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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Helping Children Cope with Death

Death. It's a nearly universal theme for middle school and YA literature (see my No More Happy Endings discussion at the English Companion Ning), but not one of the more popular themes for picture books. But for those who teach units or novels dealing with loss, life cycles, generations, war, or even seasons, the topic of death is likely to emerge. More important to consider, however, is that your students will also lose people in their lives: siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers. Picture books can provide a delicate and appropriate means of discussing the loss of loved ones.

Audrey Penn, the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller The Kissing Hand has written a simple yet thoughtful picture book on the topic of coping with death. In Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories, Chester anxiously tells his mother that his friend Skiddil Squirrel won't be returning to school because of an accident. But he has no understanding of what that word accident means, nor does he understand what the teacher meant when she said that Chester had died. Mother explains these things to Chester, and then suggests "making a memory" so that Skiddil won't be forgotten.

Although this book is meant for audiences younger than those I typically teach and write for, I recommend this book because it will help students to understand the positive purposes behind memorial services. Audrey Penn has skillfully structured the narrative to include a blueprint for any teacher or parent helping a child to deal with loss.

First, Mrs. Raccoon helps Chester to understand the nature of death as frankly and clearly as possible. She compares it to experiences he has already known, such as the passing of old Mr. Beaver.

Second, Chester finds comfort in the company of friends. I read over twenty picture books on the topic of death before writing this post, and several of them portray children trying to sort through their feelings about lost loved ones with no direction from adults or friends. I would hate for children to think they're alone in a time of crisis. In Annette Bley's And What Comes After a Thousand, for example, young Lisa is upset that mourners at Otto's service are so quiet and morose; that's not what her old friend would want. Fortunately, she is able to confide in her friend Olga, who helps Lisa to deal with the passing of her friend.

Third, Chester and his friends recall their fondest memories of Skiddil Squirrel. Their vivid recollections remind them of the full and happy life he led. Mrs. Raccoon also points out that some of Skiddil's activities have left a positive impact on the world itself. In this way, their memories also incorporate a place which was special to that friend. Similarly, Fox's friends in Always and Forever, written by Alan Durant and illustrated by Debi Gliori, fondly and jokingly recall their old pal as a terrible cook, a terrible handyman, and a horrible gardener, whose heart had always been in the right place, even if his talents hadn't. We also see the importance of counting memories in perhaps the best known picture book on the topic of death, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst.

Fourth, Chester selects a physical object to remember his friend. This is in almost direct opposition to an unhealthy reaction taken by most adults, which is to throw themselves into some activity, usually work, in order to take their minds off the memory of the loved one. Creating a connection between a loved one and a special object plays a large part in the plot of The Hickory Chair, written by Lisa Rowe Fraustino and illustrated by Benny Andrews. Louis's Gran is someone special, whose rich voice and distinctive smell (lilacs, with a whiff of bleach) are always comforting to the young sightless boy. But when she passes away, it seems she has left a cherished object to everyone but him. A years-later discovery reminds him of just how deeply she felt for her "youngest bestest" grandson.

Fifth, the reader realizes that there is no guilt for those who are still living. They owe it to their loved one who has passed to remember, but to also live happily. Another book which focuses on the lives of the living who remain after a loved one has passed is the sensitive and lyrical Grandpa Never Lies, written by Ralph Fletcher and illustrated by Harvey Stevenson.

Other Titles on Helping Children Cope with Death

Below are a few additional titles I felt teachers and parents might want to investigate. If I left out a book which you've used in the past with success, please leave a comment below or email me.

A book which cleverly answers the question, "Why must anything die?" is Death in a Nut, retold by Eric Maddern and illustrated by Paul Hess. This title helps to explain death's role in the life cycle. I wouldn't use it, however, following the death of a loved one; in that case it might seem as if you're trying to rationalize, rather than memorialize. 

Grandma's Gone to Live in the Stars by Max Haynes is the shortest and simplest of all the picture books here, and tells good-byes from the perspective of the grandma who has died. It's a comforting title for children who might feel better knowing that the person who has died has said their own farewells.

Ghost Wings by Barbara M. Joosse and illustrated by Giselle Potter (the talented artist behind The Honest to Goodness Truth) incorporates symbolism from Mexican culture as its narrator struggles to understand the death of her grandmother. Reference pages following the narrative provide teachers and parents with additional information on the Days of the Dead (Los Dias de los Muertos), celebrated between October 31 and November 2, as well as Monarch butterflies, which play a symbolic role in the book. Also, a Guide to Using this Book includes questions and activities on Feelings, Memories, and Butterflies.

Other Resources

Kids Health has short online articles on Helping Your Child Deal with Death and When a Pet Dies (which is oddly much longer than the combined length of two other articles on When a Friend Dies and When a Father Dies).

NASP (National Association of School Psychologists) offers a pdf on Helping Children Cope With Loss, Death, and Grief. These materials are meant to address the loss of life occurring in the war in Iraq, and are adapted from tips originally placed on that organization's web site following the September 11th tragedy.

Related topics such as grieving and mourning, talking to a preschooler about death, and the role that faith can play in discussions about death can be found at the Dr. Spock web site.


Suzan said...

This is an excellent list of titles for teachers or parents who are looking for age-appropriate books about the topic of dying. It’s a tough topic, but many of these authors and illustrators open up a platform for discussion with skill and sensitivity. Thanks. – Suzan

Suzan said...

I just read an article (May 20, 2010) and thought you might be interested. A book titled “Old Hu-Hu” by Kyle Mewburn and illustrated by Rachel Driscoll was just awarded the top prize at this year’s New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. It is a picture book that helps children understand death and celebrate life. I added the title to my “Dealing with Death Through Books” blog at, which cites your excellent list of resources here at “Teach with Picture Books” too! The article link is:
Cheers, Suzan

I said...

My Liddle Buddy Jake
Perfect Book to explain Death, Heaven, Spirit, and Jesus to a child that has lost a younger sibling SUDDENLY (i.e., SIDS, Accidents, etc)

Tender story about Luke and his baby brother Jake. Luke tells of all of his favorite things he and Jake did. They were inseparable. Until Jesus took Jake home to Heaven.

The creative way the author explains Heaven, Spirit, Jesus, and death though the eyes of the child, helps the child relate in terms and illustrations they understand. From a child's point of view for a child.

EXCERPT: ..."What is our Spirit?" I would always ask.

Mommy would say, "Our Spirit is the life deep within our bodies where Jesus lives. It is like the wind; you can feel it on your face and skin; it can make bubbles when you blow into the bubble wand, but when you try to hold it in your hands, it is not there."...

...Then Mommy would always tell me to blow into my
hand with my breath.

Mommy would say, "You see, you feel the warm air on your hand and face, but when
you try to catch it, it is not there. You can't see it, but you can feel it"...

If you would like you to read them. please go to to read the books.

Carrie Gelson said...


This is a wonderful list of picture books on this topic.

I just posted about two books I read with my students

One deals more with children's natural curiosity about death and the process of grieving.

I think books on this topic are so important
Thank you for this post.