Whāngārei specialist children's librarian Meredith Wightman gives us a peek into her notebook today, and gives us a list of picture books that can help children ponder and process death, dying and grief.
Last week I was flicking through my work notebook to see what on earth I have been doing in the last year (it’s performance review time) and right at the back was a little list of books from our children’s collection that are about death. Thankfully, it’s not a list that I have even used very often. But it is one that is handy to have when a borrower makes enquiries.
I love how picture books can pack such a punch in 32 pages. No other type of book can have me crying by page 11 (see Ida, Always below)! So that is the book type I have focused on for this article. Just to be clear with you, I don’t come to the topic with any specialist knowledge to share about death and how to help young ones cope with it. These are books that come from different angles and use very different characters to open up conversation with children and I thought did so in interesting ways. They are all either straightforward or spiritual in tone with no specifically religious overtones. Their messages can be discussed with a child and put into a particular religious context if necessary.
The first picture book I came across about death was The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr. Its illustrations are very basic looking and boldly coloured, which is what drew me to it initially. The protagonist is an orange fish who is mourning the loss of the green fish that used to share its bowl, but what the specifics of their relationship are you never find out. The wonderful illustrations just let you know that the green fish is really missed.
The message is that regardless of who someone was to you, if you were close there are certain emotions and phases you will go through after their death, and they are all okay. Children get to see that it is all right to get angry, want to hide away, not talk to anyone and that life may not seem fun anymore. It’s great to see such bewildering and overpowering feelings being shown as normal and illustrated so simply.
It’s great to see such bewildering and overpowering feelings being shown as normal and illustrated so simply.
It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom though, as the book takes the child through to the healing stages. It shows how important happy memories of loved ones are and that talking to others around them can help to ease the pain.
I absolutely love reading aloud Yokococo’s book Hans and Matilda, so when I saw another book by her had come in I grabbed it off the shelf thinking I was in for another jolly twist of a story, but noooooo. Sniff is not one I would share with a busload of children as I am not qualified for group counselling sessions! Not to say this title is an out-and-out weepy – it is a rather subtle tale of a daschund’s sad day.
In the morning, Fennel the dog puts a lady’s slipper over his nose which means his only response to others’ well-meaning enquiries is “Sniff”. It’s not until the evening when Fennel sheds a tear while sitting by the beach that you realize that he is not just being strange, but is in mourning. He finally heads back to a house full of love where a young family is also missing his owner – the granny of the household.
Sniff’s message is not as boldly portrayed as The Goodbye Book, but it covers similar territory. It is certainly a book that has illustrations that can help open up a conversation with a child about Fennel’s journey, how they think he is feeling, why there is a slipper on his nose and what changes for him at the end of the book.
Oh dear, I just re-read Ida, Always by Caron Levis in preparation for this article and had to grab a tissue. I wonder if it seems so sad because it is based on a real couple of polar bears and it is all too easy to imagine them together. How this book differs from the ones above is that Ida and Gus prepare together for Ida’s impending death. Only non-sooks should read it aloud to a child. I would not even try.
Children’s curiosity about death doesn’t always originate because someone they know has died. They may have overheard adults talking, had a friend say something puzzling on the subject, watched a television programme or movie where a character has died or had a family pet die.
Death is a morbid topic, but questions left unanswered can cause greater unease for a child. Where do they go? by Julia Alvarez asks a lot of questions that children may ask. Its text and illustrations give the reader the comforting idea that those we love who die stay with us in our hearts and can possibly be glimpsed or felt when we stop and contemplate the world around us. It’s a nice gentle read which would suit a child with questions – whether they are grieving or not.
Children’s curiosity about death doesn’t always originate because someone they know has died.
Please don’t judge my weeding abilities, but the next book from our collection I am going to recommend is Brodie by Joy Cowley which was purchased in 2002. I have just discovered it still has its card and pocket in the back. It is still an important book though as it tells how a class of children cope with the chronic illness and death of a popular classmate. It’s one of the few books in today’s list that mentions how some specific religions explain where dead people go, and it’s nicely done as it is not top-down – it’s the pupils’ points of view. The wonderful collage, scrapbookish illustrations are also helpful as all the details can distract you a little bit from the sadness of the tale.
Another New Zealand title is Tim Tipene’s Haere – Farewell, Jack, Farewell. Again, it is written from a child’s perspective as a young girl watches the grown-ups around her go through the process of grieving and the protocol of a tangi. The sadness of the death of Koro Jack is balanced nicely with the birth of pēpi Jack and a whānau visit to the cemetery so the two can be connected. It is a great book that emphasizes the importance of family at all times of life.
My next couple of books are not for the littlies and most school libraries have them with the sophisticated picture books. I have put them in my non-fiction section with other books about grieving. First up is a German book, Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, in which Duck notices Death and befriends him. It’s then like spending time with a couple who have been together a long time they bicker, compromise and care for one another. There is not however, a lot of warmth in this book. The illustrations are sparing and Death is quite sinister-looking. By being emotionally detached in its text and illustrations it is trying to convey that dying is a natural part of life and we should just accept that it happens.
The final book is by Danish author Glenn Ringtved and called Cry Heart, but Never Break. It is a little warmer in tone than the previous title and has a less scarily-drawn Death visiting four grandchildren in a cottage with a dying grandmother upstairs. Death is a sympathetic character this time who tries to alleviate the children’s sadness by telling them a story about two couples, Grief and Joy and Sorrow and Delight, who were greatly in love and lived and died together. The children are then told it’s the same with life and death: “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”
Out of all these books, this one speaks to me the most because it tries to give children a broad perspective on why those we love will die. However, this is all about our young customers and finding the right book for them. Hopefully this list will be of use to you if you ever need to put a selection together yourself. .
By Caron Levis
Illustrated by Charles Santoso
Published by Scholastic Australia
Hans and Matilda
Published by Templar Publishing
The Goodbye Book
By Todd Parr
Published by Little Brown & Company
Cry, Heart, But Never Break
By Glen Ringtved
Published by Enchanted Lion Books
By Joy Cowley
Published by Walker Books Australia
Where do they go?
By Julia Alvarez
Illustrated by Sabra Field
Published by Penguin Random House
Duck, Death and the Tulip
By Wolf Erlbruch
Published by Gecko Press
Published by Candlewick
Haere – Farewell, Jack, Farewell
By Tim Tipene
Illustrated by Huhana Smith
Published by Huia
Meredith Wightman has been working at Whāngārei Libraries for five years with the last two in the role as Librarian for Children’s Services. Besides the normal collection and outreach activities she is also drives the mobile library out to schools for visits. In regards to her qualifications as a librarian she is fond of cardigans but has lost marks due to her disinterest in cats.