I wish I’d had these books on hand last spring when Opal was so fixated on death.
At that time, I was tongue-tied and awkward. I did my best to be honest and certainly didn’t want to frighten or confuse her with too much information. She was four-and-a-half, and I simply wasn’t sure how far to let our conversations about death go. I ultimately reached out for help, and the majority of Opal’s intense questioning passed in the matter of days.
It didn’t occur to me until now, months later, to go searching for kids’ books to aide in the process of broaching the topic of death with my daughter. (What a complex, uncertain, confusing, scary topic that can be for all ages.) I was amazed and relieved at how many such books were available at my library—10 for starters. So I checked them out to have a closer look.
So that’s what I’ve been up to for the last few days—previewing a pile of books on how to talk to kids about death.
At the moment, I am in our bedroom and Opal has gone to bed. (These books definitely require a preview before introducing them to her.) When my husband came into the bedroom, five minutes earlier, he found me reading Lifetimes, The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, when typically I’d be holding a New Yorker or my Kindle in front of my face. He flashed me a glance that said do-I-really-want-to-know? but, ultimately, he knew better than to ask too many questions.
Without further ado and in no particular order, here they are:
- Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant. A sweet book about, you guessed it, Dog Heaven. I must admit, I was a little put off at first by the frequent mention of God until I realized that Rylant created him as an old black man with a white mustache and lime-green pants. Whether or not you believe in God in the traditional sense, this book certainly leaves you with a peaceful feeling. The illustrations are simple acrylic, childlike paintings. There are not many words; it is very spacious and sweet.
“God turns clouds inside out to make fluffy beds for the dogs in Dog Heaven.”
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst. This story begins with a little boy whose cat dies. His mom asks him to think of Ten Good Things about his pet, which helps him to mourn, though the little boy doesn’t realize this. I like that this story is from the perspective of the little boy, with simple language, straightforward black-and-white illustrations and kid-logic questioning about where Barney went after he died. (What am I saying? These are human-logic questions. Kids are just, perhaps, more capable of asking them so earnestly.)
“Annie said Barney was in heaven with lots of cats and angels, drinking cream and eating cans of tuna. I said Barney was in the ground.”
- I’ll Always Love You, by Hans Wilhelm. A very simple story about a young boy and his beloved dog, who dies at the end of the book. Whereas the cat in Barney dies on the first page, the majority of this book is filled with happy images of the boy and dog’s life together. The boy takes solace in how often he told the dog he loved her during her life.
“I was very sad, too, but it helped to remember that I told her every night, ‘I’ll always love you.'”
- Tear Soup, by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck Deklyen. This one sincerely moved me. It is the story of a middle-aged woman who suffered a loss, one that the reader never discovers. She spends her days making ‘soup’ from her emotions, stirring in whatever comes up for her, leaving nothing out. It is a striking, poignant book about grieving and loss; it could even be seen as instructions on how to move through your own grief. The notion of soup as a metaphor for grieving is a clever and gentle way of guiding the reader to feel and allow whatever rises to the surface following a loss or tragedy. The book tells us, in no uncertain terms, that feelings are not to be neglected and not to be rushed. The illustrations are very emotional. The writing is incredibly thoughtful. This is quite a piece of work. I would venture to say it’s mainly for adults, or at least totally appropriate for them and older children, too.
“Some of Grandy’s friends over the years had not tended to their tear soup. Their soup boiled over and the pot scorched.”
- Gentle Willow, by Joyce C. Mills, Ph. D. This one comes with an introduction for parents and guidance for imagery and breathing exercises in the back. In this story, Gentle Willow is sick and dying. His friends, Amanda-the-squirrel and Little Tree, call on the Tree Wizards to help Gentle Willow, but the Wizards can’t make things better for the Willow. Squirrel is very angry about this, thus showing the anger and confusion one feels when someone they love is dying. There is also a part where Amanda is sitting with Gentle Willow, who is confused and scared of dying, delivering a profound message on how to talk with someone who is dying.
“Not knowing how to help her friend, Amanda sat quietly. She just listened, and stayed close, while Gentile Willow wept. Then Amanda remembered about songs and stories…and love.”
- Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley. I was also truly touched by this one. It is a lovely, thoughtful story about the legacy one leaves after they die. Badger is old and wise and close to dying. His friends adore him and are heartsick when he dies. They cope as a group by sharing stories about Badger’s life, the things that they will remember and that have touched their lives through him. The illustrations are beautiful and detailed, witty and rich.
“Badger wasn’t afraid of death…His only worry was how his friends would feel when he was gone.”
- The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia. Here is a story that uses the leaves of a tree, and how they evolve through a one-year-long evolution of the seasons, to teach about death. I love how the leaves all have their own purpose and identity, yet they are all attached to the same trunk, the same source of nourishment. A sage-like elder leaf, Daniel, helps guide the leaves through the process of life and then, finally, death.
“We all fear what we don’t know…Yet, you were not afraid when Spring became Summer…They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?”
- The Mountains of Tibet, by Mordicai Gernstein. All I can say is WOW. As a Buddhist, I genuinely appreciate a book about reincarnation that is appropriate for children. I think it’s a little old for Opal, but I bet in a few years, she’ll be mature enough to understand it. Death feels so natural in this story, and the steps towards reincarnation, though very poetic in the book, have a pragmatic, beautifully ordinary feel to them.
“You now have a choice. You may become part of the endless universe some call heaven, or you may live another life.”
- Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. The authors use simple words to describe the lifetimes of different living things. The illustrations are the best part. They are gorgeous; I’d frame any of them and hang them in my hallway. However, this book doesn’t leave me feeling particularly touched or consoled.
“There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.”
- Lifetimes, by David L. Rice. (First of all, it has the same title and premise as the previous book. This one came out 14 years after the previous book entitled Lifetimes. I can’t help but to be curious about the copyright issue on such a thing.) Anyhow, this is one of the most gorgeous, respectful books on death for children that I’ve seen. Page by page, and with illustrations that hold you in place well beyond the reading of the words, the book tells the story of one living creature at a time. This book tunes in to the natural patterns of life and how much we can gain by simply acknowledging those patterns and rhythms.
“A lifetime for a mayfly is about one day… Mayflies teach us that a lot can be done in just one day. “
What a grounding, slowing experience it was to read through all these books, most of them more than once. I will certainly purchase Tear Soup, Badger’s Parting Gifts, The Mountains of Tibet and Lifetimes (by David Rice) for my own bookshelf for when the next phase of death questioning happens. If none of these books personally spoke to you, there is a veritable rabbit hole of suggestions on this genre of books on Amazon. (Customers who bought this book, also bought…)
These books may be intended for children—most of them for pre-schoolers and up—but I felt profoundly more in touch with my own human-ness after reading them on my own. There is something inherently poignant about putting something as baffling, and perhaps terrifying, as the topic of death in a language kids can understand. In this case, it is a language that works and that, frankly, I prefer.
Simple, straightforward and visual. And brimming with love.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Barry Bloo/Flickr