I hate saying goodbye to children’s authors. Anna Dewdney’s death this week was particularly poignant not only because she died far too young, depriving us of her future stories and her passionate advocacy for children’s literacy, but also because her passing reminded me that my son is growing up and is quickly leaving picture books behind.
When my son was small, he loved Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books. Although he could read them on his own, he preferred to have me read them aloud. It was almost as if he knew, as Dewdney believed, that they weren’t real unless we experienced them together. And although all of Dewdney’s twenty-plus Llama Llama books were wonderful, our favorites were Llama Llama Red Pajama and Llama Llama Misses Mama. Maybe we loved them because we also struggled with bedtime and new school anxiety, or maybe because the pictures made us laugh, or maybe because the words and their cadence soothed my jangled nerves after long days of parenting and reassured my son that all would be well no matter how overwhelming the challenges of the day became, or maybe just because some stories take up a tiny corner of your heart and never let go.
Dewdney didn’t just write good stories with clever rhymes and pretty pictures; she created subtle mirrors that reflected the push and pull of parenting and childhood. She had the rare talent of writing for both adults and children, and so deftly that both groups could claim her work for themselves. I recognized myself in Mama Llama when I worried about being late for school, stole few minutes to wash the dishes or answer the phone before answering my son’s calls for a glass of water, lost my patience during tantrums, or soothed my son’s anxieties. I saw my son in Llama Llama when he became shy in new situations, procrastinated at bedtime, tried not to cry when he was scared, lost his patience during the holidays, or needed a big mama hug to make things better. Once described as “geographer extraordinaire of the emotional terrain of preschoolers and their mothers,” Dewdney’s empathy gave parents permission to be frustrated with or bewildered by our children and gave children a feeling of being understood. She straddled the divide between us and then helped us bridge it.
Dewdney believed that “[i]t can be stressful to be a little person, and children get anxious. They need help to understand that the world is not such a scary place and they’re not alone. And that’s what my books are about. . . . People love you and they will help you.” Maybe that’s why she ended nearly every one of her Llama Llama books with a hug and a kiss and a reminder of how much we are loved. It should come as no surprise that instead of a funeral, Dewdney asked people to read to a child. Even at the end of her life, she sought to continue the work she had begun with her stories. Rest in peace, Anna Dewdney, and know you will be missed.