Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation reads as a book of grief, even though the story it tells is one of a time in which its narrator could only anticipate death as a hypothetical, a possibility that, however close by, was as yet undetermined. The recently published A Bubble, by beloved cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée, is an illustrated board book that was drawn as its composer faced the final days of her life. A brief afterword, written by Castrée’s husband, Phil Elverum, explains: “In her final weeks alive, Geneviève clung to finishing this book for our daughter with intense focus and devotion. I think she was trying to cast a spell, to draw herself into survival. She didn’t get to finish.”
The short work tells, in fourteen pages, a story of “Maman,” who “lives in a bubble”—she’s ill with cancer and has a compromised immune system. The narrative is conveyed from the point of view of the small child, who is present on almost every page, interacting at times from inside of, and at times around, her mother’s bubble. The bubble looks almost like an amniotic sac. “I no longer remember the time when she didn’t live in the bubble,” the child narrator conveys, and below the two are pictured, in equally magnificent and colorful clothing, in conversation and at play. “I was too little.”
Castrée’s book is a work of unbelievable dedication and care. It is also a truly magnificent work of art. Each page is drawn with both simplicity and care. As the bubble bursts, three quarters of the way through the narrative, tiny hand- drawn droplets surround Maman’s still pumping feet in the only image of the book that features her alone. Soon, the two are reunited, bubble no longer in sight, and the story ends as they walk, hand in hand, in search of an ice cream cone. If the hard pages of board books are generally meant to preserve such objects from the multi-sensory investments of its little readers, from drool and tearing, pulling hands, in this case it feels like the only appropriate material for a narrative about the sturdy, enduring nature of this love.
Like Frank’s diary, Castrée’s work reminds us of the limitations of resolutely assigning certain kinds of literature just to children, or just to adults. The book, as visually delightful as it is moving, addresses love, grief, loss, and renewal by imparting its truths head on. Maman’s heavy tears fall as she grasps her little girl, announcing, “My beloved!” She gets the long wiring attached to her nose wound around her leg on another page, her eyes cast downward in sorrow as her child and husband play, proximate but separated from her, outside the bubble. Despite these fluctuating moods, the intense bond between parent and child is always apparent. The book ends with the two united even as each page inevitably evokes both the sorrow and joy of an inevitable break come too soon.
In Bubble, the now departed Castrée places her daughter at the center of the story, leaving room for possibility, for life beyond the page. Even though her story will soon come to a close, the work opens up a space for a coming together, a kind of union after loss. By giving her daughter the “reins” in this final story—by putting it into first person, from her point of view—it is as though Castrée grants her, and by extension her readers, too, permission; a blessing. Live your life. Continue, even after I’m gone, and build on this testament to life, to love, that I have started. Let my story live on, and grow, through you.