BRight, shiny books spilled from my kids’ bookshelves. Her pages, a carnival of humanized animals dancing, singing and living their fullest lives. CS Lewis believed that “a children’s story is the best art form for something to say,” but none of these stories contained what we needed to tell our six- and three-year-old sons. Her father had just been diagnosed with aggressive leukemia.
His prognosis was poor and one night I typed “children’s book” and “death” into an internet search engine. Every title that came out filled me with heartbreaking dread. It’s not that we avoided talking about mortality with our children, but we didn’t engage in it either. As I clicked add to cart, I was wondering if any of these books would like to do the conversation for us?
After a short time I got the packages from the post office. I surreptitiously took them to my study and the books were…clunky, grumpy…as if my own clumsiness with the subject had spawned a lot of embarrassing things. Sugar-sweet stories about, for example, butterflies dying, with illustrations by the author’s artistic relative. I quickly stowed them out of sight.
I have not discussed these investments with my partner. While waiting for the next oncology appointment, we tacitly agreed not to mention the future. One kid went to school and the other to daycare, and he and I sat at our desks. But at my desk, I couldn’t help myself. The search terms “children’s book” and “cancer” swept up a number of more specific titles: When Mom Had a Mastectomy; Our family has cancer too!; mom back in hospital; where is mom’s hair Picture books with a painted-by-numbers feel provide simple, literal information for young children. I bought a copy of Someone I Love Is Sick for our younger son.
Next, a binder folder appeared in the mailbox. It had various laminated pages that could be clicked in or out to create a matching story. Each page was simply illustrated with older people from different cultural backgrounds, such as being bald or being wheeled around on a gurney under a radiation machine. The pages were printed twice to “gender” the book about either a sick grandfather or grandmother, with no-frills text such as:
I went to the funeral but it was hard… I had to pick something from Grandma/Grandpa to keep for myself.
Our older son started reading and I didn’t want him to worry about my parents too. I put the folder in a drawer and never took it out again.
Now I’ve ordered The Invisible String, billed as “the best-selling phenomenon that has inspired readers around the world”. In my study, I read of a mother explaining to her children that an invisible thread permanently connects them to those they love.
Then Jeremy asked softly, “Can my thong reach Uncle Brian in heaven?”
No! I had an aesthetic, allergic reaction: can I do this to the children? Could I do that to myself?
“We tell stories to live,” wrote Joan Didion famously. But we also tell stories to die. And I didn’t want to feed the kids comfort stories, tell them acceptable things to save us from thinking. EB White feared that writing for young readers would “slip into some cheap kind of whimsy or cuteness… I don’t venture into this treacherous area,” he admitted, “unless I have a certain fever.”
I wanted a book that wasn’t too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft. A book that holds us, how it holds us in place, holds us together.
I felt a version of that hug as I read to my sons the picture books that my grandfather once read to me. The saturated colors of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar sent me back to the 1970’s domestic palette. I could have been lying on my grandparents’ couch, patterned with bright orange autumn leaves, at a time when everyone I loved was still alive and I had known no loss – even if the book itself was written in response to grief.
Carle conceived his luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the hardships of a bleak, war-torn childhood. In a devastating miscalculation, his mother—a homesick immigrant to the United States—moved her family back to Stuttgart on the eve of World War II. Soon, Carle’s father, a man who taught his son about the beauty of stories and nature, was captured by the Russians as a prisoner of war, while 15-year-old Eric was conscripted to dig trenches.
As I read about it, I realized I was trying to keep us in a palette of bright colors, as if we were protected from harm in an eternal cocoon. Carle believed part of the appeal of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was that “kids can identify with the helpless, little, insignificant caterpillar.” When the butterfly appears, “It’s a message of hope… I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings (my talent) and fly into the world.” However, in order to fly into the world, you have to understand it. My aversion to discussing mortality held our children back.
About that time two things happened: my partner’s prognosis improved and I stopped buying books at night.
There is a children’s book store near our house. The bookseller gently guided me to the best books to navigate through rough terrain. It turns out that children are natural philosophers fascinated by life’s greatest mystery: death. Who would have thought that the right book on the subject could be informative and comforting? I guess the bookseller did it. But I would now encourage adults to include this topic in their children’s literary diet early on and not wait until your family is forced to engage in this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death gives them peace of mind when the inevitable hard times come.
I recently asked my 7- and 10-year-old sons to help me look at a selection of picture books about loss and grief. “You have these feelings that haunt you,” says my older son, “but if you can put it into words, you can let go of all those emotions. Even though it’s hard, you understand.” These books sparked conversations that were thoughtful, pragmatic, open, and insightful. Below is our joint review.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break – Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi
A figure dressed in black visits a house with children on the night her grandmother is supposed to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest, who ends up telling them a story, explaining, “Who would long for day if there was no night?” In our home, this book was a big hit. The visitor turns out to be not so scary. The idea that sorrow and sorrow are a counterbalance to joy and joy made intuitive sense.
The Tree of Remembrance – Britta Teckentrup
Animals in a forest hold a memorial to their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their memories, a beautiful tree grows to offer them shelter. “I absolutely loved that,” says the older fellow critic, “especially the way it made it easier for her to vent her worries.”
Beginnings and endings with lifetimes in between – Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
All reviewers thought it was fantastic. One says, “Most other books have been a story about death, but this one was unique in that it explained death.”
The Invisible Cord – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew Vriethoff
“Ten out of ten,” says the seven-year-old. I may not be a huge fan of this bestseller, but I’ve found how comforting it is to imagine a magical thread connecting us to those we love most: “The idea of the cord makes me happy.”
The boy and the gorilla – Jackie Azua Kramer and Cindy Derby
After a boy’s mother dies, a gorilla follows him. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolor illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief turning into a spirit animal offering protection. They also liked to think about “where you might go after death”.
What happens next? – Shinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky, original book. After the death of his grandfather, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook filled with often hilarious ideas for the afterlife: “Death feels like a vacation at a luxury resort,” says one child. The boy decides to write his own book about the best way to live. Highly recommended.
If the whole world were… – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
A granddaughter remembers how her grandfather enriched her life. We all loved Allison Colpoys illustrations and the message that our loved ones live on in our memories.
Death, Duck and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
A duck feels that it is being followed. Looking over his shoulder, he spots a skeleton figure: “Good,” said Death, “you’ve finally noticed me.” I think that’s a solid 9 out of 10, but I have to admit the kids only gave it a 6.5.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives eloquent expression to the experience of grief, “a cloud that comes and covers me”. This is complemented by the boisterous palette of Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations. Again, this is a book that older readers might appreciate – let’s not pretend that children’s books are only for children!
Leaf Litter: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World – Rachel Tonkin
I cannot mention this stunning book chronicling a year of changes in a forest undergrowth. (“Leaves teach us how to die,” Thoreau wrote.) A blue-tongued lizard decomposes, and we see, in cross-section, the carcass disintegrating and its nutrients moving through the soil.
The tenth good thing about Barney – Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
In this 1971 classic, a family holds a funeral for their cat and a child is asked to remember the 10 best things about the pet, with the tenth thing being the cat that fertilizes the earth.
Let’s talk about when someone dies – Molly Potter and Sarah Jennings
This is an excellent practical guide to help children understand the mechanics of death, the mixed feelings of bereavement, and our different cultural beliefs about life after death. “Essentially,” as one reviewer put it, “an encyclopedia of death.”
Thanks to Michael Earp of The Little Bookroom for her brilliant suggestions.
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is published by Simon and Schuster and is available now