My Father’s Arms Are a Boat was written by Stein Erik Lunde and illustrated by Oyvind Torseter. It was originally written in Norwegian and was translated into English by Kari Dickson. It was originally published in 2008 but the English translated version was published in 2012. This book is a 2014 Batchelder Honor Book for the best children’s book not originally written in English and published in a different country.
My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is the sad story of a boy and his father who explore the winter wilderness one lonely night. The mother of the family has passed away and now it is just the father and son. The story begins with the father sitting in the living room watching the fire while the boy goes to bed. The picture is from outside the house and we see a piece of bread sitting on a rock. Then we are introduced to the boy’s bedroom which is lifeless, dark, and cold. The bedroom illustration is from the boy’s perspective and all the furniture is very spread out and distant from him. We can assume the boy feels very alone now. “I can’t sleep. It’s quieter now than it’s ever been.” We get the feeling that something is wrong and the boy feels more alone than ever. On the following page, we see the father sitting and his body language makes him look defeated and depressed. The perspective is still from the boy’s point of view and the house looks orderly. The boy climbs into his father’s arms to feel safe. On the next page we see the father cradling the boy, and now we see the house is actually a bit dirty with many dishes in the sink. The boy has not noticed that the house is starting to suffer and the father is losing control. The father says that tomorrow they will go cut down a spruce tree together. The boy asks his father, “What about the red birds?” Then father asks, “What about them?” “Are they asleep?” the boy asks. “They’re asleep,” the father replies. The reader then begins to ask themselves, what is it with this boy and red birds?
Next, the boy starts asking if the fox is asleep like the red birds and the father says no, that the fox is out hunting. The boy is worried that the fox will eat the birds’ breakfast but the father maintains a positive outlook and says that we can put out more bread if that happens and that the fox doesn't even like bread. Then we are introduced to a brightly colored, orange fox that is sneakily walking through the snow. The story is from the boy’s point of view and he talks about how the red birds fly through the air and pick up pieces of bread with their beaks. But what the boy says next completely changes our view of this story. “Granny says the red birds are dead people.” Perhaps the boy is so attached to the red birds because he thinks it is his mother that has passed away.
“'Is Mommy asleep? I ask.'
‘Mommy’s asleep,’ says Daddy.
‘She’ll never wake up again?’ I ask.
‘No, not where she is now. Should we go out and look at the stars?'’
On this page, we see the father holding the son and looking outside like they are ready to venture out. The boy sees the fox eyeing the red birds’ bread like he is going to take it. I think the boy felt threatened and sad at this point in the story after realizing his mother would not wake up again. The guys head outside and the boy explains how his father’s arms are like a boat. He feels safe and comforted in his father’s arms. But we see the fox again and he is lurking through the woods—maybe to steal the red birds’ bread? The father and son each make a wish on the same shooting star and the boy (and reader) wonders if they wished for the same thing. On this page, we see the fox sitting alone, all curled up in the snow. When they head back inside, the curl up on the couch together and the father assures his son that everything will be all right. From this unbiased view, we can see how unorganized and messy the house has become since the mother has died. But it seems that the boys have become stronger. Then, on the last page, we are outside and see three red birds eating from the piece of bread on the rock. So, in the end the red birds were able to eat their bread just like the boy hoped. It is symbolic that there are three birds like the three people in their family. There is also a little bit of pink on the trees to the left now which symbolizes the coming of Spring and of course, hope for the future.
The illustrations are incredible! Torseter made the illustrations out of cut paper. It gives the book a movie-like quality and a spooky, melancholy theme. The pages of the book are rough with no glossiness at all. I almost can feel all the different pieces of paper that Torseter used to make the pictures. This rough texture throws the reader right into the story instead of distancing us with glossiness. The color scheme is very muted, monochromatic. We see mostly a lot of white and black with browns, dark blue, and the orange of the fox.
I have to be honest for a second. There is a great amount of symbolism in this book and I had a difficult time understanding it all. I think I tried to be too literal with the story. The red birds symbolize dead people which means the boy believes his mother is also a red bird. The fox must then symbolize danger? Loneliness? Any threat in his life? I still can’t quite put my finger on it. But all in all, this is a sad story about losing someone you love and holding on to the loved ones you still have. Yes, it is a sad story, but it is absolutely beautiful and hopeful. I highly recommend this book for children to help them understand and cope with death and loss.