No Country for old men:
Can you whistle, Johanna?
[Sai fischiare, Johanna?]

Swedish author and screenwriter Ulf Stark passed away one year ago today.
Much of his work has been left untranslated to date, but we have this small treasure, and it should seriously have a place in any home and school library. 
Can you whistle, Johanna? was written in 1992 and published in English in 2005 by Gecko Press and only in 2017 in Italian by Iperborea (with different illustrations though).
It received the German Children's Literary Award (the only state-funded in Germany) in 1994 and the 2018 Andersen Prize as best book for the age range 6-9 years.
An inspiring story talking about big themes like life cycles and loneliness, and essentially a story about a world too often forgotten, that of elderly people.

Berra is a 7 year old boy who never met his grandfather. 
As his friend Ulf suggests to 'adopt' one at the old people's home, a story of friendship begins. 
Being unable to entertain his 'grandchild' in anything exciting, like other grandparents would do, Ned builds a kite for him to play, using the silk scarf of his defunct wife Johanna, probably the last memory of her, and the tie of his good suit as a tail.
Berra goes to visit 'Grandpa' several times, and they both enjoy each other's company until the time to leave arrives for Ned.

A sensitive, respectful, sweet yet not sentimental look at the old age, sensibly illustrated by Anna Höglund, who managed to be true to Stark's delicate narration.
The focus here is not on death, which we know will come soon for Ned from the beginning. 
He lives in a retirement home with funeral cars parked outside at all times, it's the last, lonely home for many elderly people.
The focus is on the relationship between Berra and Ned, the process of getting to know each other's world.
For Ned, it's actually the process of remembering the world itself, its smells and colours, the feeling of doing the small things, those that can become a huge challenge as the time goes by.
Which is ultimately the heady, exciting feeling of being alive.
In this sense, the gift that Berra gives Ned is everything he needed to get ready to salute this life, and that makes his departure less bitter to Berra’s heart and to the reader’s.

So what’s the title about?
Can you whistle, Johanna? Is the melody Ned used to whistle when his wife was alive and that he keeps whistling now during the long days on his own.
Berra can’t really whistle yet, whistling is one of those things grandads usually teach.
And this is it: the boy practices whistling everyday, promising Ned that he would only go back to visit when he will manage to do it,  just to find out that it was too late.
But, was it really?
No tear-jerking end, but a kite to fly.

An incredibly important book in an era of increasing distance between generations.
There have been initiatives around the world to reconnect young children and students to the the elderly and these should by all means been supported. 
As migration is leading to the fragmentation of the family nucleus and to the general disappearence of the elderly from the urban society, children lose the possibility to learn from them and to give back.
They also don’t get the chance to see us, their parents, accepting our own parents in our homes and assististing them as they become less independent, like it used to be in rural areas and how it would be natural to be in the human life cycle.

What kind of adults do we expect them to become? 
Unfortunately the book has become quite difficult to find, even online. I'm hoping that a new edition will be released at some point, and that this will be easily found in stores as well, which is at the moment impossible, at least in London.
🇬🇧Can you whistle, Johanna? [2005]
By Ulf Stark
Art by Anna Höglund
English edition by Gecko Press, available here
🇮🇹Sai fischiare, Johanna? [2017]
Art by Olof Landström
Italian edition by Iperborea
Reading age: 5+
Themes: Learning about emotions, Old age, Death

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