Death and Moving On in Picture Books
I was drawn in by two recent online posts about picture books dealing with death, and coping with the inevitability of this form of loss:
Cry, Heart, But Never Break (by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi; translated by Robert Moulthrop; Enchanted Lion) at Brainpickings, about the heartwarming depth of close familial bonds when played against the existential impermanence of life, and
The Dead Bird (by Margaret Wise Brown and Christian Robinson; Harper) at Waking Brain Cells, about the similar impermanence of grief for the loss of a dear one, as our mind has developed its own coping mechanism by moving on after a while. I’ll be hunting high and low for both!
Below are 15 of the most moving picture books I’ve read on a subject that is difficult to talk about with children who are yet to face a loss of this nature. And for those who have lost a dear one, these books offer ways to deal with the shock and grief. In no particular order of preference:
- Missing Mommy (Rebecca Cobb; Henry Holt And Company): A little boy learns to deal with his mommy’s death. From not knowing where she has gone, to dealing with overwhelming emotions, to understanding what death means (his dad ‘said that when someone has died they cannot come back because their body doesn’t work anymore’), to coming to terms with the realization that he won’t see her ever again, to finding comfort within his family by keeping Mommy’s memories alive and doing things together, this book has a nuanced, gentle take on this difficult subject.
- The Scar (by Charlotte Moundlic and Ollivier Tallec; Candlewick): A heart wrenching narrative, laced with graceful humour, of a child grieving the loss of his mother. “I’m trying not to forget what Mom smells like, but it’s fading, so I close all the windows so that it won’t get out.”
- The Heart and The Bottle (by Oliver Jeffers; Philomel Books): An utterly heartbreaking gem from Jeffers on a girl’s response to the loss of her father. The girl standing by the empty sofa will cling to you, you’ve been warned.
- Annie and the Old One (by Miska Miles and Peter Parnell; Little, Brown and Company): A poignant and reflective classic about a Native American girl coming to terms with the approaching death of her grandmother. She does everything she can to stall it only to understand that she cannot ‘hold back time.’
- Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs (by Toamie dePaola; Puffin): A book I never tire of going back to. Despite talking of the loss of not one but two most-dearly loved grandmothers, the book makes you smile through your wet eyes at the end. It’s gentle, it’s uncomplicated, and it’s matter-of-fact, peppered with vignettes slice-of-life humour which stay with you forever.
- The Sad Book (by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake; Candlewick Press): A moving personal account of a father grieving, enveloped in melancholy, and coming to terms with the loss of his son.
- Frog and the Birdsong (by Max Velthuijs; Andersen): One of the best books for toddlers and young ones to talk about the inevitability of death and the beauty of life. And that there’s grief in death, even if it’s a stranger’s. Sweetly, lovingly, calmly told.
- Badger’s Parting Gifts (by Susan Varley; Magi Publications): This story both gets my throat all lumpy and never fails to bring a smile. A most tenderly told and illustrated moving story of impending death, learning to deal with loss, and finding pleasure and meaning in one’s life through what the departed being has left behind. Look at how gracefully this ends – ‘Whenever Badger’s name was mentioned, someone remembered another story that made them all smile.’ Lasting legacies, we say.
- My Grandfather Aajoba (Taruja Parande; Tulika): Taruja collates snatches of the vivid memory of her Aajoba, his photographs, his words, scraps of paper, articles, other items that remind her of him, and decorates them together in the form of this book. It’s the kind of scrapbook you and I have always wanted to make of people who mean the world to us, but have never got around to doing it. It’s a loving grand daughter’s way of saying, ‘I miss you Aajoba.’
- Goodbye Mousie (by Robie H Harris and Jan Ormerod; Aladdin): Accepting a loved one’s death is the first step in the healing process, as we find the young boy going through a range of strong emotions – denial, anger, sorrow, and struggling to come to terms with his pet’s loss. The most moving part of this book is when he decides to leave a part of himself in the funeral box that he prepares for his Mousie.
- Sammy in the Sky (Barbara Walsh and Jamie Wyeth; Candlewick Press): Sammy is a young boy’s pet hound dog with whom he is until his final feeble breath. This is the only book where I’ve seen a child seeing a beloved pass on. ‘As the summer days grew shorter, my chest stopped hurting when I thought of Sammy.’ Somewhere towards the end of this book come these words that make your heart both ache and soothe. They tell you of the inevitability of the memories fading away, bit by bit, in this never-ending cycle of life and death. But equally also, of the healing power of memories.
- Grandpa’s Boat (by Michael Catchpool and Sophie Williams; Andersen Press): Sometimes, you need to mend broken memories frozen in time to allow the process of healing to begin. Holding on to these trap those left to grieve the loss in a poignant cage of despondency and hopelessness. The family in this book must repair the dead Grandpa’s boat and sail in his sea-steps to finally let go of their grief.
- Picture of Grace (by Josh Armstrong and Taylor Bills): Little Grace loses her artist grandfather with whom she has shared a special strong bond (‘Grace was Grandpa Walt’s biggest fan’; ‘Grace understood the word “perfect” completely: It described every moment spent with her grandfather’). The book shows some spirited conversations between them, the kind that every grandchild enjoys with a grandparent. Grace’s loss, therefore, becomes all the more relatable. But what is easily the most memorable bit of this book is the how Grace decides to celebrate and honour her grandpa’s life and play back the ‘perfect’ world that he meant for her, and she for him.
- A Mama for Owen (by Marion Dane Bauer): Tragedies happen in real life, they do. The ones with hope in their heart always manage to find comfort in strange ways. A baby hippo’s search for his mother swept away in tsunami brings him to an unusual mama. The book doesn’t overtly talk about the mommy hippo’s death, but the loss for the baby is just as monumental.
- Harry and Hopper (by Magaret Wild and Freya Blackwood; Feiwel and Friends): A beautifully told and illustrated story of a boy being subconsciously in a state of denial, and the gradual acceptance, of his dog’s sudden death.
Richa Jha is a picture book enthusiast and author and the founder of Pickle Yolk Books.