Rose Lagercrantz (text), Eva Eriksson (illus.). When I am Happiest Gecko Press, July 2015, $AU15.99/$NZ19.99 (pbk), 128pp., ISBN 978-1-927271-89-6
Social realism in children’s literature orientates to darkness rather than light or to use archetypal imagery, winter rather than the joys of summer. Not so in this lovely evocation of a young girl who seems always to see the glass half full. It is a poignant and subtle story where, despite the death of her mother in previous stories as well as the loss of her best friend Ella who has left her neighbourhood, Dani is surrounded by people (family, friends and her encouraging teacher) who delight in her company. A quiet introvert, she has enjoyed her first year of school and is beginning to think about holidays. She has her down moments but would rather skip them. She has one more job to do: complete her happy book with a really happy ending. She thinks hard of her happiest moments (and her brain creaks) but life can bring bad things. Her teacher comes into the classroom and tells her that her grandma is coming to pick her up; her Dad has been run over and is in hospital. How will she cope? This is the heart of this beautifully illustrated book.
The soft palette and use of black, grey and white colour reiterates the emotive themes and narration of this story. Hope is writ large as Ella is invited by family to come back and is an important part of this new journey. Even in dark moments, there is love. Like the story of the baby Moses, sent aloft in a basket down the River Nile (a story that is embedded in the first part of this book), there is hope for Dani too. Subtle and beautifully done! Previous titles in the series are My Happy Life and My Heart Is Laughing. Awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Prize and IBBY Honour List. Recommended as a good read aloud in early years education that might be enabling of other children who are living messy lives.
reviewed by John McKenzie