Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch is a delightful and unique picture book. It’s humorous and takes a philosophical look at mortality. Is it a picture book for children? I’m unsure whether children would get a grasp of this morbid theme; but as an adult, I think this is a fascinating book which will make you query what happens after life ends. The story questions why people obsess about death so much during life.
For a while now, Duck had a feeling.
‘Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?
‘Good,’ said Death,’you’ve finally noticed me. I am Death.’
Duck was scared stiff and who could blame her?
This is the blurb that accompanies the book. As Death and Duck strike up a friendship, we learn that Death has been following Duck all her life; and, as they become friends, Duck has many questions on mortality and what the afterlife is like. Duck asks many questions on heaven and hell but Death is coy in his replies, remarking how much ducks think about Death.
The story is amusing and the illustrations by Erlbruch are distinctive. He uses a lot of negative space in this book to good effect as seen below. Most pages just have the two characters and a prop — this adds to the philosophical theme of the book. I liked the way Death dealt with questions. At one point, Duck asks whether Death is going to make something happens so she’ll die soon. Death replies that he won’t do that because “Life takes care of that: the coughs and colds and all the other things that happens to you ducks. Fox, for example.” I was moved by this reply. We as the human species seem obsessed with the afterlife, and death in particular, as if it’s a giant monster towering over us once we reach a certain ages. The character in the books dismisses this notion, that the things that kill us are already in everyday life.
Duck eventually dies, through no fault of Death. There is a very simple illustration and the accompanying lines by Erlbruch are probably my favorite concluding lines in any book:
“For a long time he watched her.
When she was lost to sight he was almost a little moved.
But that’s life, thought Death.”
These concluding lines are so skillfully filled with irony and are an obvious paradox that I couldn’t help but marvel at the author’s ability to show that Death viewed “life” as the killer of all.
This book is a beautiful piece of art which would appeal to anyone who likes a book with a devilish sense of irony and humor. It poses poignant questions on mortality; and, one should not snub this book as a children’s book. Everyone who reads it will pause for a few moments to contemplate Erlbruch’s message. But what is that message? It’s up to the reader.
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