Julia Alvarez And Sabra Field Collaborate On A Children's Book About Coping With Death

Dec 16, 2016

Two celebrated Vermont artists have come together to address a very delicate problem: how to help kids understand and cope with death, and grieving the loss of someone they love. Author Julia Alvarez and woodblock artist Sabra Field are collaborators on the new book Where Do They Go?

Both Alvarez and Field joined Vermont Edition on Thursday to discuss the book and their collaboration process.

"I say it's a book for children of all ages about death," Alvarez said, adding that the idea for the book came about since she is of the generation of people who are now losing their parents, but also from her experience with the loss of another family member.

"About a year and a half ago, I lost my sister to suicide. And that really – that really was a difficult one," Alvarez said. "And I found that I was reduced to a child's questions. You know, 'Where do the people I love go? Where do the qualities they embody, what happens to that?'

"And I think grief strips you down to that core child self, and so even though I do think it is a book for children as well, it's also for the child in each of us when we're grieving and we have unanswerable questions about loss."

In her time of grief, Alvarez says that Field's artwork about the myth of Demeter and Persephone provided comfort. This prompted her to reach out to Field.

Alvarez had already written the poem by the time they connected, and Alvarez reflected on that writing process.

"After losing my sister, I just didn't want to write, didn't really want to read; [it] seemed my spirit was restless," Alvarez recalls. "And then one day, it's as if the poem came to me, and it came to me in the form of that first question: 'When somebody dies, where do they go? Who can I ask? Does anyone know?' And then it just kept going round and round in my head, and I'd think of another question to add to that one."

"[The book] is for the child in each of us when we're grieving and we have unanswerable questions about loss." - Author Julia Alvarez

Alvarez would write the questions as they came to her on scraps of paper, eventually realizing that they could be put together as a single work.

The book's images are filled with color – perhaps unexpected to some for a book that tackles this heavy subject – and Alvarez says she thinks a book about death can indeed be uplifting. 

"I think that each of those images that Sabra so beautifully put down on the pages of this book and the little moments in nature and amongst people that the child's questions lead us to, that all of those are in a way already providing the 'answers' of ... how do we fill up that loss?" Alvarez says. "Each of these little moments is a very special moment."

Field, known for her landscapes, talked about some of the nature illustrations that appear throughout the book.

"The snowflakes are just a few knife cuts or cuts with a, gouge we call it – it's a kind of a chisel," Field explains. "So positioning them, thinking about getting the registration accurate or at least not distracting, that was important."

Creating the star images on a different page was a familiar process for Field.

"I pull that trick a lot," Field says. "You just take a drill and hit the woodblock with a drill and you got a star."

"She makes it sound so easy," Alvarez says.

In addition to the technique, different illustrated concepts and metaphors also stand out. On one page, a boy holds the hand of a white silhouette of a woman, an image which also appears on the book's cover.

Illustrator Sabra Field says an empty outline of a person struck her as a perfect representation of a deceased loved one.
Credit Triangle Square Books for Young Readers / Seven Stories Press

"Of course, I drew the outline first and then it seemed impossible ... that the outline had to be filled in, because the missing person – it's an empty space," Field says. "And then later on it occurred to me that of course we represent ghosts as white outline shapes. So there's a certain cultural logic there that I wasn’t aware of until it happened to me. And when it happened, I just knew it was the thing to do."

On one of the first pages, the illustration features a child whose balloon is floating away.

"That's the only image in the book that doesn't come from a line that Julia wrote," Field says. "But she set up the situation so that when I looked at the whole suite of poetry of hers, what I was taken with was how it reminded me of the grief a child feels when they accidentally lose a helium balloon. So the child is not letting go of it on purpose. It escapes from him or her. And where does it go? ... No one knows."

"I would never have thought of that, but it was just perfect," Alvarez says about the balloon illustration. "And it's so wonderful when you feel that synchronicity with an artist in another art form ...  [Field's] art is not handmaiden to the text. It's its own wonderful discovery. And to get the book enlarged that way, was for me, was wonderful."

Alvarez and Field have no shortage of admiration for the other. Field calls herself "a Julia Alvarez fan," saying that was why she had no reservations about signing on to this collaboration.

Alvarez is a fan of Field in return, and says that her top choices to illustrate this book were Field and Francisco Goya. "And he wasn't available," Alvarez jokes.

"I hope [this book] will bring to them an understanding that honesty is the best policy, and if you don't have the right answer, you puzzle it out together." - Illustrator Sabra Field

The illustrations in Where Do They Go? are multicultural, featuring characters of various ethnicities and welcoming to all kinds of kids. The book is also being released in Spanish, translated by Rhina Espaillat.

From author to illustrator, translator to press to agent, Alvarez says this entire process has been a group effort. Now that it's completed, both Field and Alvarez have thoughts about what they hope readers take away from their experience with the book.

For adults that may be trying to explain death to kids, Field says she hopes the book prompts honest conversation.

"I hope it will bring to them an understanding that honesty is the best policy, and if you don't have the right answer, you puzzle it out together," Field says. "You don't give an explanation that's fantastic. You know, when I was a child, children were not even taken to funerals. It was considered bad for them. And I think an honest confrontation on the fact that nobody knows where they go is better. It's maybe not religious, but it's spiritual."

Alvarez circles back to her initial point that this is a book that can speak to a "child" of any age during a difficult period.

"For me, it was the community of putting this book together [that] was really healing," she says. "And I think one of the things that grief does to us is that we just feel so alone with these questions. And if reading this book and looking at those images, a child – the child inside us, the child beside us – can feel accompanied and understood in their loss, I think that's really important when we're grieving."