulous dreadlocks. Thisdale’s pictorial representations of Joe and Carlos are dignified.
Carlos is confident in himself and about his good intentions toward Joe. He is no bike thief. Thisdale’s close up of Carlos before Joe’s explosion shows a young man who is genuine, kind and compassionate. His eyes are warm as he looks kindly and understandingly at Joe—a boy in pain. When Joe makes it clear what he thinks of Carlos, readers see a silhouetted, hurt boy. Not yet able to be sensitive to the needs and pain of another, Joe watches in harsh judgement as Carlos “turns away, face down, shoulders hunched into his little drab-brown sweater.”
Joe’s prejudicial perspectives about Carlos continue until the misjudged young man confronts him at home and explains that he helped Joe with the bike because he “needed a friend” and because he, Carlos, needed one too. He proceeds to explain his story—to share his own narrative, not the one Joe has constructed and scripted for him. Carlos relays the following to Joe:
Even if you offered me that bike, I couldn’t take it,” he says quickly. “Dad won’t let me ride a bike anymore. He’s afraid I’ll get killed.”... “Like my mom did. She was on her bike when she got run over by a truck.”
“You saw...?” inquired Joe.
“No.” Carlos glances at his feet again, takes a big, shuddery breath, then looks straight into my eyes. Straight. “But my dad did. And now he’ll never let me have a bike. He’d just throw it away and yell at me for a week. So you don’t have to worry. I’ll never steal your bike. And that’s all I wanted to say.”
The poignant dialogue above marks the turning point in the plot—the peripeteia—the reversal of Joe’s prejudice, fear and distrust. Carlos’ story has an irresistible impact on Joe. His compassion swells for Carlos. Imbued with fellow feeling for one who has suffered (or even more) as he has suffered in losing Jay, Joe’s troubled heart relents and a space is opened up for Carlos. “I feel very, very bad about what I said to him, and about his mom and all” reveals Joe, and perhaps feeling guilty of his preconceived ideas about Carlos, Joe invites him to “sneak” a bike ride—something he and Jay had done together in defiance of parental dictates that said they were too young.
From this point on, a tender friendship born out of mutual need and similar emotional struggles begins to take root between Joe and Carlos. Though they visit places familiar to Joe, they do not frequent the exact locations he shared with Jay; new ones are found.
Another significant development in the plot occurs while the new friends are on the banks of the creek. Carlos picks up a pebble and admits to being unable to make a stone skip, and, with this, Joe finds himself in moment of remembering Jay. He tells Carlos that he “used to know someone who could skip them like water bugs. All the way to the other side and sometimes back a bit.” The remembering is painful for Joe. Sensing that this moment might be a good opportunity to encourage Joe to talk about his deceased friend, Carlos says, “Tell me about Jay.” Joe is shocked; Carlos has trespassed into forbidden territory; he has touched a sore spot. Carlos holds his ground. Through nods and gestures, he shows Joe how he discovered Jay’s name: the secret “Jay’ “under the handlebar.” The tension is eased—space is created to negotiate a new friendship amidst the hunger and sadness for one that is no longer possible.
The penultimate double-page spread is one in which Joe speaks openly about Jay. It is a captivating illustration that contributes to the characterization of Carlos as a caring and thoughtful individual. Looking straight at Joe, Carlos’ sensitive face is full of patience, quiet understanding, knowing, and tenderness. It is the face of a young man who has travelled the journey on which Joe finds himself—that of loss and the multiplicity of emotions that accompany it. Surrounding Carlos’ face is beautiful, jet black hair. Thisdale uses strong, wavy brush strokes in his painting of Carlos’ hair. The manner in which the hair frames the face reveals Carlos’ personality to readers and serves to soften his disposition toward Joe as the latter begins to talk, open up about his friendship with Jay.
One way of coming to know the “Other” of whom we are sometimes distrustful and fearful is through the mutual and ethical telling and sharing of stories. When Joe tells Carlos that his best friend Jay was killed, it is a genuine moment of honest sharing about difficult events. Each friend reveals his hurt and vulnerability and trusts the other to handle the information carefully. Having lived through a similar travail, Carlos responds by showing Joe what he has kept as a remembrance of his mother (“an old-fashioned change purse, striped blue and green with a clasp … and a shiny gold earring”). Through this action, Carlos models and demonstrates a way for Joe to cope with his pain and move toward healing. Later, as the friends bike home via the “grey ribbon” that runs through the pastoral setting, Carlos offers to fix the squeak coming from Jay’s bike. By the time they arrive in town, Joe is ready to decline the kind offer; he wants to “keep it.” That squeak is his keepsake of and for Jay.
That Squeak is a highly recommended picture book for its story and its art. With a well developed plot, strong characterization, emotional sensitivity, and a satisfying ending, it is a very good bike story. In addition, That Squeak is an endearing narrative about friendships between boys that cut across boundaries of race, class, and sorrow, and one that effectively as well as beautifully engages the subject of the death of a friend and a parent. Beck’s use of the literary apostrophe—to have Joe address himself to Jay as if he were present—and Thisdale’s artistic skill in expressing male tenderness and vulnerability, added nuance and depth to their holistic storytelling. The smooth interplay between text and art that is present throughout this important book makes it one that I will not forget anytime soon.
Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.
on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal
use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Next Review | Table of Contents For This Issue - November 13, 2015
CM Home | Back Issues
| CM Archive
| Profiles Archive