Children's Books about Death
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I would like to subtitle this post, super-awesome children's books that deal with tough subject of death and grieving, by authors who are attuned to the particular needs of young children.
(This is not an in depth article about young children and grieving, simply an overview with two books that I believe can help the process along. Please let me know if you need more resources on this topic.)
When it comes to big issues and very small children, it is generally agreed upon practice that one should start by giving very small nuggets of true information, and then listening carefully to see if your child needs more.
For example, very often a 3 or 4 year old will ask the age old question, "Where do babies come from?"
Before you grab a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, you could first ask, "where do you think they come from?" Often, children this age will provide their own answer ("you have to eat like a seed or something for it to grow in your belly"), and that might be enough to satisfy them for another couple of years. You have not given any false information; You heard the question; You respected the question.
Other possibly responses that you could give:
"Mommies and Daddies make babies together."
There is something called an egg in a women's body and sperm in a man's body, and together they make a baby.
How will you know if they need more information than that?
They will ask more questions.
The advice is similar when a young child first encounters death, whether it is the death of a family member, a friend's family member, or a family pet.
As adults we have so many thoughts and feelings, and sometimes we project those onto children, and sometimes we talk and talk as we anticipate their thoughts, feelings, and fears. But listening is crucial here. Listen while you talk, while you read stories, listen while they play. They will provide the cues to know what information they need.
But here is the general guideline.
The truth-so and so died.
If the child asks why, you may say, "because they were very, very old. Or very, very sick. We do so many things to keep ourselves healthy and safe. "
We won't be able to see them anymore.
When someone dies it makes people sad. We might cry.
We can always remember the person who died and talk about them.
Enter Tough Boris by Mem Fox.
The text is super simple and straight forward, and makes sure you know how tough Tough Boris is, but together with the illustrations, Tough Boris never feels too mean or violent for young children. It's a remarkable balance that takes skill and forethought.
Mem Fox is no beginner in the children's author category.
Once we know how mean, massive, and scruffy Boris Van Der Berch is, we learn that when his parrot died he cried and cried. All pirates cry.
And that is it.
Simple. Truth. Packed with one of the most important messages. It is okay to cry when you lose someone you love.
The illustrations, while still sweet and not frightening, are also bluntly straight forward. They depict the parrot's body laid to rest in the ocean. Which tells another fact. When someone dies, we have ways to say goodbye to the physical person.
While filled with information and honesty, the simple text does what is so important with young children. It leaves space for them to talk as much or as little as needed.
Next up is a book that I only discovered recently, City Dog and Country Frog by Mo Willems.
This story is a little longer, and chronicles the friendship of the title characters throughout the 4 season of the year. City Dog and country Frog meet in the spring, when Country Frog says, "I am waiting for a friend. But, you'll do." They then spend the spring and summer playing together. In the fall, Frog is tired, and so rather than playing, they remember all the times they spent together and the games they played. And when winter comes, City Dog cannot find Country Frog. When spring comes around again, City Dog meets a new creature. "I am waiting for a friend," he says, "But, you'll do."
This book is dripping with rich content, right within reach for the child who needs it, but it is a perfectly delightful book for the child who is not quite ready.
Some children are likely to ask, "Where is frog?" Thank you, Mo Willems for leaving the answer up to the reader. You can gauge your audience and whether you want to say, "He died," or as we did in our class of three year old children, we let the question hang in the air. "Maybe he is under the snow" one of them answered.
Again, the information is there. The frog does not return. But as they did in the fall, Dog can always remember the times they had together. And, when the time is right, he will find a new friend and be happy again. His story will continue.