Among the hundreds of publishers from all over the world at the Bologna Book Fair was Kasmir Promet from Croatia. Aline and I were immediately attracted to their booth by the amazing book-sculpture furniture at the front. We liked the posters on display too and bought some postcards. I’m so glad we did as it was only at that point we realised that the artist Andrea Petrlik Huseinović was there and that one beautiful set of her artwork, all in shades of blue, black and white, was from a book which is available in English: and it really is something special.
The Blue Sky is about a little 10-year-old girl who has lost her parents. There is nobody in the world to love her so she shuts herself away in the high tower she builds around herself and looks towards the sky in search of her mother. First the birds become her friends and then, as she remembers happy times with her mother, she starts to make friends with the different sky creatures her memories conjure up. Finally, a blackbird appears. The bird, which had been rescued as a fledgling by the girl and her mother, has come to reunite them. “Nobody has ever seen her again. The birds that fly in the blue sky say that she is somewhere in the clouds, together with her mother”.
This heart-breaking story has a fairy-tale quality which means that children will find it sad, yes, but not unbearable. The fact that the girl is reunited with her mother (and it is a fact, as far as my children are concerned, for example) means that the outcome is positive. However, this is also a cautionary tale with a stern message made clear from the outset: “Had someone hugged her with care and love, had she only experienced a little warmth, the story would have been different”.
Andrea Petrlik Huseinovic has won many awards for her work, both at home in Croatia and internationally. Her illustrations for Pinocchio earned her a place on the IBBY Honour List in 2002; and in 2003 she was awarded a Biennial of Illustration Bratislava (BIB) Plaque for her illustrations for The Blue Sky and Alice in Wonderland. The original paintings for both these books were bought by the Chihiro Art Museum in Japan for its International Collection. Appropriately enough, the idea for The Blue Sky came to Andrea during a UNESCO-BIB art workshop in Bratislava in 2001. In an afterword she talks about her own background, including “the saddest thing in my life”: she lost both her parents when she was ten years old. This knowledge, of course, adds poignancy to the story but it is clear that it is not meant to be taken as autobiographical. It remains an allegory for what happens when children are alone and we do not stretch out our hands and hearts to them. It’s an extraordinary book that works on many levels, for children and adults. It’s the kind of book that needs to be read together, whether as a family or as a school group; and it offers scope for enriching and soul-searching discussion. I bought two copies: one for my boys and one for their school library.