“The Silent Child” (its Russian edition “Молчаливое дитя” shown here) is a book that made my jaw drop. I have over a thousand children’s books in my home library and am used to great ideas, masterful story-telling and wonderful illustrations but nevertheless have been stunned by this one. It tackles a difficult subject. The one I’ve only seen tackled once and approached with humour rather than hitting the nail (heavily) on its head the way “The Silent Child” does.
This little girl never speaks, she is always silent. She lives in a place with the wolves. Whilst her school peers skip home merrily after classes, her world darkens as she steps onto the last stretch of the road leading home. She knows not how to speak of the wolves den that she loves more than anything in the world. She dares not speak of how mortified she feels when the wolves growl into her face, their fangs bare, their breath hot and terrifying. The fear leaves the child breathless. She knows that the moment she tells anyone about it she would be separated from the wolves. She does not wish to live away from the wolves, her life would end the moment she is separated from them…
The original is impossible to paraphrase, so I shall not tell you how the story progresses, other than note that when you think there’s a glimmer of hope it just comes to an end. An end which is not necessarily the happy one I had longed for.
The author of this book Cecile Roumiguière (born 1961) is a prolific French writer as well as a theatre and film director. Her storytelling is masterful. The word “parent” is not mentioned once in “The Silent Child”, but very early in the story the disturbing connection becomes apparent and you just know that the deadly wolves are a metaphor for parental anger. The story is laconic and is told in just 11 pertinent and incredibly powerful paragraphs. The language (in this great Russian translation of it) is metaphoric and evocative yet the setting is of the real world – a school, along with a kind teacher who is trying to understand this silent child.
Benjamin Lacombe’s pictures have as strong an impact as the text itself. The visual story is told in dangerous reds and desperate browns. Compositions include both real and surreal on one plane. First, we see the little girl in front of a barren misty landscape. She stops and glances back at us longingly, clearly not eager to proceed. Next, we see the child on the chair in her room hunched in fearful anticipation. Sitting upright on a fancy blood-red couch she stares vacantly as she clutches her favourite toy. Then comes Lacombe’s signature zoom-in on the face via a series of images till all we see in the last is two huge sad eyes full of sorrow.
This book may potentially help young children who are traumatised by abuse in the home to build the courage to speak up. But it is helpful in another way too. We are probably all guilty of losing it with our kids at times. This book may not necessarily stop one from ever losing it again, but since reading it I’ve noticed myself thinking twice before raising my voice at my disagreeable teenager. And if it fails at that, this book shall always remain a vivid reminder of the complicated tangle of fear and unconditional love that children find themselves in when faced with a parents disapproval and anger. Most of us won’t ever be in a situation that this story portrays, but this book is a great prompt for us all to reflect upon our relationships with our kids and choose differently. In the words of Dr. Wayne W. Dyer “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”