Tackling the taboo of talking about death with children
Death is a very real thing and it sadly affects us all; research undertaken by Winston’s Wish suggests that 41,000 children are bereaved each year in the UK. Death is a difficult subject to talk about and often we shy away from explaining it to children, in order to protect them. Literature can be a useful tool in helping us approach difficult subjects, especially with children. This list looks at books specifically aimed at helping children tackle the topic of death. It is by no means extensive but is a good starting point to hopefully encourage them to ask questions and open up the conversation.
I Want To See My Papa – Angela Campagnoni
I want to see my Papa is a picture book written by Canadian author Angela Campagnoni. Born from personal experience, the book follows the life of a little bear a few days after his father has died. The bear does not understand where his father has gone and demands he be taken to see him. The bear is taught by his mother that while he can no longer see his dad, he carries him with him everywhere he goes through his memories. The little bear learns that his sadness is natural and not necessarily a negative thing, it reminds him of the very real relationship he shared with his “papa” and thinking back to the good times can help bring a smile back to his face.
The Goodbye Book – Todd Parr
In The Goodbye Book a gold fish is suddenly left alone in his fish bowl after the death of his companion. The book explains all the different emotions one may feel after a person has died. It tells the reader it is okay to feel different emotions and sadness is not the only option, it also reassures that things do get better and encourages happy memories.
You can see author Todd Parr read “The Goodbye Book” here.
The Red Tree – Shaun Tan
Shaun Tan is an illustrator most known for his dark imagery and social commentary. Much like The Goodbye Book, The Red Tree concerns itself with the vast arrays of emotions that can be felt by a person at any one time.
The book begins with “sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to, and things go from bad to worse.” This is followed by a series of visual metaphors that act as summaries for different feelings. Analysing the complicated layers reveals the deep layers of emotion and how feelings are never simple. While negative emotions form the majority of the story there is an uplifting end, once again reaffirming that things will always get better.
Cry Heart, But Never Break – Glenn Ringtved
While many of these stories focus on the emotions a person may feel when someone dies, Cry Heart, But Never Break, focuses on death itself and what that means. In the story, four children are visited by death who has come to take their grandmother. The children protest and scheme to keep death away but he tells them a tale about Joy, Delight, Sorrow and Grief. The purpose of the story within a story is to highlight that balance is important and all that exists has a reason to do so. The children learn that death is what makes life worth living, and they begin to learn the importance of living life to the full. Death does take the Children’s grandmother but the story does not end there, the children learn that life goes on and embrace their joy, delight, sorrow and grief as part of being human.
The Scar – Charlotte Moundlic
The Scar written by Charlotte Moundlic tells the story of a little boy who wakes up to find out his mother has died in the night. The boy struggles to comprehend what has happened and tries desperately to cling on to pieces of his mother, at one point making sure no windows are opened so her smell does not escape. Most of the books on this list lean heavily on the illustration to explore the theme but the writing really does the work in The Scar. It is a complex read that concerns itself with not only the boy but also all of those around him. We see a vast character shift in the boy from the start to the end of story, as he comes to terms with his mother’s death and better understands how he can keep memories of her alive.
What does dead mean – Caroline Jay & Jenni Thomas OBE
What does Dead Mean? is unique on this list because it does not set out to tell a story, but rather to answer 17 of the biggest questions children have about death. Fully illustrated the book tackles questions such as “Is being dead like sleeping?” and “where do dead people go?”. Jenni Thomas OBE is a founding member of Child Bereavement UK, a large charity working to support children who have experienced a death. This engaging book is factual and informative, but in a way that is still accessible to children and won’t leave them bored or unstimulated.
The memory Tree – Britta Teckentrup
Animals are ever present in children’s literature, and often authors will use them to teach us very human lessons about life. In The Memory Tree, Britta Teckentrup writes about Fox who lays down in his favourite clearing and “falls asleep forever.” Friends of Fox begin to gather at this place and together they talk about the good times they shared with Fox, and a tree begins to grow. The more memories that are shared, the larger the tree gets until it becomes a big shelter that protects fox’s friends. The story is short and sweet and reminds us of the ways in which we can share tales about people once they have died and how celebrating the life they lived can bring comfort to all.
Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson
Whilst most of the titles on this list are aimed at younger children, Bridge to Terabithia is more suited to the reading ability of 10+ year olds. Author Katherine Paterson wrote the story after a friend of her son was killed by lightning at the age of 8 years old. The story follows two children, Jesse and Leslie, who become friends and adventure in the imaginary world of Terabithia as an escape from the real-life issues affecting them in their daily lives. The story takes a dramatic shift when Leslie dies unexpectedly in an accident. In the immediate aftermath Jesse cannot come to terms with it, refusing to accept it has happened and accuses his family of lying. Jess’s’ reaction is not wholly uncommon when it comes to understanding the death of a loved one.
There are a variety of charitable organisations working tirelessly to help support those suffering bereavement. If you would like more information please visit one of the following websites;