When Chloe’s partner is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive disease, she has to find a way to tell their two young children. On instinct, she turns to the bookshelf. Can the news be delivered as a bedtime story? Is there a perfect book to prepare children for loss?
Hooper embarks on a quest to find what practical lessons children’s literature, with its innocent orphans and wicked adults, magic, monsters, and anthropomorphic animals, can teach about pain and resilience in real life. From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tolkien and Dahl, all of whom suffered childhood duels, she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favorite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives.
I recently asked my seven- and ten-year-old sons to help me review a selection of picture books on loss and grief. These books provoked thoughtful, pragmatic, candid, and insightful conversations. The following is our joint review.
Cry heart, but never break -Glenn Ringtved
A figure in a black cape visits a children’s home the night his grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who eventually tells them a story that explains, “Who will long for day if there is 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,” said the senior co-reviewer, “especially the way emptying your sorrows made them lighter.”
Beginnings and endings with lives in between -Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
Both of the younger reviewers thought this was fantastic. ‘Most of the other books were a story about death, but this one was unique because it explained death,’ said my ten-year-old son.
the invisible rope – Patrick Karst
‘Ten out of ten,’ says the seven-year-old. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this bestseller, but I have noticed the comfort that comes from imagining a magical thread that connects us with those we love most: ‘The idea of the rope makes me happy’.
The boy and the gorilla
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 could go’ after death.
I will say goodbye -Pam Zollmann
A boy stays with his terminally ill uncle by the sea, offering a metaphor about a person who outgrows his body like a crab outgrows its shell. The book leads us into an interesting conversation.
What happens next? -Sinsuke 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,” said one little boy. The boy decides to write his own book on how to live better. Highly recommended.
If all the world were… – Jose Coelho
A granddaughter remembers all the ways her grandfather has enriched her life. We all loved Allison Colpoy’s illustrations 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.
sad book by michael rosen -Michael Rosen
Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives an incredibly eloquent expression to the experience of grief, ‘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 will 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 fail to mention this impressive book, which recounts a year of changes in the undergrowth of a forest. (“Leaves teach us to die,” wrote Thoreau.) A blue-tongued lizard decomposes, and we see in cross section the carcass decomposing, its nutrients moving through the soil.
Barney’s 10th Good Thing -Judith Viorst
In this 1971 classic, a family buries their cat and a child is asked to remember the ten best things about the pet, the tenth being the cat fertilizing the soil.
Let’s talk about when someone dies -Molly Potter
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 an encyclopedia of death,” suggests a co-reviewer.
Chloe Hooper’s most recent book is the bestselling The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island it won the Victorian, New South Wales, Western Australian and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Award for Political Writing and a Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing. She is also the author of two acclaimed novels, A true crime children’s book Y Commitment. He lives in Melbourne with his partner and their two children.Both the memoirs and the manual, bedtime story is stunningly illustrated by New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of global uncertainty, here is a deep and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.