And What Comes After a Thousand? by Anette Bley is about a special friendship between a young girl, Lisa, and an old man, Otto. Lisa and Otto play counting games, and look at the stars together. Otto tells Lisa stories about buffalo and Native Americans, and teaches her about gardening, and how to use a slingshot. When she has a success, they do a victory dance together in the garden. They spit out cherry pits together onto their plates, and lie around looking at the sky. They talk about numbers, and where numbers come from, and how they never end. The joy and comfort that the two feel in each other's presence shine from every page.
And then Otto becomes ill and dies. Lisa struggles to come to terms with his death, but Otto's wife, Olga, understands, and helps her. Lisa comes to realize that just as numbers will never end, her memories of Otto will never leave her. OK, I admit it. I cried a little, upon reading the end. It's simple, but powerful. I think that this book could offer comfort to any child facing the loss of a grandparent.
The illustrations in And What Comes After a Thousand? are gorgeous. The main illustration on each page is in soft watercolors, with pencil sketches and words scattered in the margins, and below the text. The pencil illustrations appear to represent Lisa's thoughts, as she would sketch them herself, if doodling. The words included in these sketches are in German, because the book was originally published in German, but the numbers are, of course, universal. The details in these sketches will offer something new each time the book is re-read.
The color illustrations feature distorted perspectives, sometimes, and playful abstractions. One page shows the roots of the plants and trees beneath the ground, in addition to the scene above ground. A picture of Lisa sitting with Otto on his sickbed shows huge flowers in the background, as Otto talks about his own burial, and slowly turning into earth. At Otto's funeral, the grim, older mourners are shown in gray and white, background to the colorful, angry Lisa. But my favorite picture is the one where Lisa and Otto do their victory dance, leaping up into an orange sky. I was reminded, a bit, of the playfulness of Pippi Longstocking, or the Roald Dahl books, though things become sad pretty soon after that scene. It's remarkable how a single picture book can take one through such a range of joy and sorrow.
This book is not for everyone. You don't want to start out reading a happy book with your kid about a friendship between a child and an elderly person, and then be surprised when the grandparent-figure dies. But for children who have lost someone (a grandparent, a pet, some other relative), And What Comes After a Thousand offers comfort, in a sensitive and natural way, with beautiful illustrations. This book would pair naturally with Jack and Annette Simon's This Book is for all Kids, but Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died (reviewed here), though it certainly stands on its own. I commend Kane/Miller for finding this treasure, and making it available to a U.S. audience.
Book: And What Comes After a Thousand?
Author: Anette Bley
Publisher: Kane/Miller Book Publishers
Original Publication Date: March 2007 (Translated edition. Originally published in Germany in 2005)
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher.
Other Blog Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.