I stumbled upon this essay at Slate today: Elephant and Piggie Peer Into the Void: Mo Willem’s Meditation on Death and it’s been haunting me ever since especially these paragaphs:
Yet We Are in a Book! is far more moving—and terrifying—than you might expect a children’s book to be. It is genuinely freaky in its simple, direct depiction of death. What defines the human consciousness of death? It is not the fear of pain: Animals certainly can fear pain. It is our fear of the void—the idea of nothingness. I recently watched my middle child awaken to the realization that death is the void, and it was awful and disturbing to see his world rocked. One major benefit of religion is that it offers an alternative to the void, something rather than nothing. But those of us who live without the solace of belief in the afterlife (and who don’t offer our children that solace, either) instead find ourselves eyes wide open in bed, imagining … nothing. We Are in a Book! (the title’s jaunty exclamation point comes to seem like a taunt) smacks kids right in the face with that nothingness, shows them grotesquely—in the desperate prayers and mad gesticulations of a cartoon elephant—that death is to be feared because the void awaits us all. Yes, Gerald, all books end.
We Are in a Book! is for children, so it must rescue our heroes by Page 57, right? As the final page approaches, Gerald and Piggie hatch a plan, about which they are very happy: They ask us to read the book again! But isn’t this conclusion terribly grim? In essence, Gerald and Piggie are begging to be condemned to Groundhog Day: forced to re-enact the same banana joke endlessly, and, in Gerald’s case, forced to relive the mortal panic of realizing the book is going to end, over and over again. A world of endless reincarnation and constant recapitulation—that’s the only prospect worse than the void. All books do end, thank goodness.
We’ve checked We Are in a Book our from the library many times and my kids love it as they love all the Elephant and Piggie books. But then we are the kind of family who do offer our children “the solace of belief in the afterlife.” The idea of withholding from your children the solace of belief in the afterlife seems intolerably cruel. It is one thing for an adult to peer into the void; but children are not nihilists by nature. I believe all children are born with an intuition of God and that to convince them that He doesn’t exist takes a concerted effort. This just makes me unbelievably sad. And I’m not sure why I felt the need to pass it along except that perhaps someone will say something in the comments that will help me understand why this is haunting me.