B.right, shiny books spilled from my kids’ shelves. His pages, a carnival of anthropomorphized animals dancing, singing, living their lives to the fullest. CS Lewis believed that “a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say”, but none of these contained what we needed to tell our six and three year olds. His 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 headline that appeared filled me with gut-wrenching dread. Not that we had avoided talking about mortality with our children, but we hadn’t leaned toward it either. When I clicked “Add to Cart,” I wondered if one of these books would like to handle the conversation for us.
In no time, I picked up the packages from the post office. I sneaked them into my study and the books were… crude, cloying… as if my own discomfort on this subject had caused a number of embarrassing things. Gooey stories about, say, butterflies dying with illustrations by the author’s artistic relative. I quickly put them away out of sight.
I did not discuss these investments with my partner. As we waited for the next oncology appointment, we tacitly agreed not to mention the future. One boy went to school and the other to daycare, and he and I sat at our desks. But at my desk, I couldn’t stop myself. The search terms “children’s book” and “cancer” returned a variety of more specific titles: When Mom Had a Mastectomy; Our family also has cancer! Mom in the hospital again; Where is mom’s hair? Illustrated books with a paint-by-numbers feel, providing simple, literal information for young children. I bought a copy of Someone I Love Is Sick for our youngest son.
Next, a folder folder appeared in the mailbox. It had different laminated pages to click in or out to tailor an appropriate story. Each page was clearly illustrated with elderly people from various cultural backgrounds, finding themselves, say, bald, or on a hospital bed being carried under a radiation machine. The pages were printed twice for “genre” of the book about a sick grandfather or grandmother, with simple text such as:
I went to the funeral, but it was difficult… I was able to choose something from Grandma/Grandpa to keep.
Our oldest son was just starting to read and I didn’t want him to worry too much about my parents. I put the folder folder in a drawer and never took it out again.
Now I ordered The Invisible String, billed as “the best-selling phenomenon that has inspired readers around the world.” In my study I read about a mother who explains to her children that an invisible thread permanently connects them with their loved ones.
Then Jeremy quietly asked, “Can my String reach Uncle Brian in the sky?”
Do not! I had an aesthetic, allergic reaction: could I do this to children? Could I do this to myself?
“We tell each other stories to live,” wrote the famous Joan Didion. But we also tell each other stories to die. And I didn’t want to fool the kids with tales of convenience, tell them acceptable things to save us from having to think more. EB White feared that in writing for young readers, “I would fall into a kind of fancy or cheap cuteness … I don’t trust myself in this treacherous field,” he admitted, “unless I have a degree of fever.”
I wanted a book that was neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft. A book to hold us, to keep us in place, to keep us together.
I felt a version of this hug when I read to my children the picture books my grandfather had once read to me. The saturated color of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar took me back to the domestic palette of the 1970s. It could have been on my grandparents’ couch patterned with bright orange autumn leaves, a time when that everyone he loved was still alive and had not known loss, even if the book itself had been created in response to grief.
Carle conceived her luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the deprivations of a bleak, war-torn childhood. In a devastating miscalculation, her mother, a homesick immigrant to the United States, moved her family to Stuttgart on the eve of World War II. Soon, Carle’s father, a man who taught his son the beauty of stories and nature, was captured by the Russians as a prisoner of war, while 15-year-old Eric was recruited to dig trenches.
Reading about this, I realized that he was trying to keep us in a bright color palette, as if by existing in a perpetual cocoon, we were safe from harm. Carle believed that part of the appeal of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was that “children can identify with the helpless, small, insignificant caterpillar.” When the butterfly emerges, “it is a message of hope… I can also grow. I can also spread my wings (my talent), and fly to the world”. However, to fly into the world, you need to understand it. My aversion to talking about mortality was holding our children back.
Around this time, two things happened: my partner’s prognosis improved, and I stopped buying books late at night.
Near our house there is a children’s bookstore. The bookseller graciously directed me to the best books for navigating rough terrain. It turns out that the children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by life’s greatest mystery: death. Who knew that the right book on this topic can be informative and comforting? I guess the bookseller did. But now I encourage adults to add this topic to children’s literary diets early, not to wait until their families are forced to face this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death provides them with a ballast when the inevitable difficult moment arrives.
I recently asked my seven- and ten-year-old sons to help me browse through a selection of picture books on loss and grief. “You have these feelings inside that haunt you,” my oldest son says, “but if you can put them into words, you can let go of all that emotion. Although it is difficult, you understand it.” These books provoked thoughtful, pragmatic, candid, and insightful conversations. The following is our joint review.
Cry, heart, but never break – Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi
A black-cloaked figure visits a children’s home the night his grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story, explaining, “Who longed for day if there was no night?” In our house, this book was a great success. The visitor is revealed to be not that scary. The idea that pain and sadness are a counterweight to joy and delight made intuitive sense.
The Tree of Memory – Britta Teckentrup
Animals in a forest hold a memorial for their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their memories, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. “I loved this,” says the senior co-reviewer, “especially the way emptying out their sorrows made them lighter.”
Beginnings and Endings with Lives in Between – Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
All reviewers thought this was fantastic. Says one: “Most other books were a story about death, but this one was unique in that it explained death.”
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew Vriethoff
“Ten out of ten,” says the seven-year-old. He may not be a huge fan of this bestseller, but I have noticed the comfort in imagining a magical thread connecting us to those we love most: “The thought of rope 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 pain transforming into a spirit animal that provides protection. They also liked to think about “where you might go” after death.
What happens next? -Shinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky and original book. After the death of his grandfather, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often amusing ideas about life after death: “It makes death look like a vacation at a luxury resort,” says a little boy. The boy decides to write his own book on how to live better. Highly recommended.
If all the world were… – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
A granddaughter remembers all the ways her grandfather has enriched her life. We all loved the illustrations by Allison Colpoys and the message that our loved ones live in our memories.
Death, the Duck and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over his shoulder, he sees a skeletal character: “Well,” said Death, “I finally figured it out.” I think this is a solid 9 out of 10, but I have to admit the kids only gave it a 6.5.
The Sad Book of Michael Rosen – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
Written after the death of his son, Rosen eloquently expresses the experience of mourning, “a cloud that comes and covers me.” This is complemented by the stormy 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 just for children!
Leaf Storm: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World – Rachel Tonkin
I cannot mention this impressive book, which chronicles a year of changes in the undergrowth of a forest. (“Leaves teach us to die,” Thoreau wrote.) A blue-tongued lizard decomposes and we see a cross-section of the carcass decomposing, its nutrients moving through the soil.
Barney’s Tenth Good Thing – Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
In this 1971 classic, a family buries their cat and a child is asked to remember the 10 best things about the pet, the 10th being the cat fertilizing the soil.
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 emotions of grief, and our different cultural beliefs regarding the afterlife. “Basically”, as one critic puts it, “an encyclopedia of death”.
Thanks to Michael Earp of The Little Bookroom for his brilliant suggestions.
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is published by Simon and Schuster and is available now