Arlene Sardine and the Heroes that have to Die

This has got to be one of my favorite picture books of all time. I love this book. I own this book. My only lamentation is that when I went to a Chris Rashka conference, I didn’t have this book with me and so I didn’t get him to sign it.

But besides Chris Rashka just being an amazing illustrator and writer in general, this book contains a theme that I think is often glossed over, mocked, ignored, and otherwise mistreated in the children book community. And that is death. But actually, many of the most memorable children’s stories have to do with death: the Secret Garden, Bambi (personal favorite), Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and one of the most repeated stories of all, The Giving Tree.

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Because death shouldn’t be a taboo subject in children’s literature: sure, it would be wrong to insert a graphic picture of a dead body into a board book, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it or deny it. Children live in the same world that adults do, and want to know about this world as much as we do. To deny or refuse them information just makes them more afraid of it.

Which brings me back to Arlene Sardine. Along with the sing-song sort of rhythm of this book, the main character, Arlene, you guessed it, wants to become a Sardine. And in the middle of the book (not the end, mind you!) she dies on the deck of a fishing ship.

But the story doesn’t end there. The story goes on. Despite being dead, we still get to follow Arlene’s journey as she is sorted, smoked, packed in oil, etc. and eventually fulfills her humble dream of becoming a sardine. And that is great. She lives her dreams, right?

Well of course, because she dies a lot of people argue that this is a book that encourages “child suicide” or too many thoughts of death. But I think along the opposite lines. I love that Arlene dies in the middle of the book, but moreso that Raska illustrates that just because the hero has died does not mean that the story is over. What a great lesson! Because isn’t most of our fear about death revolves around our obsession/fixation on ourselves, and on the inevitability of us not mattering? We hate to think that people will forget about us, or that we haven’t fulfilled every single wish and hope we garnered in life. But Arlene shows us that death is not the last step. Like all things, death is only one step among many; something not to be afraid of but to be looked on as a means to an end.

And that is why, humble Arlene, your death has made you a hero in my eyes, and Sardines look all the sweeter.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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