When I was a young girl, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, and if you read it too, you won’t be surprised to know I sobbed my way through the final chapters. (For those who haven’t, spoiler alert: good and beloved dogs die horrible deaths.) I mourned those fictional dogs as if they were real and my own, and yet, when I reread Red Fern a couple years later, and after my first pet, a cat named Snowball, had drowned, I sobbed even harder because now I knew and was able to enter a deeper level of mourning, this time for my actual and personal loss.
A Little Blue Bottle, Jennifer Grant’s moving and timely picture book, opens with the young narrator’s matter-of-fact statement about her elderly neighbor, “Mrs. Wednesday died last Thursday, or maybe the week before. All I know is, ever since then, nothing feels the same anymore.” This is a book about grief.
Although we know that sorrow is an inevitable part of every life, most adults’ unconscious default is to try to protect children from pain, an impossible task any time, and especially now in the time of COVID-19. A Little Blue Bottle opens a door for every family to explore grief and mourning.
“They loaded Mrs. Wednesday’s furniture onto a truck and they drove it away,” the young narrator continues. “Her daughter picked up Muriel, the ginger cat. Now Muriel lives in some other place.” Loss upon loss.
She goes to sit with her mother, who tells her about when Mr. Wednesday died: “It was before you were even born.”
“Muriel was his cat,” I tell her. “Mrs. Wednesday told me that.”
“They were married 60 years,” Mama said. “She was very sad when he died.”
“I feel sad,” I tell her. “She lived next door to me my whole entire life.”
Grant’s text exercises an incredible economy, and each word builds upon and evokes the little girl’s confusion and pain. The title comes from the Psalm 46:8: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”
Mrs. Wednesday had a little blue bottle she kept next to an African violet and a picture of her husband on the windowsill above her sink. “Sometimes over the years, she told me that when she was missing Mr. Wednesday or just felt lonely or was having a hard day, she held that little blue bottle and imagined God was collecting her tears in it.” The mother tells her little girl who tries to imagine her tears falling into a blue bottle and God saving every single one, and wonders if it can be true. She asks her mother to sit closer and reaches for her hand.
“And she slides over close and puts her arms around me. She doesn’t say anything at all.” The beautiful and poignant illustration shows mother and daughter from the back sitting on a porch, leaning into each other, the daughter’s head on her mother’s shoulder, both looking out into a darkening sky. This page spread figuratively and literally models how to sit with someone grieving, and how to mourn: two key things that all of us should know and so many of us don’t necessarily do well.
Gillian Whiting’s luminous and extraordinary illustrations make this a beautiful book in every sense. The temptation might be to think A Little Blue Bottle is only for a child who has lost a loved one, but it’s a must-have for every library. (Church Publishing Incorporated)