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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - 10 Picture Books Dealing with Death and Grief

Besides the increased stress of not understanding the reasons & requirements for the "shelter-at-home" orders and their parent's anxiety, one big fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is the loss of friends and family. It is highly likely that many will be touched, either immediately or remotely, by this virus.

Kids will need help understanding their own, their family's, and their friend's emotions as we pick up the pieces. I've chosen ten picture books which touched my heart. These books are all wonderful resources for starting a discussion, exploring diverse and confusing emotions, and starting the healing process after any death.

One of the toughest losses is the loss of a child; it can tear marriages and families apart. This new release helps parents and kids understand how people grieve differently and ways to help each other heal.

1. Remembering Ethan, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop (Magination Press April 7, 2020) (Sibling/child).

This is a touching, sensitive book of a family learning to deal with each other's needs and ways of dealing with the loss of a son/brother. A reminder that closing ourselves off can make the situation harder for young children (and other family members) to process. Beautifully illustrated with back matter full of helpful activities.

These next two books address the question "WHY" a grandparent or older relative dies.

2. Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi, translated by Robert Moulthrop (Enchanted Lion Books, 2016)(Grandparent).

When death comes to collect a grandmother, he pauses to help the grandchildren work through their fears and anger. He gently helps them understand how to say goodbye and hang on to their memories. Though unusual to have Death personified in a picture book, it is very well done.

3. Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (Puffin Books, 2000) (Grandparent)

Though a slightly older book, this touching story from the talented, and recently lost, Tomie dePaola, has to be on the list. It is a great book about a four-year-old learning to come to terms with the loss of a beloved great-grandmother.

The death of a parent creates such a big hole in hearts and lives of children ( and adults). These two books tenderly deal with healing after such a loss.

4. The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2010) (Parent/Grandparent)

A touching book that looks at an attempt to avoid feeling the loss of someone dear. After the death, a girl locks her heart in a bottle. Though she escapes her sadness, she loses her ability to imagine and wonder, until a young girl helps her break her heart free. Locking ourselves away, we miss the wonder and magic in the world.

5. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley (Roaring Brook Press, 2015) (Parent)

After losing his father, Buckley builds boats and sends them into the sea, convinced if they don't return they made it to him. This is a gentle and heartwarming book for young children (and parents) about loss. Gorgeously illustrated and poignant.

2016 saw the release of two touching and poignant picture books on the loss of a friend, though I think they could be applicable to the loss of a family member or pet, too.

6. Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Atheneum Books, 2016) (Friend or family member)

An unusual book in that it looks at the loss of a friend. It is a tender look at the friendship and love of two best friends, and what happens when one faces a terminal illness. It is "a gentle, moving, needed reminder that loved ones lost will stay in our hearts, always."

7. Always Remember by Cece Meng, illustrated by Jago (Philomel Books, 2016) (Friend or family member)

This one too breaks the mold, as it is told backwards. After Old Turtle dies, his friends tell stories of the difference he made in their lives. They realize that by helping each of them, Old Turtle lives on in their memories and successes. A sweet, tender story to help understand and cope with loss.

When a pet dies, it leaves a giant hole in your heart. And as with any loss, it can take a long time to heal. While The Rabbit Listened doesn't specifically address death, these books pair well in their amazing job of dealing with the emotional intensity and stages of grief.

8. The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (Greenwillow Books, 2018) (Pet, friend, or family member)

Angry and inconsolable after his dog dies, Evan lashes out and destroys their beloved garden. Hiding from the pain and life, he watches prickly weeds and thorns cover the garden. Until a tenacious pumpkin and a new friend help him heal. A very poignant and gorgeous book.

9. The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial Books, 2018) (Stages/emotions of Grief)

Coached in a child's reaction to a tumbled tower of blocks, this book cleverly explores the five stages of grief and the value of a friendly ear.

The last book has universal applicability and can work for any of the above categories:

10. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018) (Loss and Grief)

Although a little message-driven, the book's premise of a string that connects loved ones and friends (even pets) regardless of separation or loss, is a good tangible way to help deal with anxiety and grief.

I have to include one additional picture book in this list. This book is the 2019 Crystal Kite winner for the Australian and New Zealand division of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

At The End of Hollyrood Lane by Dimitri Powell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston (EK Books, 2018) (Abuse or Fears) - Though not about death, the "shelter-at-home" orders may exacerbate or have unintended (by the government) consequences for families in abuse situations. This book is amazing in the way it deals subtly with domestic violence and provides a child with a means of agency; a possibility for finding help. And it also manages to be a book which provides reassurance to those afraid of thunderstorms.

Hopefully, you'll be able to read these books as wonderful examples of masterful picture books (or mentor texts) and not as bibliotherapy. But if you or a friend needs them, I hope that they bring comfort, understanding, and healing.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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