5 Children’s Books That Introduce the Concepts of Death and Grief For Young Readers
Memory is a powerful, powerful tool, isn’t it? I’ve been reading more and more these days. Being at home more during lock down due to the pandemic, I’ve been giving a lot of thought of my favorite childhood books. With last year came waves and waves of grief and mourning that washed over so many of us in 2020. I wanted to put together a short list of some terrific children books for the younger readers in our lives who have been touched by death in some way or another and we’ve arrived in the first month of this new year of 2021. I’ve chosen some classics along with some newer titles that I hope you’ll consider checking out ffrom the library and possibly adding to your collections at home.
Nana Upstairs, Nana Upstairs
Reading age : 4–8 years, Grade level : Preschool — Grade 3
If you want me to wax poetically about childhood books, this is the one that inspired this list! I actually still have my childhood copy, in fact! First pubbed in the 70’s, this book has gone on to introduce children to the concept of death for generations and it is, my fact Tomie dePaola (who passed way in March of last year)book in my hearts of hearts. Apparently, this book has been cited in over 30 other works, including books on how to write, books on childhood grief, and books on other topics. Nana Upstairs, Nana Upstairs shares the story of a little boy named Tommy who loves to visit his Nanas — his grandmother and his great grandmother.
He nicknames his grand mother Nana Downstairs and his ninety-four year old great grandmother whose bedroom is upstairs, Nana Upstairs. He loves his visits and one day, he learns that he must say goodbye to one of them. This was a favorite for me growing up to read with my mom as our family lost her mother, my grandmother when I was fairly young. This book places an emphasis on the love and affection from the older women in families and the special relationship that some of us are oh so lucky able to have with them. Centering a little boy’s cherished relationships and showing how his family comforts him when he needs it most and showing on the page how he remembers the loved one he lost.
Everett Anderson’s Goodbye
Written by Lucille Clifton, Illustrated by Ann Grifalconi
Reading age : 5–8 years, Grade level: Kindergarten — Grade 3
The Everett Anderson books were some of the first books that I can remember in our library at home that had black children on the covers — this particular book, the fourth in the series was also a Reading Rainbow selection! Told in verse by the late and great poet Lucille Clifton (who penned my favorite poem of all time, won’t you celebrate with me) I always remembered the artwork done in charcoal or pencil like strokes that masterfully captured the many emotions: the anger, the despair, the loneliness of young Everett. With a short dedication: “for my sad friends” before the story starts helps sets the tone for this story about a little boy struggling to come to terms with his beloved father’s passing.
The book succeeds in introducing the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced in her writing back in 1969. This is important as the the Kübler-Ross grief cycle can be applied to other facets in life — for example children can also grieve their parents’ divorces and the end of other relationships: friendships included. This book hits harder in a different way now as I read this as an adult — as Black children are not always allowed the space to be vulnerable, to show emotion. Young Everett is seen. Heard. He’s comforted by his mother with a loving embrace, showing that the little ones in our lives need to held and loved as they peace with those they won’t see again in this lifetime.
Reading age : 4–8 years, Grade level : Preschool — Grade 3
Ida, Always was an instant favorite from the first time I read it. In this book a pair of polar bears who are the best of friends and spend their days together are separated, by the passing of one of them. Gus the polar bear in a zoo lives his best life: each day he wakes up to find his best pal Ida, always. She always there to play with him, until she’s not. The narrative touches upon how routines we’ve always had can be interrupted, disjointed in the face of change when someone involved in them is gone. Some young readers will be able to relate immediately, like a trip to the candy dish at grandma’s house is no longer done cause grandma died or passing the handout to a classmate who sat next to them at school can not longer be done because that child had a childhood illness that took them too soon.
Ida, Always also shows a sad polar bear — Gus when he’s trying to figure out life now without Ida. Sometimes we take comfort in the activities we used to do with the ones we love who are no longer with us. Other times, we can remember the words and sayings that our loved ones have said to us and reflect on them. The artwork focuses mostly on just these animals, with just one human person present, allowing readers to focus on the animal characters at hand. This book is a fictional story based on the real life pair of polar bear friends in the New York City Zoo — such a story in real life touched so many lives and inspired such an amazing book on cherishing our friendships and learning to live on when we lose those great friends we love so much.
The Dead Bird
Written by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Reading age : 4–7 years, Grade level: Preschool — 3
The late children’s literature powerhouse Margaret Wise Brown, best known for Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny is also the author of this title. First published several decades ago, this newer edition of the book features the amazing artwork of one of newer faves in the kit lit publishing world, Christian Robinson who has illustrated such books like Carmela Full of Wishes which I wrote about here. This book follows a group of children out for a day of fun with a lovable dog when they come across a dead bird.
Soothing stanzas elaborate on their observations, their musings and their plan to give the bird a proper goodbye, a funeral. One could point out that the children are taking what they know of the real world, of what they see the grownups do — rituals done to honor the dead as a heartfelt lesson to remember. The children are moved to do what they feel is right and their childlike innocence is moving in a narrative that certainly could come in handy for a little one who has recently lost a beloved pet. The illustrations lend the story wings as younger audience may be able to identity and/or see themselves in the simple but cute art style. This is one book to share with children who are just starting to grapple with loss and wondering what to do next.
Why Do I Feel So Sad?: A Grief Book for Children
By Tracy Lambert-Prater, Illustrated by Elena Napoli
Reading age : 5–7 years, Grade level: 1–2
Taking the crown for the newest book on this list, Why Do I Feel So Sad? was published just last year yet is still a contender for the topic of death and grief for children. This particular book is effective as it shares the different kinds of grief. Naming and defining grief within the first few pages, the author goes on to write on not only the different types of grief but the different feelings someone can have and experiences during such difficult times. There are such lines like: “You might have trouble paying attention at school” and “you might feel scared that you did something to cause the loss” help normalize there are a lot of uncomfortable and scary thoughts that can run through our heads.
Why Do I Feel So Sad? shows that grieving is done by everyone, kids and adults. The book also details an array of children on the pages with body language that looks downtrodden, defeated to help young readers an eyeful on how to recognize visually, that someone is feeling down. While it is important for little ones to know that they are going to have all kinds of feelings regarding grieving and morning, the book also suggests some ways to move forward. Such suggestions include talking with an trusted adult like a parent, teacher or counselor and making a memorial or writing a letter. This is a great pick for this list as it demonstrates that children are not alone in their feelings and offer ways to start to try to feel better in a compassionate and comforting tone.
And that’s the list! I’d love to hear what books you and your little ones are reading that tackle important topics like death and grieving that have made the process a little easier! Let me know in the comments what are worthy books you’d recommend!