July 29, 2019

Aunt Pearl

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
August 2019

Six-year-old Marta's mother has decided that her Aunt Pearl should come and live with them rather than living on the street or couch surfing. Not only does Pearl bring her shopping cart loaded with her "worldly goods" but a man in an old van brings more boxes and bags with the same miscellany. While Marta and Dan's mother tries to keep their home tidy and organized as she prefers it to be, Aunt Pearl fills her room, as well as the garage and basement, with her stuff, and the clash of sensibilities begins.
From Aunt Pearl by Monica Kulling, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
Marta is quite fascinated with Aunt Pearl who is respectful of her new surroundings and family though she still feels the need to be true to herself.  Soon Marta is emulating Aunt Pearl, from her eclectic clothing choices to joining her on her forays to scour the neighbourhood’s garbage for treasures, always asking questions of Pearl and how she lived. Marta loves the drama of Aunt Pearl and always finds opportunities to role-play something she hears or sees associated with Aunt Pearl which unpredictably the older woman thinks strange.
From Aunt Pearl by Monica Kulling, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
But things are very different for Aunt Pearl now and over the summer and into the fall, she becomes more and more reserved, “staring into the ravine at the bottom of the yard where the trees grew tangled and green” and, with her mental health affected, she leaves.
From Aunt Pearl by Monica Kulling, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
Aunt Pearl is a tough story about family and love and appreciation and authenticity.  Author Monica Kulling makes it clear that Marta’s mother wants to do what’s best for her aunt but it might not actually be what’s right for Pearl. Many would think it generous and appropriate to give Pearl shelter in the family home but it’s obviously not what’s best in the long run for Pearl. Whatever the reason for Aunt Pearl choosing to return to the streets, and there are those who do, she was still able to make a connection with Marta, to learn that she had a place she could go, and that there were still choices within her control.

Monica Kulling's words never criticize either Aunt Pearl or Marta and Dan's mother for their living choices. She is an observer not a judge, seeing the circumstances as a clash of two worlds in which all try to accept their differences with open hearts. Irene Luxbacher's rich collage illustrations, a mixture of pencil, watercolour and acrylics finished with found papers and gouache, push that same idea. While Irene Luxbacher makes Aunt Pearl a sympathetic character with her soft eyes and quiet smile, Pearl's clothes are usually loud and her presence larger than life. In the words and the art, Aunt Pearl is both subtle and bold, trying to fit her world into someone else's and ultimately that just doesn't work.

Aunt Pearl is a bittersweet story about homelessness and the power of family to love and accept and let go. It teaches compassion and urges us all to better understand what it means to be homeless and to love those who are.
From Aunt Pearl by Monica Kulling, illus. by Irene Luxbacher


  1. "An observer, not a judge … " Thank you for that, Helen. And for the lovely review.