When a little girl’s grandfather dies, she knows that although he is “gone,” he is still very much a part of her life. Emily sees reminders of him everywhere, from a framed photograph on her bedside table to an envelope addressed to her in his distinctive handwriting, given to her upon his death. Readers share the experience of opening the letter by lifting a large, sturdy flap (that will hold up to repeated readings and the rigours of library circulation) to reveal an encouraging message of comfort written on the page underneath: “I knew how hard this morning would be for you … I’m not there to dry your tears, but I want you to know that I’m still always with you.”
As the years go by, Emily’s parents deliver more of Grandpa’s pre-penned letters and meaningful gifts at various life milestones – her first day of high school, when graduating from university, before walking down the aisle on her wedding day, and after the birth of her first child.
The grandfatherly wisdom conveyed in the missives matures along with Emily, starting off with peppy truisms (“Remember, strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet”), moving into deeper sentiments contained in touching family memories (“Your grandmother and I danced until three in the morning and kept dancing together the rest of our days”).
The heaviness of loss is lightened by Halifax artist Carloe Liu’s brightly hued, cheerful watercolour illustrations. The scenes are full of life and renewal, capturing fun times on a favourite amusement park ride, Grandpa’s perennially blooming flower garden, and completing the circle with Emily’s newborn son.
Always with You takes a sensitive and supportive approach to a topic difficult to comprehend and reconcile. Because much of the story focuses on Emily’s life as a grown-up, the audience most likely to have an immediate, emotional connection will be adults. Caregivers and children can discuss the complicated feelings of grief that are a poignant undercurrent (“He was never far from Emily’s thoughts, which made her happy and sad”) and the universal, ageless experiences of love and loss. In an author’s note, Eric Walters relates his personal inspiration for this book, along with the hope that readers will “remember someone you love and all the ways they are still with you.”