In the past two weeks, several friends of mine have experienced great losses. While talking about this with them, and holding space for their grief, the subject inevitably turned to their children and all the insecurities and concerns about how to make the subject of death a bit more accessible to them.
Enter books. As I went through my storage today to pull out books for a friend's children, books I have used in the past in my own classroom when a beloved member of our community died, (and later with loss in my own family) I realized that this subject comes up constantly in various teacher and parenting groups I belong to. What books are there for children that talk about death? What ones are good? What ones aren't scary? Which ones aren't religious? And so on.
So. In no particular order, my personal favourite five books for preschool/early elementary aged children, all of which deal with death and loss in beautiful, sometimes odd, and accessible ways. I'd love to hear your favourites. This subject is so hard, and so delicate, that we need all the resources we can get.
"Always Remember" by Cece Meng is a beautifully illustrated tale about Old Turtle, who takes his last breath on the first page. The rest of the story is a loving ode to Old Turtle, who taught young turtles to swim; kept humpback whales company; played with otters; helped a manatee escape a net; and more.
Simple, loving and a testament to how those who leave us will always exist in our memories, "Always Remember" tackles the problem of death in a way even young children can connect to, without being heartbreaking or overwhelming for them.
"The Goodbye Book" by Todd Parr is perfect for even the absolute youngest child in your classroom. Without explicitly mentioning death, Parr covers the multitude of feelings a child (or parent) may be experiencing while grieving. Gently letting his audience know that their reactions are all normal, Parr acknowledges how weird it can be- that you can be mad, or not want to eat, or want to hide. While making space for any negative feelings, the book goes on to talk about how eventually, things get easier. Memories become less painful and instead a comfort, and that while we all feel sad when we lose someone, it's easier when we remember how much we loved and were loved by those lost.
"Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death To Children" by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen is fantastic. It's straightforward, compassionate, lovely and a wonderful resource. Going over several animals, plants and ending with people, it covers a standard lifetime and explains in the simplest, starkest terms that a life exists between birth and death and it's the same for all things that are alive. There isn't much more to say, except that this book tops most lists I've seen for straightforward books to talk about death with children and there's a damn good reason for that. It's lovely.
(The only circumstance this wouldn't necessarily be appropriate is in the case of a sudden death, that is not the expected, natural end of one's life).
The last two books are more appropriate for older children- 6 and up. (I have read them to younger children but not much younger, and it would totally be dependent on the child's maturity and personality.)
"Cry, Heart, But Never Break" by Glenn Ringtved is a heart wrenching and beautifully sad story about Death, personified as a sorrowful old man, come to claim a grandmother as she sleeps. Her four grandchildren live with her and try to keep Death at bay, by keeping him busy with them until dawn, when he would have to leave. They ask him why he needs to take their beloved grandmother and he tells them the story of two brothers, Sorrow and Grief, who married two sisters, Delight and Joy. Both couples died on the same day, because one can't exist without the other.
Death goes on to say that life and death are the same- that life is made worthwhile because it has an expiration date. The children recognize the truth in this, and allow him upstairs. This book is stunning, perfectly and exactly as sad as you would expect, and wonderful.
(This was only released last year, so my experience with it and children was not in a classroom but in my own family. I'd check with parents before reading this one in particular. While I don't find the illustrations scary, and the children I've shown this book to haven't either, I think this one is definitely more dependent on the particular child than the other's may be).
"The Flat Rabbit" by Bardur Oskarsson is one of my all time favourite children's books regardless of subject. Bizarre, and quiet, and open-ended, the story follows a dog and a rat as they figure out what to do with a very flat rabbit they find on the side of the road. They don't want to leave her on the road, and they eventually carefully and gently peel her off the street and take her back to the dog's house- where they build a kite. And then attach her to it. (Like I said, the book is bizarre).
But then they take her to the park and start flying. The flat rabbit goes higher and higher and the dog and rat ponder if she's enjoying herself. The book ends there, with the rabbit almost too high for them to see. It's lovely and often brings about a lot of profound conversations and is also hilarious and charming. It really is one of the most odd children's book I've ever read, but, strangely enough, is hands down my most popular 'death book' on the shelves, and when we started removing our death books from our class library after things had settled, this was the one my students begged to keep out. While the subject matter is dark, it's done so with wit and never actually comes across as heavy or sorrowful.
I can't say it enough- the best of children's literature doesn't talk down to their audience. Even in subjects as challenging and heartbreaking as death. None of these books do, and I can't recommend them highly enough. What are your favourites?
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