In Jerald Pope's wordless illustrated narrative, Fetch, an old man and his shaggy dog go out to a windswept field of tall grass to chase a ball...one last time. This gentle story will speak to readers of all ages who have lost a loved one.
I felt the world go quiet around me as I turned the pages of this book. Pope made the unusual and effective choice to tell the story with white line drawings on black paper, with a single small and meaningful item in red on certain pages (the ball, an autumn leaf, a cardinal). The rural landscape, with its scudding clouds, wide-open plains, and gnarled trees, is tranquil yet tinged with the awe of eternity and the dramatic foreshadowing of mortality.
In the end, the man and dog ascend like spirits set free, leaving their next experiences (if any) open to interpretation by readers with different beliefs. The final panel showing their empty living room acknowledges the reality of death. It's a more powerful and honest ending than if he'd concluded with the ascension image.
My co-judge Ellen made the reasonable objection that the dim and detail-heavy images could be hard for readers with weaker eyesight, like grandparents, to parse. Accessibility is always a concern for us. We discussed whether the monochrome palette would have sufficient kid appeal. Pope originally submitted this book in our Graphic Novel & Memoir category, so perhaps that was not uppermost in his mind.
For me, the black-and-white pages were reminiscent of a favorite board book from when my son was a toddler, Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes' The House in the Night. Whether for aesthetic or budget reasons, picture books with only one or two colors were more popular during my 1970s childhood than they are today. The sepia tones of Make Way for Ducklings, for instance, are part of its classic appeal. I appreciated the subtlety of Fetch, a restraint that was suited to its theme. It didn't feel manipulatively hopeful and upbeat like some more cutesy picture books about bereavement.
The book design was elegant, with crisp images on glossy paper. Fetch is a visual poem that families can share to process the death of a pet, a grandparent, or other special person. Instead of explaining that which is beyond comprehension, it shares our experience of mortality with peace and understanding.
Read an excerpt from Fetch (PDF)
Buy this book on the author's website