How do you talk about death and dying with kids? Adults may not know where to begin. Kids need honest, concrete conversation about loss, or they may misunderstand the situation and become exasperated by fears and sadness.
Picture books can provide the articulation and bibliotherapy to help children and their caregivers during loss. While the words are important, it is the illustrations that draw children in and ultimately spark empathy. Within this space, children can relate to the story, connect with the character, and learn to cope with difficult emotions. Because children under the age of five initially view death as a temporary separation, parents can use picture books to guide their child’s understanding of death as a permanent event. The literary place gives kids and grown ups the opportunity to ask questions, talk, and clarify.
At the Mill Valley Public Library, we have several picture books that discuss dying and bereavement:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurene Brown
In simple language, When Dinosaurs Die discusses the ways people die, feelings thereafter, reactions to grief, and perspectives on the after life. Illustrated by Marc Brown, the artist for the Arthur books, the characters are anthropomorphic and cute, making the material digestible for kids.
Death of a Pet
The death of a pet appears to garner the most picture books for children. Perhaps this is because the event of a pet dying is more common in a young child’s life.
Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas
This picture book follows the story of a girl and her beloved dog Lulu. Lulu is becoming more feeble in her old age. When she dies, the young girl is heartbroken but learns to say goodbye with a meaningful burial. The illustrations in this book are soft and pretty, and the text is accessible to first grade and up.
The Old Dog by Charlotte Zolotow
Featuring an African American family, this picture book is ideal for very young readers who are new to the concept and permanence of death. When a young boy’s basset hound won’t wake up, Dad checks him and declares he is dead. The family explains to the young boy that because the dog died, he won’t come back. The young boy is sad, grieves, and reflects on old memories.
Here are some other titles about the death of a pet:
Big Cat Pepper by Elizabeth Partridge
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
The Best Cat in the World by Leslea Newman
Goodbye, Max by Holly Keller
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst
Death of a Friend
Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth
When Goose’s friend Turtle dies, she denies that he’s gone forever, and goes looking for him. While she discovers that he is not coming back and experiences sadness, she accepts the transition and relishes their memories.
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
Among a community of animals, the old badger feels he has lived a great life and is ready for death. In a metaphorical way, he walks along the tunnel in his home towards the light and does not come back. His friends are sad, but recall the great memories they had with Badger.
Death of a Grandparent:
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola
This fantastic book is based on the author’s own childhood. A young boy visits his great-grandmother and grandmother who live in the same house: Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, respectively. He spends the most time with Nana Upstairs, who has sweets and stories for him. When Nana Upstairs dies, the boy doesn’t understand what dying means, and experiences bereavement. He accepts that she will live in his memories.
Beyond the Ridge by Paul Goble
A young girl grieves and partakes in traditional funeral customs with her community for her deceased grandmother. Based on Plains Indian culture, this classic book is spiritually oriented, and very connected to nature and the cycle of life. Since the text is longer, this is a better choice for kids who are in 3rd grade and up.
More Books about the death of a grandparent:
Ghost Wings by Barbara Joosse
Zayde Comes to Live by Sheri Sinykin
Death of a Parent:
Missing Mommy by Rebecca Cobb
A young boy narrates his experience following his mother’s funeral. In minimalist sentences, Cobb captures the grieving process and confusion that young children experience, while focusing on the positive, such as leaning on your support system. The illustrations mimic a child’s style of drawing, to further relate to them.
More about the death of a parent:
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic
Books for kids who are dying:
There are not many picture books on this topic. This is an area that I hope to see expand with more books.
The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka
This short and tender picture book admits that dying is hard. It also shows how family, friends, and community help you through it. Raschka’s characters are balloons, which he explains that kids with terminal illness often draw balloons in art therapy.
Additional resources for adults
Tender Topics: Picture Books About Childhood Challenges by Dorothy Stoltz
American Psychological Association’s Magination Press