Today I wanted to spend some time focusing on an incredibly important topic: death and grieving. When it comes to helping petites deal with the loss of a loved one there are so many different approaches to support and help little ones through tough and sometimes very confusing times and we have found that picture books are a perfect conduit for having discussions, learning and exploring our feelings and finding comfort when words are sometimes hard to find.
In our own experience we found that many times the books that we had googled sent us straight to more secular picture books; which are wonderful, but did not fit our needs. So today, the books that I am going to share with you are books that we have read, have found to be comforting, beautifully written, give opportunity for families to have conversations and at times leave enough ambiguity for families to determine exactly how they want and see fit to best discuss death, dying and all the feelings that surround this incredibly complex and emotional topic.
Ida, Always by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016) is an incredibly sweet story about two real life bears who lived in New York City’s Central Park Zoo, Gus and Ida were the best of friends. This is a beautifully told story about friendship and loss is told with a huge amount of grace. This is a tough story, for both adults and petites. Gus one day learns that Ida is very sick and that she isn’t going to get better. This is a story that is so incredibly tender, the two friends work through this difficult time together, giving each other a place to share their feelings and their grief. What is so special about this book is that Gus realizes that even when Ida is gone, that she will always be with him. This book is intended for petites ages four to eight.
Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies (Candlewick, 2016) Benji Davies is an amazing author and illustrator and this book is a perfect example of his expert skill. This is the story of Syd and his granddad. The story has a wonderful magical feel to it. Syd loves his granddad and has a very special bond with him. One day he goes to visit him and finds that his attic looks very different that there is a secret metal door, once this it’s opened it leads to a ship and slowly the rooftops melds into the sea and they are off. Once they arrive on the island there is lots of work to be done. The island starts out shaded and dark, but soon with the help of the local inhabitants Syd and his Grandad have created quite a lovely spot. Syd and Grandad explore the island and all that it has to offer; enjoying each others company and you assume they always have. It is the most perfect place. As Syd is preparing to leave this magical place he has so enjoyed with his Grandad; his Grandad says, “Syd, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. You see…I’m thinking of staying” As you would imagine Syd worries that his Grandad will be lonely, but he assures him that he won’t. This spread in the book is by far one of the most glorious illustrations, it is bright, it is cheerful, all of the animals are there with smiles and perfect little spots have been created a chair with tea and gramophone and of course the lovely little shack that they worked on together.
This book is a wonderful look at love and loss in a way that petites can understand – as Syd sails away you feel that sense of loss. I love that attention is paid to the journey home and how it seemed much longer without Grandad. This book is perfect for three to eight year olds.
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Christian Robinson (Harper Collins, 2016) This is an updated version on the 1995 classic with illustrations that update this book for today’s petites. Ms. Brown clearly employs what it is like to be a child and embraces that perspective in this book; it is completely authentic and timeless. In this story children are playing in the park and find a dead bird, they feel very sad about it being dead and decide to burry it in the park and place flowers and other plants on top of it. What we love about this story is that it places emphasis on the ritual of burring the bird and bringing closure that way. It is a told in a very realistic way, describing how when the children first find the bird it is still warm, but as they hold it, it begins to get cold and stiff. This book brings a very honest and matter of fact approach to talking about death with the descriptions of the birds body; which may help to answer some of the questions that children have about what happens when something dies. We found The Dead Bird to be very helpful for our daughters who wanted to know what happened after death and it helped to take some of the confusion and ambiguity away. This book is intended for petites ages four to eight.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved with illustrations by Charlotte Pardi and translated by Robert Moulthrop (Enchanted Lion Books, 2016) This is a story of four siblings who make a pact to keep their gravely ill grandmother from dying. What this deeply moving story teachers readers young and old is that death is not something to be feared, that grief is just another way for us to remember. It is so beautifully told, in the end, death does take their grandmother, but the lessons learned are so valuable. Within this story is an incredible appreciation for life and death. “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.” What is so thought provoking about this book even reading it as an adult is that Death tells a story to help the children understand. Two boys meet two girls and they fall in love, two perfectly balanced couples: Sorrow and Joy, Grief and Delight. “It is the same with life and death… What would life be worth if there were no death?” What Ringtved does with this difficult topic honors to capacity that children have to deal with difficult subjects. This book is suited for petites ages four through ten.
Grandma’s Gloves by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Julia Denos (Candlewick, 2010) is a story that is about a little girl who absolutely adores her grandmother. The way she smells, the way she makes her tea and her incredible green thumb. The illustrations from Julia Denos jump off of the page depicting the moments grandmother and granddaugther are together. Then one day the grandmother is hospitalized and struggles to recognize her family, but as it is sometimes, she still remembers how to grow plants and flowers and they thrive in her hospital room. After her grandmother passes, the little girl cherishes her grandmothers gloves and vows to carry on the tradition of gardening just like her grandmother.
What this book does so masterfully is show how death is not something to be feared, but rather a part of life. Teaching petites that we always have memories and traditions to hold onto and to pass on. Alzheimers is something that is incredibly difficult for petites and this book discusses this topic in such a careful and tender way. This book is inspired by the authors own grandmother and that is abundantly apparent. This book is intended for five to eight year olds.
The Dandelion’s Tale by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey (Schwartz & Wade, 2014) is one of the better books for younger petites that I have seen dealing with death. In this story, Sparrow is flying overhead and spots and lonely dandelion crying below and stops to see why she is crying. It turns out that Dandelion doesn’t have long to live and she wants to be remembered when she is gone. So together they come up with a plan to make sure that she will be remembered by writing her story in the dirt. They have plans the next day to talk more about what Dandelion wants to share in her story, but a huge storm comes and blows the final seed pods away. Sparrow is incredibly sad and vows to tell her story to everyone he meets. But weeks pass and he finds that her memory lives on as her seed pods have blown into the field and their are little reminders of her everywhere. What we love about this story is that it is sweet and tender, open for discussion, subtle enough to just read but with enough substance to have a great conversation. This book is intended for ages three to seven.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2010) is a very touching story about a little girl and an older gentleman who we as readers assume is her grandfather. I am going to brutally honest, I wept when I read this book. This book just struck a chord with me. The little girl in the story is as inquisitive as ever, she cannot learn or explore enough – she does all of this with her grandfather (we assume). One day she runs to his chair to show him her drawings and the chair is empty and the room is dark. From this moment she guards herself and her first step in doing so is to put her heart in a bottle where it will be safe. To say that I love this story, is an understatement. I know that this book is perfect for a petite who may have lost someone in their lives, the uncertain feelings that come from that time can be difficult to tackle. This book is a great way to start to have a conversation about loss. This story is perfect in every way. What makes this book so wonderful, is that the message is subtle , allowing you as parents/guardians to determine how you want to discuss grief and death in this book. This book is perfect for petites ages three through eight.
We hope that this list helps you and your petites find comfort, a place to share memories and a platform to have discussions. Although these books deal in what is arguably one of the most difficult subjects they embrace the sweet and tender moments and place an importance on the grieving process and the capacity that petites have to not only love but to grieve.