How do you talk to a kid about losing someone? How do you explain what it feels like to grieve? I’m relieved to say: there’s a book for that. This beautiful, heart-wrenching, clever, thoughtful book is an excellent handling of grief for children, but really for adults too. Grab a few tissues and take a look at My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon by Angie Lucas, illustrated by Birgitta Sif, 2019.
First, let me get something out of the way, I honestly wish the word “dumb” was left out of the title and this book. While I totally get the humorous, childlike manner in which it is meant; I think it distracts from the beauty of this book. I could offer the politically correct argument against it, of which there are many words that people with disabilities are requesting we strike out of our vernacular, this one included. And considering the dragon never speaks, it’s a fair argument here. But, I can also offer the mom argument. When my two kids were unloading my library haul, my oldest reading the titles aloud, their eyebrows went shockingly high and she looked concerned that she had misspoken. I don’t remember having a conversation about not using that word, but I’m guessing it has come up in the not-so-nice category of discussion at school. And it does feel mean and it definitely distracts every time it is read aloud in this book. I’d rather not labor on it, so let’s just say I acknowledge that it is problematic and I do wish it was different; but let’s move on to the beauty within the book.
The story is told by the boy as he remembers the first time he ever saw an invisible dragon. It arrived at the same time his friend’s mom came to pick him up instead of his own. And then the dragon stayed. It settled right into the void his mom left. No matter what the boy did – ignore it, yell at it, bargain with it, sometimes snuggle into it – that dragon just wouldn’t leave. It made it hard for him to stand, walk, sleep, and even be around friends.
With time, he started to not notice it as much, sometimes forgetting it was even there or maybe had left… and then his birthday came around. He makes a big wish and an even bigger realization about time passing and how to see an invisible dragon in the first place.
This book gets harder for me to read every time I open it. The first time, I thought it was great – beautiful and sweet – handling the topic so well. The second time, I started to notice things: the dad in the background with deep facial expressions, pictures on the walls and scattered albums, and the mom’s things here and there. The lump in my throat got bigger and bigger as the enormity of the subject started to sink in. And then I read it to my 5 year old. Whew. To be fair, she doesn’t quite get it, and that’s really OK right now. I asked some questions as we went along, about facial expressions and what they might be feeling, and I lightly explained that his mom died in the beginning as it is a pretty subtle point in the text and she definitely missed it. She didn’t seem to make the connection on her own between the missing mom and the invisible dragon – dragons are pretty spectacular and a distraction in their mere imagining – but she connected it quite solemnly the more we talked about it and on further rereads.
I share that to say, this book might be a quicker get for older kids. And it might be just right for younger ones who have felt a heavy loss like this. And it is definitely for any adult who have felt that loss and can relate so strongly to exactly each of the characters in the book: the son, angry and emotional; the dad, grieving and keeping life going for his son; the friends, unsure how to be a friend in the midst of it all. This book is so deep and so beautiful and just the right touch. It may take some extra effort when reading aloud and it certainly needs to be read together at least once. We read it again, just this morning, and it took a bit of pausing here and there to explain the nuances to both kids, each one grasping the meaning a bit more and a bit differently. With each read, just like the passing of time with grief, the understanding is a little clearer. And it becomes a little more beautiful in each reading and the characters a little more endearing. There is power in a book like this, a book that unfolds a bit more with each encounter.
It won’t surprise any of my readers to know that I found this book because of the illustrator. I’m a deep admirer of Birgitta Sif, and somewhat surprised to realize I haven’t reviewed any of her other books yet. (A mistake that needs to be rectified, and soon!) I find her work to be so loose and adorable, and yet achingly beautiful and unforgettable. Her characters have depth and move with such grace. I adore her scenes and especially the extra bits she adds here and there. And her use of light in this book is absolutely ridiculous. It is so good it almost makes me mad at the brilliance. Her illustrations are such a perfect pairing with the precisely worded and thoughtfully toned words of Angie Lucas. She has an excellent blend of whimsy and care to handle the subject of this book with gentleness.
This is a book not to be missed. Though I wish you may never need it, I know that you or someone you love might and it will be just right for handling those feelings that are as heavy as a dragon.
(P.S. Here are a few more picture books dealing with death and loss, just in case you need them.)