Advances in Literary Study
2013. Vol.1, No.4, 34-38
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/als) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/als.2013.14009
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Death Shall Have No Dominion: Representations of Grandfathers’
Death in Contemporary Picturebooks*
Konstantinos D. Malafantis
Faculty of Primary Education, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens,
Received July 17th, 2013; revised August 11th, 2013; accepted October 8th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Konstantinos D. Malafantis. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the origina l w o rk is properly cited.
The topic of death usually advocates the resistance of language, therefore creators search for linguistic or
visual codes suitable for expressing the unutterable loss of beloved people in contemporary picture or il-
lustrated books for children. For that reason, the meaning of death is portrayed in picturebooks with an
immediate and symbolic way in both text and picture. Adopting a visual and textual approach, we exam-
ine the ways in which authors and illustrators portray the relationship between grandparent and grand-
children in picturebooks. Many stories in children’s literature deal with the archetypal pattern of death
and present it in a way which enables young readers to come to terms with it. In such stories, young pro-
tagonists, and thus young readers, are introduced into questions of ageing and decay, and inevitably of
death, through an imaginative “travel” in time and space which is engendered by the grandparent’s en-
chanting storytelling. Death comes to be viewed as simply a stage toward reunion with eternal nature in
the hereafter. The grandparent’s death is pictured as a “justifiable” event, integrated in the life cycle. Be-
reavement and grief seem to rely on the principal motifs of nature-as-space and nature-as-knowledge,
which eventually manage to negate the dominion of death upon life.
Keywords: Grandfathers’ Death; Picturebooks; Children’s Literature
Death, just like birth, is an essential part of human experi-
ence and an archetypal theme in literature. According to Phil-
ippe Ariès (1977/1991), in his landmark study of the subject,
death is a socially constructed phenomenon in Western culture
and one can recognize several changing social attitudes to it
through the centuries. Death is mysterious and overwhelming; a
meaningless monster, according to the eminent historian, that
lurks at the edge of our consciousness, ready to destroy us and
demolish whatever meaning we attribute to our lives. In today’s
world we encounter an “invisibility of death”, a somewhat pa-
radoxical situation, in that we deny the existence of death so
effectively that we no longer develop personal and communal
resources to give it meaning. Death’s invisibility corroborates
its terror; our culture’s loss of spirituality reinforces the mean-
inglessness of death. Contemporary children’s books deal with
the subject through unraveling the mystery and the invisibility
in it. People should not fear death; writers should not hesitate to
represent it as far as death is not considered any more as a dark
or unspeakable taboo.
Death in Picturebooks
As an inescapable condition, rather than just the end of exis-
tence, death has to be approached by both adults and children
with as much sensitivity and understanding as birth. Death
normally evokes grief, mourning and bereavement but, apart
from this intolerable pain, it should be in most cases compre-
hensible, even by young children. Many stories in children’s
literature deal with death and present it in a way which enables
young readers to come to terms with it. Actually, several
death-related books for children emphasize in hilarious ways
the importance of coping with death and loss. One such book is
Babette Cole’s Drop Dead (1997), in which death is described
with great humor and funny illustrations as an integral part of
the essential circle of human life. There are also more sophisti-
cated stories for young audiences such as the controversial yet
beloved novel by Katherine Paterson Bridge to Terabithia
(1977), which challenge the conventional boundaries of ac-
ceptable themes for children’s literature, by taking the topics of
death and loss in an uncompromising way.
Picturebooks on grief, bereavement, and mourning have so
much to offer to children (Dennis, 2012; Corr, 2003-2004; Mc-
George, 1998). Doubtless, death as a topic usually advocates
the resistance of language used to describe it. The creators of
modern picturebooks search for linguistic codes suitable for
expressing the unutterable loss of beloved people. Picturebooks
can vividly represent incidents from everyday life, the character
*According to Judeo-Christian narrative “death shall have no dominion”,as
religion gives the promise of eternal life. In the same way, Dylan Thomas’s
oem “And death shall have no dominion”, celebrates the undying and
eternal s trength of the human spirit. It is because of this strengt h that death
does not claim ultimate victory over humanity. We never truly lose our
beloved persons, as the y live on in our memory and spirit.
K. D. MA LAFANTIS
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 35
of a person, the physical environment and also the setting in a
remote time. Text and pictures work together not only to con-
vey the story, but also to illustrate the meaning of death both in
a mimetic and direct way and also in an allegorical and sym-
bolic style (Mitchell, 1995). Additionally, through their illus-
trated format, picturebooks fully develop their characters and
settings, without compressing the loss conditions. Moreover,
visual symbolic language has a pervasive influence on children,
in the sense that it enables them to encounter the feeling of loss,
mainly of grandparents.
Ellen Handler Spitz, in her book Inside Picture Books (1999),
in which she studies picturebooks from the viewpoint of de-
velopmental psychology, stresses the therapeutic effect of these
books on young readers. The meaning of death is portrayed in
picturebooks with an immediate and symbolic way both in text
and in picture. Death primarily concerns grandparents or elder
people who play a secondary role in children’s life. Besides,
death of elderly emerges as the physical ending of an acclaimed
life course. More specifically, the elderly are usually depicted
sleeping in bed—weak from the lassitude of aging and the sick-
ness—or telling fairytales and other stories to their grandchild-
dren. In both cases, text and picture complement each other;
when the absolute and final nature of death cannot be defined
with words, it is with shapes and colors that bereavement is
depicted; and the joyful shapes of illustration transform mourn-
ing into a less painful condition.
Through picturebooks, which are often read repeatedly to
young children, the former learn about the world existing out-
side their immediate surroundings (Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada,
& Ross, 1972). Consequently, storybooks constitute one route
through which children can develop attitudes toward grandpar-
ents and older adults in general (Sciplino, Smith, Hurme, Rusek,
& Bäckvik, 2010). In addition, together with television and the
internet, literature is a primary resource which provides chil-
dren with information and ideas about aging and older adults
(Ansello, 1977; Gilbert & Ricketts, 2008). Through cultural and
social experiences, children come to understand specific roles
played by adults and develop behavioral expectations about
them. Therefore, children become familiar with grandparent
roles and grandparent loss not only through direct association,
but also through media such as children’s books (Dellmann-
Jenkins & Yang, 1997; Janelli, 1988).
In this paper, we examine two well known and awarded
contemporary picture or illustrated books that deal with the
topic of grandfather’s death, the following: Austrian writer
Sigrid Laube’s Grossvater hebt ab (1998) [Ο παππούς πετάει,
2000], illustrated by Maria Blazejovsky, and Greek writer
Foteini Fragouli’s Το μισό πιθάρι (2000) [The half jar], illus-
trated by Evi Tsaknia. The young protagonists of these books
are introduced into questions of ageing and decay, and, thus,
inevitably of death, through an imaginative “travel” in time
and space which is engendered by their grandfather’s en-
The creators of such modern picturebooks search for linguis-
tic codes suitable for expressing the unutterable loss of beloved
people. Picturebooks can vividly represent incidents from every-
day life, the character of a person, the physical environment and
also the setting in a remote time. Text and pictures work to-
gether not only to convey the story, but also to illustrate the
meaning of death both in a mimetic and direct way and also in
an allegorical and symbolic style (Mitchell, 1995). Additionally,
through their illustrated format, picturebooks develop their
characters and settings, without avoiding the condition of loss.
Moreover, visual symbolic language has a pervasive influence
on children, in the sense that it enables them to encounter the
feeling of loss, mainly of grandparents.
Grandparents’ Death in Two Picturebooks
Through the visual and textual approach of Sigrid Laube and
Foteini Fragouli’s books, we will examine the ways in which
the authors and illustrators portray the topic of death, especially
in picturebooks that pertain to the literary kind of fantastic lit-
erature (or even to the magic/“enchanted” realism and the liter-
ary fairytale respectively). According to Sheila A. Egoff (1988:
pp. 7-8), the protagonists of such kind of books “are not called
upon to participate in great events nor to test themselves against
seemingly overwhelming odds. The children of enchanted real-
ism do not change the world; instead they themselves are
changed by their heightened concept of reality”. In the books
we examine the heroes come to an understanding of the rituals
of life and death. In this kind of books, meanings like death can
be more easily perceived according to Ursula Le Guin’s belief
that “truth is a matter of imagination. Facts are about the out-
side. Truth is about the inside” (Yolen, 1985: p. 13). Fantasy,
first of all, returns to us what once belonged to us: the aware-
ness of the unity of the natural and supernatural worlds, a view
of our universe that was wrenched apart with the coming of the
“Age of Reason”. Therefore, fantasy, by its power to move us
so deeply or to dramatize morality, can be one of the most ef-
fective means of establishing a capacity for adult values.
Another element of the visual as well the verbal text which is
associated symbolically with the topic of death is nature. As we
shall see later on, death is a natural phenomenon associated
with the perennial circle of constant birth, loss and rebirth in the
green world. As all other natural phenomena, human life is
subjected to birth, decay and death. There are no moral or ethi-
cal dimensions in this process.
Sigrid Laube’s Grossvater hebt ab (2000) is a demanding yet
challenging gesture of artistic creation because of Maria Blaze-
jovsky’s illustrations. The text narrates grandfather and grand-
son’s imaginative travel in which they are both submitted. This
travel endures a whole day and it is com-
pleted at sunset. The two protagonists
visit dreamlike landscapes that are lo-
cated in the room as they are represented
in the initial double spread. The consecu-
tive scenes of their visits are but imagi-
nary flights to the different corners of the
grandfather’s room; the idyllic village is
inherented in the painted landscape hung
on the wall, the pasture with strawberries
is totally connected with the bowl on the table, full of this kind
of fruit. In addition to these images, we should note that the
protagonists’ encounter with the birds is repeated in the cover
of the book on the taboret—it refers to W. A. Mozart’s Magic
Flute and the garden with the bluebells constitutes a detail of
the vase with the blue flowers.
This framed and virtual travel alludes the emergency of the
grandfather’s health condition. The lyrical description of the
text and the constant repetition of grandfather’s figure who
travels in time and space with closed eyes is completed at the
end of the book with the crossed hands on the grandfather’s
K. D. MA LAFANTIS
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
chest and the flowers on his body that could echo funeral burial
customs (Meraklis, 1986).
Grandpa and grandson enter in an
imaginative world through the open
window which is represented in the
first pages of the picturebook and is
contradicted with the closed window
in the last page that marks the “clo-
sure” of a life cycle. Grandfather’s de-
parture is also pinpointed by the black-
bird’s song that “travels up, to the
sky” (Grossvater hebt ab: p. 33), the
nebula created by the white curtain,
the yellow butterfly that refers to virtual representations of
human soul. According to Marina Warner, the identification of
psyche and butterfly “operates at a deeper level within the syn-
tax of metaphor, in models of a generative process, which fig-
ures the emergent butterfly as the vital essence which is inher-
ent within the cocoon and other metamorphic stages” (Warner,
2007: p. 90). Furthermore, the sensation of body’s separation
from the psyche is enhanced by an angel’s faint presence in the
“real” life of the story. The textual narrative delineates the
grandfather’s death in an allusive
way, while the pictorial narrative
continues even after the end of the
story, transcending the limits of the
book in the inside cover. The young
hero, standing on a chair, salutes his
grandfather who sits on a star with
closed eyes and wearing his pajamas.
Grandfather’s sleep indicates the eter-
nity of death and the transfiguration
of beloved persons to stars-protectors,
according to ancient and religious conceptions about the transi-
tion of soul into heaven.
Sigrid Laube and Maria Blazejovsky, through words and col-
ors, describe in an imaginative way the end of the life cycle of
an elderly, who preserves a particularly valuable relationship
with his grandchild. The story that concludes with the grandfa-
ther’s death without any reference to a later grandson’s grief
reaction or to a burial process is located into a natural envi-
roment entirely familiar to the children. The little child and
consequently the young reader have experienced death through
an imaginable voyage in both microcosm and macrocosm of
nature where everything can happen. This way of experiencing
death is totally closed to the “Other World” children create
while they play. In other words, the world of “make-believe”
where everything can happen or be transformed into something
else facilitates children to experience everyday life in both a
fantastic and a mimetic way. The imaginative and playful travel
in space and time is totally based on grandfather and grand-
child’s real world. Real objects seem to solidify the “airy noth-
ing” (Shakespeare, 1595/2005: p. 419), for example, the flying
voyage with an umbrella. This fantastic story constitutes a
symbolic construction of everyday life that assays heroes and
reader’s personal and social experience. The creators challenge
the reader to participate in the imaginative world of the work, to
believe in all these skillfully made idle fantasies. The Other
World of fantasy enables the reader to keep a distance from the
real world and his conventions, in order to better understand
reality and the unutterable loss of beloved persons (Swinfen,
Foteini Fragouli’s intention in writing the illustrated story Το
μισό πιθάρι (The half jar, 2000) originates from her wish to
describe the country life of her na-
tive Aegean island, Lesvos. She
employs the style of fairytale in
order to give a lyrical tone to eve-
ryday life. This very usage creates a
world of fairy story, magic, and
supernaturalism belonging to mar-
vellous narrative overlaying the real
world. The indiscernible limits be-
tween “real” and “unreal” are accen-
tuated by Evi Tsaknia’s impres-
sionistic illustration. The Greek painter and illustrator uses
muted and faded colors, mainly the brownish and the light blue
tone, in order to portray Helen’s childhood summers with her
grandfather. Warm colors—reds, oranges, yellows—and cool
ones—blues and blue-greens—are in absolute harmony with
reds to highlight objects and the blue-green for backgrounds
Nevertheless, Fragouli’s work is
ba sed on a historical and social frame-
work, as particular references reveal.
The Greek island of Lesvos of the
1950s or 1960s functions as the back-
ground of significant historical events,
namely the surge of refugees after
the destruction of Asia Minor in
1922, and emigration of Greeks to
countries such as America or other
foreign lands. The historical elements are highlighted through
the relationship of a grandfather with his granddaughter. Espe-
cially, the story recounts the young protagonist’s childhood
memories of her grandfather; games, fairytales and secrets that
the two heroes share with each other.
The young protagonist, Helen, enjoys her grandfather’s story-
tellings about the objects that the sea transfers from the sea-
side of Asia Minor to their island such as infant toys, ornate
slippers or fragments from ancient vases. Every summer Helen
collects such “treasures” from the seashore as they convey
K. D. MA LAFANTIS
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 37
refugees’ memories. Additionally,
the heroine’s memories of her child-
hood are complemented by her
grandfather’s fairytales that con-
stitute a fairytale world where both
the grandchild and the reader can
discover hidden desires such as the
restoration to the lost homelands of
Asia Minor. Helen, even after her
grandfather’s death, feels his pres-
ence both in everyday life and her
Many years after, the grandfather’s advice to Helen, through
a dream, “to love and to remember” the lost homelands (Το
μισό πιθάρι: p. 29), motivates the heroine to find in the cellar of
her house the punnets full of broken ancient vases which she
was collecting as a child from the beach every summer. The
granddaughter’s reinterpretation of the past helps her to better
understand her relationship with her grandfather as much as his
inevitable loss. The heroine returns to external life, rich from
experiences and treasures which she derived from the initiation
travel with her grandfather. The preservation of the deceased
grandfather’s memory signifies the symbolic triumph of life
over death, according to Petrarch’s idea of “fama” (Hardie,
Dreams and traditional stories combined will enable the
heroine to understand herself and realize that the half jar from
pieces—fragments of experiences and memories, songs and
stories—represents the water memory both of the other sea-
shore, the ancestral hearth of Asia Minor, and of her childhood.
Literature relying on that combination “can remind us of this
loophole in our rationality, and challenge our casual assurance,
particularly if the dream world asserts its own substantiality.
That dream may have as much validity as real life” (Hume,
1984: p. 127).
Foteini Fragouli’s authorial pen and Evi Tsaknia’s color pal-
ette create a dreamlike story in and out of time and space. Past
and present time are tied metaphorically with the “water chain”,
which is the Aegean Sea, and elucidate the meaning of in-
comprehensible words, such as the word “river”, that the
grandfather used to say every time he was narrating fairytales
and parables to his grandchild. The
seawater that both grandfather and
granddaughter are viewing invites them
to an imaginative voyage in a natural
environment. The heroes’ gaze acti-
vates memories, facts, historical pe-
riods, individual experiences, love,
pain, etc. The eyes, actually, do not
function as a mirror of nature, but as a
mirror of mind. The eye itself is the
vehicle of imaginative thought if we consider Aristotle’s decla-
ration in De Anima (III, vii. 15: pp. 176-177) that “The soul
never thinks without a mental image”. The young heroine will
never stop “communicating” with her grandfather as the reverie
of the birthplace of Asia Minor will connect the two of them
forever. The maritime birthplace has the power to give life even
to the lifeless and to make articulate even the mute, as Gaston
Bachelard has declared (1981).
The two picturebooks analyzed in this paper do not reenact
the figure of grandparent in a stereotypical way as a “set of
shared expectations focused upon a particular position” (Scott,
1970: p. 25; see also Beland & Mills, 2001; McElhoe, 1999).
These expectations, which include beliefs about what goals or
values the grandparent represents, are complemented by the
grandfather’s dreamlike representation. The imaginative de-
lineation of grandfather’s relationship with his grandchildren in
picturebooks and/or illustrated books attains a better result
when it provokes the young reader to stand back, take a second
look, doubt, and reflect (Zipes, 2009). It seems clear that deal-
ing with the meaning of death through fantasy or imagination is
beneficial for young people, because fantasy is considered as
the most valuable attribute of the human mind (Chukovsky,
1963). The imaginative approach of death has also therapeutic
value in the sense that it defuses children’s anxieties and facili-
tates the resolution of emotional conflicts (Bettelheim, 1976/
Furthermore, death comes to be viewed as simply a stage
toward reunion with eternal nature in the hereafter. The idea
that life is an eternal course which is never suspended, as the
beloved persons, even after their death, “exist” as psychological
presences, abolishes the sense of an ending. Instead, it subjects
the idea of continuity and equilibrium of nature which consists
a vivifying power, perfect and complete (“Yet nature is made
by no mean/but nature makes that mean”, as William Shake-
speare [1609-1610/2005: p. 1129] wrote). Text and pictures
invite young readers to incorporate themselves in the physical
universe and to synchronize their biological rhythm with the
imperturbable rhythm of the physical environment. In such a
context, the grandparent’s death is pictured as a “justifiable”
event, integrated in the life cycle. Bereavement and grief seem
to rely on the principal motifs of nature-as-space and nature-
as-knowledge, which eventually manage to negate the domin-
ion of death upon life.
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