First published as Ente,Tod und Tulpe – a children’s picture book -in 2008, Duck, Death and the Tulip was translated by the author and illustrator, Wolf Erlbruch, and published in North America in 2011. The words themselves may be translated but the German paradigms surrounding the treatment of and outlook towards death cannot be Americanized.
For a while now, Duck had had a feeling. “Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?'”
“Good,” said Death, “you finally noticed me. I am Death.”
The inclusion of death personified is not a North American custom in young children’s literature. However, Death, Duck and the Tulip is eerily beautiful and deeply engrossing for children and adults alike. The clever play on words and analogous dialogue can be appreciated by adult readers; so much so that I would call this a picture book for adults as well as children. These same traits cannot be fully grasped by children but instead act to shroud the story in mystery for a young audience. My own reading experiences from my picture book age were most fantastic when stories felt mysterious and adult. I felt as if I was being let in on a secret that most authors choose not to share with young readers. Wolf Erlbruch has created a story about death, free of the patronizing language many North American children’s books employ, to directly teach children about taboo subjects – for example: Mummy Never Told Me, authored and illustrated by Babette Cole. Instead, Duck, Death and the Tulip allows children the freedom of their own interpretation.
The plain but enchanting language is paired with Erlbruch’s stunningly non complex images presented on a blank background. Erlbruch mixes the mediums of drawing, painting, and cutting and pasting to illustrate his books. Children are taught not to leave blank space in their drawings. Duck, Death and the Tulip is full of blank space which helps exhume the possibility of a deeper meaning by allowing room for imagination and presents metaphorical images of mortality on a blank canvas.
Erlbruch uses these same techniques in his other picture books, and successfully so. He has won multiple awards including the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis in 1993 and the Hans Christian Anderson Award for illustration in 2006. Erlbruch has translated many of his books into English – including; The Big Question, The Butterfly Workshop, and Leonard – and continues to write for a positive, national reception.