Chasing Shadows by Corinne Fenton
Ill. by Hannah Somerville. Ford Street, 2014. hbk. ISBN
9781925000153. pbk. ISBN 9781925000146
'On a yellow morning when the sun is new and shadows long a puppy comes to live at Beth's house. For Beth it is too soon.' No matter what puppy pranks and antics Patches gets up to, Beth is not interested. She sits and stares seeing nothing; endlessly winds a string of beads around her fingers; occasionally weeps. Time passes and Beth remains deep in her grief and depression following the death of her mother. She sees only shadows and memories. It is clearly more than normal sadness and while she is in almost every picture, she is not there in emotion. It's as if she, herself, is a shadow. But slowly, slowly, she becomes aware of Patches until one spring day Patches is a little too curious and is bitten by a snake. And Beth has something to cuddle and love again. No more shadows.
This is a most sensitive book on a sensitive subject - childhood depression brought about by death and grief. The text is gentle and poetic - instead of 'Dad took Patches out for a wee', the author has crafted 'An outside visit night-time tumble wide eyes watching bat ears fly' - and it all adds to the atmosphere of the story. The illustrations from first-time illustrator Hannah Somerville are just exquisite, their soft lines and muted tones echoing Beth's mood and taking over perfectly so there is no text needed. The story tells itself. Each is overlaid with shadows until the large page which is full of light and colour and happiness and love.
Throughout the story there is a strong thread of love - Beth's love for her mother, the father's love for Beth even though he, too must be grieving, Patches' love for both father and daughter as well as life, and eventually Beth's love for Patches. It is a heart-warming story at the same time as it is heart-wrenching, for as much as there is said in the evocative word choices, there is just as much unsaid that has just as powerful a presence in the story.
The publisher's recommendation for this book is 10+ and it is featured in the Older Readers reviews in Magpies but I believe it can work for all ages. At its simplest level, it can just be a story about a puppy winning over a little girl's heart and she takes a while to love him perhaps because she's a little afraid of puppies or because it's too soon after the death of another one; at the other end it could be used to support a child through a similar experience as Beth, validating their grieving process and offering some hope that they will pass through it. It can be a conversation starter with a child, a group or a class as, sadly, we know too many children with depression these days and this could be the beginning of the understanding and acceptance and support that will show the way out of the shadows. However it is used, it is an important addition to the library's collection.