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Books On Death for Kids

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Susan’s latest book reviews come from her heart. She has been through a lot in the last few weeks and I am inspired by her strength. These books will be great resources for anyone dealing with the loss of a family member or friend. Big hugs to Susan and her family!

I was hoping I’d never need to write this entry.  But we recently had an unexpected death in my family.  I was especially saddened to see how difficult the experience was for my children – for the first time, they had to face everything from the grand, unanswerable mysteries surrounding death down to the simplest dilemma, such as what to do at a funeral.

While philosophies about death are intensely personal, I was relieved to find a few books that address issues from the metaphysical to the practical in sensitive, mostly secular ways.  Adults who are grieving may find it difficult to read these books out loud.  But as all the books close on a note of hope, they may be comforting to grownups and kids alike.

Where Are You? A Child’s Book About Loss, by Laura Olivieri, illustrated by Kristin Elder.  For younger children, this book describes the feelings a boy has after a death, in simple sentences that comfort without sugarcoating raw emotion.  “I look at your picture and your blue shirt in the closet.  But you are not here.  I miss you.”  The explorations of an afterlife don’t come to a pat conclusion or deny the sense of loss – “Maybe you are a raindrop that fell into a cool blue ocean.  But I can’t touch you.”  But the book ends with the child drawing pictures and remembering happy times:  “I remember you.  So you are right here.”

I Miss You: A First Look At Death, by Pat Thomas.  I cannot say enough good things about this book.  It’s a matter-of-fact, yet gentle, guide to the weeks following a death.  It opens with a description of death that is both philosophical and concrete:  “Death is a natural part of life.  All living things grow, change, and eventually die.  When someone dies, their body stops working – they stop breathing and their heart stops beating.”  The book’s pictures show a little girl dealing with the death of her grandmother, from what happens at the funeral, to feelings she (and the readers) may have afterwards.  It even addresses children who may feel alone because the people around them don’t know how to help.  The book ends by reminding children that they can help keep the memory of people they love alive.

The Spirit of Tio Fernando: A Day of the Dead Story, by Janice Levy.  For slightly older children, this book follows Nando as he and his mother prepare for a Day of the Dead celebration to remember his favorite uncle, Fernando.  Nando is named for his uncle, and he resembles him in many ways, even down to the shape of his toes.  Nando remembers all the good things about his uncle as he and his mother cook, walk through the town’s festivities, and visit the graveyard.  In the end, although he’s still sad, Nando realizes that his uncle is present – in himself.  The book concentrates more on the role of a community and a ceremony in grieving and healing, and less on the question about what happens after death.

Beyond the Ridge, by Paul Goble.  For older children, this book explores a grandmother’s death both from her point of view and from the point of view of her family.  The book draws on Native American traditions, and the illustrations have a lovely, spare Southwestern feel.  As the old woman lies dying, surrounded by her family, she hears a voice saying, “’Get up!  They want you over there.  Your mother is calling you.’”  Even though the dying woman hears her family weeping, she leaves her body and walks away.  She climbs up a hill and over a ridge, where she sees a beautiful land and all the people she has known who have died.  Her family, meanwhile, mourn her death even while they know that “Death seems like the end, but it is not.  The body goes back to the earth, but the spirit lives forever.”  You may decide to omit certain religious lines if you’re reading out loud, but I found the description of the grandmother’s voyage immensely moving.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.

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