“This is me being sad. Maybe you think I’m being happy in this picture. Really I’m being sad but pretending to be happy. I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad”.
So begins Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book. The words sit beneath a grinning portrait of Rosen, wide-eyed and toothy. It is a feeling familiar to anyone who has suffered depression. It is a feeling familiar to most people who haven’t.
Rosen’s son Eddie died of meningitis in 1999. He was just eighteen years old.
Who is sad?
Sad is everyone.
It comes along and finds you.
Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book
And so Rosen is sad. “Sometimes sad is very big. It’s everywhere. All over me”. The economy of prose imbues the words with such heart, such empathetic power that my fingertips tingle. Depression is a king-size duvet on a rollaway bed. Oversized and Heavy. Oppressive. Sometimes even comforting. Rosen speaks of feeling angry, of the ways he tries to cope, of wanting to talk about it and of not wanting to talk about it. Of being sad and not knowing why. Of the crazy things that we do when we’re sad.
These are familiar feelings to most of us and they are handled with such pure honesty. They are captured with such simple words that it’s hard to understand why we don’t say it all the time.
And yet we don’t. We all slap on a happy face. And so does Rosen.
I have written before about picture books that do not respect the story space – illustrations fill the page and jostle with the text. Here that is not the case. When Rosen speaks of his sadness, Quentin Blake’s illustrations are confined to a square in the middle of the page, marked with thick black lines. Empty white space, inch thick, encloses the pictures, trapping them. As it is with the illustrations, so it is with depression.
As Rosen begins to remember happier times, the thick lines start to dissolve until Blake’s watery illustrations melt into the white space, encroaching on the barrier to normalcy. The book closes with a joyful illustration that fully covers two pages. It is the cliché at the end of the tunnel, and it is uplifting.
Children of depressed parents would benefit greatly from Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book. The prose is stark, the illustrations idiosyncratically Blake, and the whole is a thing of wonder. And it’s brave, so brave.