Reading books on illness and bereavement to my children? The thought filled me with heart-knotting dread. Why would I do it to them or me? Well, one reason is that children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by life’s biggest mystery, death. The right book on this subject can be informative and comforting – light is cast into the shadows. I’d now encourage adults to add this topic into children’s literary diet early, to not wait until your family is forced to confront this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death, provides them ballast when the inevitable hard time comes.
Recently I asked my seven and ten-year-old sons to help me review a selection of picture books concerning loss and grief. These books sparked conversations that were thoughtful, pragmatic, candid and enlightening. The following is our joint review.
Cry Heart, but Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
A black cloaked figure visits a house of children the night their grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story explaining, ‘Who would yearn for day if there was no night?’ In our house, this book was a big hit. The visitor is revealed to not be so frightening. The idea of grief and sorrow being a counterweight to joy and delight made intuitive sense.
The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup
Animals in a forest hold a memorial for their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their recollections, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. ‘I absolutely loved this’ said the older co-reviewer, ‘especially the way emptying out their sorrows made them lighter.’
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
Both younger reviewers thought this was fantastic. ‘Most of the other books were a story about death, but this was unique in that it explained death,’ said my ten–year-old.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
‘Ten out of ten,’ says the seven-year-old. Personally, I am not a huge fan of this bestseller, but I’ve noticed the comfort to be had in imagining a magic thread connecting us to those we love best: ‘The idea of the string makes me happy.’
The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer
After a boy’s mother dies, he is followed by a gorilla. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolour illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief morphing into a spirit animal that gives protection. They also liked thinking of ‘where you might go’ after death.
I’ll Say Goodbye by Pam Zollman
A boy stays with his terminally ill uncle by the sea, offering a metaphor about a person outgrowing their body as a crab outgrows their shell. The book lead us to an interesting conversation.
What Happens Next? by Sinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky, original book. After his grandfather’s death, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often hilarious ideas on an afterlife: ‘it makes death seem like a holiday in a luxury resort,’ said one child. The boy decides to write his own book on how to best live. Highly recommend.
If All the World Were… by Joseph Coelho
A granddaughter recalls all the ways her grandfather has made her life richer. We all loved Allison Colpoy’s illustrations, and the message that our loved ones live on in our memories.
Death, Duck, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over its shoulder, it spies a skeletal character: ‘Good,’ said Death, ‘you finally noticed me.’I think this is a solid 9 out of 10, but have to admit the kids only gave it 6.5.
Michael Rosen’s SAD Book by Michael Rosen
Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives incredibly eloquent expression to the experience of grief, ‘a cloud that comes along and covers me up.’ This is complemented by the stormy palette of Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations. Again, this is a book that older readers might appreciate – let’s not pretend children’s books are only for children!
Leaf Litter: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World by Rachel Tonkin
I can’t not mention this stunning book, which chronicles a year of change in a forest’s undergrowth. (‘Leaves teach us how to die,’wrote Thoreau.) A blue-tongue lizard decays, and we see in cross-section the carcass breaking down, its nutrients moving through the soil.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
In this classic from 1971, a family holds a burial for their cat and a child is asked to recall the ten best things about the pet, the tenth thing being the cat fertilising the earth.
Let’s Talk About When Someone Dies by Molly Potter
This is an excellent practical guide to helping kids understand the mechanics of death, the mixed emotions of bereavement and our different cultural beliefs regarding an afterlife. ‘Basically an encyclopedia of death,’ one co-reviewer suggests.