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Time to Grieve: Books for Children and Families Coping with Death and Dying

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We always know it will come; yet, when it happens, it is unexpected. That is the paradox of death. We all experience death in one way or another, be it the loss of a family member, friend or neighbor. Talking about death and explaining it to children, however, can be difficult. These ten suggested novels—fiction and nonfiction—can assist families in starting that conversation, help children sort out their feelings, and ease the grieving process.   

Death is stupid

Death is Stupid, written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham

Higginbotham provides a frank view on death and the complex emotions grief can bring up.  The author minces no words in showing how many of the things people say to comfort children at a funeral, such as “don’t cry,” or “I know how you feel,” doesn’t make children feel better. Instead, she tells readers that “remembering lasts” and suggests ways for children to keep connections to their deceased loved ones, such as reading similar books and treasuring what they held dear.   

 

Where do they go?

Where Do They Go? By Julia Alvarez, illustrated by Sabra Field

This rhyming poem strives to answer a child’s inquiry about where people go when they die. Many questions are posed in this picture book and the child ultimately draws to the conclusion that loved ones can be found in “surprising new places,” such as “in the smile on faces” and “in the sun as it sets when the long day is done.” 

 

Always remember

Always Remember, by Cece Meng, illustrated by Jago

After Old Turtle takes his last swim, all of the other sea creatures reminisce on all the wonderful things he did for them and how he made “his world a better place” by being a kind teacher and a good supportive friend. Even though this picture book focuses on animals, the overarching sentiment expressed – the actions one takes in life is what is most important – is transcendent.

 

When a pet dies

When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers, photographs by Jim Judkis

Pets are part of the family, too, and it can be confusing for young children to deal with their feelings when these furry, feathered or scale-covered loved ones die. TV educator Fred Rodgers explains in simple language the concepts of death and a funeral.  He also reassures families that it’s okay to feel sad, mad or frustrated, and the best way to deal with their complex emotions is to talk with loved ones.

 

The dead bird

The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson

A group of children come across a dead bird and they decide to hold a special burial for the animal. Brown is straightforward in her description of what the children observe when they examine the bird and the impromptu funeral shows their compassion and kindness.

 

 

 

Cry heart, but never break

Cry Heart, But Never Break, by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi

Death personified visits a house to take a grandmother away while siblings Nels, Sonia, Kasper and Leah conspire to stall him with coffee. Unlike most portrays of Death, this character is kindly and he has a heart “as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” Death tells the children a story, and through his words, they come to understand the important role he plays in the world.  

 

 

 

Stones for grandpa

Stones for Grandpa, by Renee Londner, illustrated by Martha Aviles

A young boy visits the cemetery with his family for the unveiling of his grandfather’s tombstone one year after his death. As the family places stones on the tomb as a symbol of remembrance, following Jewish custom, the boy thinks about time with and without his grandpa. The lively pictures illustrate the boy’s joyful memories of Grandpa Duke, and the book shows how love and sadness can coexist.   

 

Aunt Mary's rose

Aunt Mary’s Rose, by Douglas Wood, illustrated by LeUyem Pham

A rosebush cared for by several generations of one family provides a way for Aunt Mary to share stories with young Douglas about his deceased grandfather, father and uncle. The biographical picture book paints a loving portrait of how connections to past loved ones can be made in the present through the simple act of tending a plant.

 

 

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, pictures by Garth Williams, artwork by Rosemary Wells

This beloved story of a friendship between a spider and farm pig is the classic children’s book about death. Charlotte’s kindness and efforts to save her friend Wilbur from being killed for food still resonates today and offers families the opportunity to discuss the cycle of life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crossover

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

Twin basketball players Josh and Jordan “JB” Bell are the stars of their middle school team. Older children and tweens can read multiple interlinking poems about the high points and low points the brothers undergo over the course of a year while their father, former basketball star Chuck Bell, denies and ignores his growing health problems. Reading about the way the Bells struggle with and ultimately come to terms with a family death could be cathartic for other children and tweens who have experienced a similar loss.

 

 

 

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Addendum

Another excellent children's picture book that addresses grief in children's lives Blackberry Stew by Isabell Monk (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/452028.Blackberry_Stew)

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