Reading books on illness and bereavement to my children? The thought filled me with heart-knotting dread. Why would I do it to them or me? Well, one reason is that children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by life’s biggest mystery, death. The right book on this subject can be informative and comforting, casting light into the shadows. I’d now encourage adults to add this topic into children’s literary diet early, to not wait until your family is forced to confront this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death, provides them ballast when the inevitable hard time comes.
While writing Bedtime Story, a memoir about the solace my family found in books as we navigated cancer, I looked at a range of works for children that deal with mortality. Recently I asked my seven- and ten-year-old sons to help me review a selection of picture books concerning loss and grief. These books sparked conversations that were thoughtful, pragmatic, candid and enlightening. The following is our joint review.
Cry Heart, but Never Break – Glenn Ringtved & Charlotte Pardi
A black cloaked figure visits a house of children the night their grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story, explaining, “Who would yearn for day if there was no night?” In our house, this book was a big hit. The visitor is revealed to not be so frightening. The idea of grief and sorrow being a counterweight to joy and delight made intuitive sense.
The Memory Tree -Britta Teckentrup
Animals in a forest hold a memorial for their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their recollections, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. “I absolutely loved this,” said the older co-reviewer, “especially the way emptying out their sorrows made them lighter.”
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between – Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
All reviewers thought this was fantastic. “Most of the other books were a story about death, but this was unique in that it explained death.”
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst & Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
“Ten out of ten,” says the seven-year-old. I may not be a huge fan of this bestseller, but I’ve noticed the comfort to be had in imagining a magic thread connecting us to those we love best: “The idea of the string makes me happy.”
The Boy and the Gorilla – Jackie Azúa Kramer & Cindy Derby
After a boy’s mother dies, he is followed by a gorilla. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolour illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief morphing into a spirit animal that gives protection. They also liked thinking of “where you might go” after death.
What Happens Next? – Sinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky, original book. After his grandfather’s death, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often hilarious ideas on an afterlife: “it makes death seem like a holiday in a luxury resort,” said one child. The boy decides to write his own book on how to best live. Highly recommend.
If All the World Were… – Joseph Coelho & Allison Colpoys
A granddaughter recalls all the ways her grandfather has made her life richer. We’re fans of Allison Colpoy’s illustrations, and the message that our loved ones live on in our memories.
Death, Duck, and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over its shoulder, it spies a skeletal character: “Good,” said Death, “you finally noticed me.” I think this is a solid 9 out of 10, but have to admit the kids only gave it 6.5.
Michael Rosen’s SAD Book –Michael Rosen & Quinten Blake
Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives eloquent expression to the experience of grief, “a cloud that comes along and covers me up.” 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 children’s books are only for children!
Leaf Litter: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World – Rachel Tonkin
I can’t not mention this stunning book, which chronicles a year of change in a forest’s undergrowth. (“Leaves teach us how to die,” wrote Thoreau.) A blue-tongue lizard decays, and we see in cross-section the carcass breaking down, its nutrients moving through the soil.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney – Judith Viorst & Erik Blegvad
In this classic from 1971, a family holds a burial for their cat and a child is asked to recall the ten best things about the pet, the tenth thing being the cat fertilising the earth.
Let’s Talk About When Someone Dies – Molly Potter & Sarah Jennings
This is an excellent practical guide to helping kids understand the mechanics of death, the mixed emotions of bereavement and our different cultural beliefs regarding an afterlife. “Basically,” as one reviewer puts it, “an encyclopedia of death.”
With thanks to Michael Earp at The Little Bookroom for their brilliant suggestions.
We’re so grateful to Chole Hooper for taking the time to compile and review this list of books for us. She certainly has done oodles of research on the subject as represented in Children’s Literature.
For grown ups, or even teenagers who want a warm, moving, and insightful memoir about the stories we cling to, and turn to in the face of serious illness, we highly recommend Chloe’s book, Bedtime Story. With atmospheric illustrations throughout from another Little Bookroom favourite, Anna Walker, it’s the tender tender and heartfelt journey Chloe undertook as she tried to make sense of what was going on in her family and how to communicate it to her young children.
This book is not just for families in a similar situation. It is for all who love a window into someone else’s life through the form of memoir.
Let me tell you a story… When Chloe Hooper’s partner is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness, she has to find a way to tell their two young sons. By instinct, she turns to the bookshelf. Can the news be broken as a bedtime tale? 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 evil adults, magic, monsters and anthropomorphic animals–can teach about grief and resilience in real life. As she discovers, ‘the right words are an incantation, a spell of hope for the future.’
From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett and Tolkien and Dahl–all of whom suffered childhood bereavements–she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favourite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives.
Both memoir and manual, Bedtime Story is stunningly illustrated by the New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of worldwide uncertainty, here is a profound and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.
Before Bedtime Story, Chloe Hooper‘s most recent book was the bestselling The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing, and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. She is also the author of two acclaimed novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Engagement. She lives in Melbourne with her partner and her two sons.