Like most people, I remember vividly the first time I came in contact with death. Before, it was foreign—something that happened in abstract but not to me or my family. After, it was something I had to grapple and come to terms with. I never had children’s books about death to help me. In retrospect, I wonder if and how I would have seen those experiences differently.
I was an introspective child who got much of her philosophies from books. This made it easier to relate to concepts without directly experiencing them, and I contribute much of my personality to that. As a writer for Book Riot, I obviously believe in the overwhelming value of literature. In particular, I think children’s books about death are wonderful tools to explain and discuss death with kids who perhaps are caught off guard by its proximity to their own lives as I was.
Here is a selection of children’s books about death, from picture to chapter books, that could ease the pain of a little one who’s grieving.
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
This children’s book is not about the beloved purple dinosaur, but the narrator’s cat, Barney. As someone with a kitty companion myself, reading The Tenth Good Thing was hard even as an adult, but it was equally important. When a child loses a pet, they come close (usually for the first time) to the idea of death. It can be incredibly tough, but reading something about a similar experience can make you feel less alone.
In this book, the narrator loses his pet cat. His mother tells him to write a list with ten good things about Barney on it before the funeral the next day. Perhaps I’m just sensitive to animals dying, but this picture book moved me. I can imagine any young child experiencing grief could find solace in this book.
Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
Ida and Gus are best friends. They spend their days together amongst the bizarre life of the city zoo. But when Ida suddenly gets sick—Gus is at a lost. What do you do when you lost the person most important to you?
Okay, I definitely cried while reading this book. It’s beautifully illustrated and well-written. This tops the list of children’s books about death—its poignant message is something I can’t forget.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
Leaves are a wonderful metaphor for the circle of life—they fall, die, and grow every year. Follow the story of Freddie as the seasons change and so does Freddie’s life. For a more cyclical, perhaps Buddhist or nature-oriented view of life and death, this book is ideal.
Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham
This is certainly one of the most aesthetically interesting books I’ve ever seen. It’s fitting that its about one of the most written about and discussed topics of all time—death. This is a frank look at death, as you can tell by the title, coupled with beautiful collage style illustrations. It pushes away all the euphemisms and platitudes and instead speaks to the reader in an unapologetic, real voice.
Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown
Our little ones might enjoy this tale from the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events about a goldfish after death. I mean, how many of our first pets that died were goldfish and how often did we wonder what happened to them? Snicket lends his voice to explain in this heartwarming tale. Lisa Brown adds colorful, cute illustrations to the already interesting read.
Where Do They Go? by Julia Alvarez and Sabra Field
This is one of the more serious, darker selections on this list. You wouldn’t think it, but many children’s books about death take a lighter tone. Perhaps they do so in order to ease the darkness that death as a concept already brings. Alvarez does not take this approach.
With a sad, gentle voice, Julia Alvarez addresses death with the beautiful language I’ve come to expect from her. She uses poetry to meditate on the questions we’ve all had about loss:
“When somebody dies, where do they go? / Do they go where the wind goes when it blows? … Do they wink back at me when I wish on a star? Do they whisper, ‘You’re perfect, just as you are’?”
These haunting, poignant words go well with Field’s simple, yet beautiful artwork.
For children a little older
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Peterson
My generation is haunted by the film version of Peterson’s novel. In children’s books, no one dies. The closest we ever got was Charlotte’s Web. It was a simple fact that we thought to be true and Bridge to Terabithia shattered it into a million pieces. I’m still in denial about the whole thing. But that’s what made it so powerful.
In real life, you don’t see it coming. It happens all at once, and you can’t believe it’s true. For that, both the film and novel versions of Bridge to Terabithia offer an honest, though startling, take on death that children who are a little older might benefit from.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Talk about another powerful film adaptation. A Monster Calls offers a less-than-typical story-line as a young boy creates a monster in order to cope with the impending death of his mother. What I loved so much was that the young boy was allowed to grieve in whatever way he needed to, regardless of what was considered proper or polite. Children who aren’t comforted by traditional coping methods might enjoy this book, though it is definitely for young adult audiences.
what have you found?
Though I found many children’s books about death, not many of them were culturally, religiously, or racially diverse. So Book Riot readers, help us fill out this list. What books have you found that might help children cope with grief?