The City is the sort of book that is read, followed by a glowing silence of reflection. This type of book is important and I highly recommend it for readers mature enough to handle the serious and somewhat morbid subject material.
The narrative begins by focusing upon a mother who loves her new baby dearly and wishes only the best for him. She is shrouded in black robes, as if she wishes to conceal herself and her child from everything. She is depicted breastfeeding him on the very first page, in fact in the very first illustration; this is a serious book and Greder isn’t beating about the bush. These are intimate ideas at work here. Greder’s illustrations are a stunning juxtaposition of shades and shadows against topics of love and protection.
Fearing her child will face hardships that have befallen the city, the mother takes him to a secluded and isolated place. Here, the story shifts focus and settles upon the baby who is now a young boy. This is necessary because his mother dies suddenly. I almost used the term ‘passes away’ when composing this review, but I want to be true to the blunt atmosphere that Greder has constructed. The boy is lost, confused and rather unsocialised because his mother has surrounded him so fiercely with love and isolation so as to keep him from harm that this, ultimately, visits harm upon him.
Greder’s prose is poetic. There are countless ways of analysing and dissecting his narrative and illustrations. If I was still a high school English teacher, I have no doubt that I could dedicate two or three lessons to this book aone. His illustrations are comprised of sketch-like figures, an odd and yet precise combination whimsical, off-putting and foreboding. There are certainly strong undercurrents of fairy-tale embedded within the story, and not of the Disney variety.
I absolutely would not read this to my two year old. I don’t think it would come close to holding his attention, nor would he appreciate it. And that’s OK, because Greder’s target audience is not of the toddler variety. These types of books often struggle to find homes because older readers tend to think of themselves as beyond the picture book phase. Happily for me, I am a firm believer that picture books aren’t a phase but an underappreciated medium which can benefit everyone. Therefore, The City is now counted amongst my favourite picture books of all time (and that’s saying something because I’m pretty sure I could start a library with the amount of picture books I own).
The City is written and illustrated by Armin Greder, and recommended for children 11-16. However, if your children are on the younger end of that spectrum, I suggest you accompany their first one or two read-throughs as the story raises far more questions than it answers.