What if Death liked his coffee “black and strong?” And left his scythe outside the door, so as not to scare the young ones? That’s who Death is in Cry, Heart, But Never Break, originally written in Danish by award-winning children’s author Glenn Ringtved, with wistful, pencil-and-watercolor illustrations by Charlotte Pardi.
In this gentle, moving picture book for ages 4-8, Death appears as a warmhearted, avuncular character, full of sad tenderness towards the four children whose ailing grandmother he is about to visit. He doesn’t announce who he is, but—no fools they—the children know exactly who he is and what he’s up to.
And so they hatch a plan. Eventually, though, the youngest asks, “Our grandmother is so dear to us, why does she have to die?” Death answers with a thoughtful parable, which leads another of the children to conclude, “Life is moving on. This is how it has to be.”
Like so many books in translation, Cry, Heart, But Never Break has quite the tale behind it. Ringtved originally wrote the story for his own children in the late 90s, after his mother (their grandmother) had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Fast forward to 2012, at which point many of Ringtved’s books for children had been translated into Russian, German, and Korean, but none had yet reached young English readers. According to Robert Moulthrop, the accomplished author and playwright who moved the story into English, Ringtved’s Danish publisher had a literal translation and was trying to find a way to get it to the English-speaking market. (One shudders a bit to wonder where that literal translation came from and how it was obtained, but we’ll move on without digging any further into how this particular sausage was made.)
This is the moment that fate stepped in, with a chance encounter in Central Park—the author on a first visit to the U.S. and the playwright, a local. The two then worked to shape the translation, corresponding back and forth over email: Moulthrop applying his poetic sensibility and understanding of American attitudes towards death, Ringtved, his deep understanding of his own authorial intent. Once the adaptation was burnished until it gleamed, their “next step,” writes Moulthrop, was to “find a publisher.” It reached Enchanted Lion Press and from there, the rest of us lucky English readers.
Death and dying are never easy topics, but Cry, Heart, But Never Break tackles them with sensitivity throughout. (A warning to the softhearted: this beautifully written, poetic book brings me to tears early in the story and never lets go, no matter how many times I read it.)
Cry, Heart, But Never Break
Written by Glenn Ringtved
Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
Translated from the Danish by Robert Moulthrop
2016, Enchanted Lion Books
Awards: 2017 Mildred L. Batchelder Award; A Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of 2017
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Her most recent translation is Who Killed Kenny (NBM Publishing, 2019), with Little Josephine and A House Without Windows (both Life Drawn/Humanoids), The Sisters, vol. 5: M.Y.O.B. , Supersisters, vol. 1 and 2 (both Papercutz), and Bibi & Miyu (TOKYOPOP, 2020) upcoming.