Picture Books...a Conduit to Conversations about Death, Loss and Grief.
Yesterday, during an Insta Live session with Redwood Montessori School, I was asked about books dealing with death.
I first wrote a post about Death themed books for children, in February 2018, when death struck close to home. We had lost a dear friend...young, vivacious, full of life. But Death...'the much feared', had crept up on her slowly, stealing her away from us...keeping her forever young in our hearts and minds. Us adults were shocked, gut-wrenched and then felt empty and strange. I walked around feeling hollow, and the feelings ranged from disbelieving to numb to sad…very sad, tears pricking my eyes. I wondered how the children were processing this.
We perceive Death as too dark a topic for children, often using different means to shield them from it. When children question us about death, most of us adults will hem and haw and give vague replies, uncomfortable because it is not a topic that is openly spoken about. Unsure whether it is a topic for children. Or maybe we still steeped in the superstition that speaking about death, may just bring it on?
Yet Death is all around us. Whether it’s a calamity we hear about on the news, or a distant aged relative and now more than ever with the ubiquitous reports of CoVid deaths. Yet it is only when it hits closer home or when it is least expected, that it most often leaves us at a loss for words... wondering how we can explain it to our children and help them deal with the emotions they are going through.
I recall the story of Durga and Mahishasura that I often narrate to my students, especially during Navaratri. When Mahishasura asks Lord Brahma for the boon of immortality, Lord Brahma responds that it is impossible, for life and death go together...that every creature who is born, will die.
Simple and straightforward.
Death is an inevitable part of life. By introducing books about death to children, maybe we help in their acceptance of birth and death as part of life.
Books about death also bring comfort, even if just a teensy bit, to manoeuvre the crushing, earth shattering grief when it does hit close to home.
Picture books often help us say exactly what we cannot articulate. They are a wonderful conduit, through which we can open up a dialogue about death and grief.
These are a few picture books that I have read, marvelled at how the theme was handled and wanted to share these titles with you. I learn so much from children’s books, and feel quite often that we draw as much…if not more, from them, as our children.
1. THE HEART AND THE BOTTLE by Oliver Jeffers
The ever popular Mr. Jeffers, surprised me with his deep, poignant, thought provoking book about grief and getting over it. The book is about a girl who loves life, is curious, who wonders and delights in all she sees around her. Much of her interaction is with a male figure, presumably her father or grandfather, who sits in a chair, which one day she finds empty. No explanation is given about what the empty chair means. Sad and unsure the little girl decides to put her heart in a safe place…a bottle which she keeps tied around her neck…..an allegory for bottling up emotions, probably. But from then on, nothing was the same. She soon lost her curious nature and stopped wondering, nothing delighted her any more. The bottle grows awkward and heavy, when she meets a little girl full of wonder and curious about the world around her. The girl wanted to reach out to this little girl, but she couldn’t…with her heart in the bottle. She tried everything to get her heart out of the bottle but it was only the little girl, curious about the world, who could manages to do it. I loved that the solution to getting her heart out of the bottle, was interaction with someone else, and how reaching out to those who grieve, will help them unlock their hearts.
2. DUCK, DEATH AND THE TULIP by Wolf Erlbruch
This is a sweet and rare book that not only touches upon death and what life may be in the afterlife, but humanises the ever present death. Duck feels that someone is following her, when she turns around, she finds death. She asks him why he is following her, to which Death replies that he has always been close at hand, her entire life….a reminder to us that death is always around. As Death follows Duck around, they develop a bond and a rather sweet friendship where they spend time together discussing all kinds of things. They discuss what will happen to the pond after death takes duck, touching upon how everything that stays behind remains just the same. They have discussions about what the afterlife is like and Duck grows to accept Deaths presence, developing a bond of friendship with him. “Are you going to make something happen?” “Life takes care of that.” Says Death. Till at the end, when duck dies, Death places her on a flowing river, with a tulip across her body. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved. But that’s life, thought death.”
3. CRY, HEART BUT NEVER BREAK by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
Four siblings who live with their gravely ill grandmother, make a decision to keep death away. However death comes….as he must. But keeping in mind that the house holds four young children, he leaves his scythe at the door, so as not to scare them. The children try to distract him by plying him with cups of coffee to keep him away from their grandmother till the morning...in the belief that death works only at night. At dawn he would have no choice but to leave without her. Death was soon ready, covering his cup with his bony hand to signal that he wanted no more coffee. One of the children plead with death asking, “Why does my grandmother have to go?”. As the story goes…. “Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” And he narrates a beautiful fable about Sorrow and delight, Joy and Grief to illustrate how everything in life was balanced. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?” One of the children want to stop death, but another holds him back, “Life is moving on, this is how it must be.” Before leaving death advises them, “Cry, heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief, of sadness bring new life.” What I loved about this book is how beautifully it acknowledges and encourages us to grieve and cry in the time of loss, yet urging us to never break. The beautiful narration of the fable explains how everything in life is balanced. A deep, thought provoking book. “What would life be worth, if there was no death.”
DEATH OF A FAMILY MEMBER:
4. THE SAD BOOK by Micheal Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
I guess it’s an oxymoronic statement to say that I ‘like’ this book about death and grief. What I really liked about it is that it does not cushion or shy away from describing the range of emotions that the author goes through as he writes about his life post the death of his son. It is a raw, emotional description of how sad seems to follow and surround him. He explains that although the world may see him smiling, they do not see how sad he feels inside. But then simple everyday events make him remember his son, bringing a smile to his face. This book takes the reader through a whole range of emotions, and how it is ok to feel the way they do, after losing someone they love.
5. BOO WHEN MY SISTER DIED written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Gautam Benegal
Noorie’s world goes quiet when her sister Zoya dies. She knows that her sister is gone forever, which is why she feels annoyed with Mummy’s lies that Zoya will always be around. Angry, she pushes away everyone who tries to reach out to her Remembering Zoya, and keeping her by her side, she slowly finds strength in the love of those around her, helping her cope with her loss.
6. THE SCAR by Charlotte Moundlic; illustrated by Olivier Tallec
This is a deeply moving book about a young boy who loses his terminally ill mother. Written in first person it takes us through the various stages of anger, grief and acceptance.
DEATH OF A GRANDPARENT:
7. GONE GRANDMOTHER by Chatura Rao, illustrated by Krishna Bala Shenoi
A sensitively narrated story of a young girl who questions where her Nani has gone. While her mother struggles to find the words to explain death to her, the young child seeks solace in the wonderful memories of Nani, in her imagination and in a little bit of natural science.
8. NANA UPSTAIRS AND NANA DOWNSTAIRS by Tomie dePaola
A beautiful story about a little boy’s two Nana’s...Nana Downstairs, his grandmother and Nana Upstairs, his great-grandmother. The story beautifully conveys the love he has for his two grandmothers and how he expresses his feelings and acceptance when they leave him.
DEATH OF A FRIEND:
9. THE STORYTELLER by Ken Spillman
When The Great Storyteller...a wise old elephant dies, the jungle is plunged into doom. The creatures of the jungle remember all the stories and advice that he gave them over the years, and use those to bring the jungle back to life, while celebrating the life and memory of the Great Storyteller and processing their grief at the same time.
10. IDA, ALWAYS by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso
This is the story of Ida and Gus, two polar bears living in the Central Park Zoo. The best of friends and love spending their days together. But one day Ida falls ill and Gus learns that she will not recover. They spend time together through Ida’s illness, sharing love and companionship. While they sometimes need the space away from each other, they cherish the time they have together, navigating grief of the impending loss. The story follows Gus after Ida dies as he learns to live his life without her, but always remembering her.
DEATH OF A PET:
11. THE TENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY by Judith Viorst; illustrated by Erik Blegvad
When a little boy loses his beloved cat Barney, his Mom tries to help him deal with his grief by asking him to remember ten things about his cat. Remembering 9, the tenth eluding him, when he is reminded of something by his day. A beautiful book to help children talk about the death of a pet and how grief is a natural part of the healing process.
12. JASPER’S DAY by Marjorie Blain Parker; illustrated by Janet Wilson
A touching story about a family as they prepare to euthanise their dog who is suffering from cancer. The family goes through the day by doing all the things Jasper enjoys and taking him to say goodbye to his human and doggie friends.
13. A STONE FOR SASCHA by Aaron Becker
This is a stunning and intense wordless picture book about a little girl’s family vacation which isn’t the same without the family dog who had passed away. She finds a special stone along the sea shore and sensing its history and many storied past and its many lives, it comforts her, helping her process her grief, bringing it home as an offering to leave at Sascha’s grave.
MY CHAPTER BOOK PICKS: 14. THE BOY WITH TWO GRANDFATHERS by Mini Shrinivasan
15. A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness
16. THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE by Dan Gemeinhart
Grief, a natural and necessary response to loss, can be made up of many emotions...sadness, anger, guilt and everything in between. Each individual responds to loss in their own unique way and in their own time. Both children and adults face the same kinds of emotions in the face of loss.
With children, use books to validate their feelings, and to help them understand that what they are feeling is normal. Use them to validate your own feelings and to answer a child’s questions.
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” - Haruki Murakami
This blog post is a compilation of 2 posts about death themed books first written on my Myth Aunty Facebook page and for the Taboo topics theme on The Bookwallis.
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