Bon the right, glossy books knocked off my children’s shelves. Their pages, a carnival of anthropomorphic animals dancing, singing, leading their fullest lives. CS Lewis believed that “a children’s story is the best art form for anything you have to say,” but none of those stories contained what we needed to tell our six- and three-year-old sons. Their father had just been diagnosed with aggressive leukemia.
His prognosis was grim, and one evening I typed “children’s book” and “death” into an Internet search engine. Every title that appeared filled me with dread. It’s not that we avoided discussing mortality with our children, but we didn’t think about it either. Clicking “Add to Cart” made me wonder if any of these books would like to handle the conversation for us?
Shortly after, I picked up the packages from the courier. I sneaked them into my office and the books were… clunky, cutesy… as if my own clumsiness on the subject had brought up a whole host of embarrassing things. Saccharine stories about, for example, dying butterflies with illustrations by an artistic relative of the author. I quickly put them away out of sight.
I have not discussed these investments with my partner. While waiting for the next appointment in oncology, we have tacitly agreed not to talk about the future. One child went to school and the other to kindergarten, and he and I sat at our desks. But at my desk, I couldn’t help it. The search terms “children’s book” and “cancer” swept a range of more specific titles: When Mommy Had a Mastectomy; Our family also has cancer! ; Mom again in hospital; Where is mom’s hair? Picture books with a paint-by-number feel, providing simple, literal information for young children. I bought a copy of Someone I Love Is Sick for our youngest son.
Then a binder appeared in the mailbox. There were various laminated pages to click in or out of to customize a proper story. Each page was clearly illustrated by elderly people from various cultural backgrounds, finding themselves, say, bald, or on a hospital gurney being rolled under a radiation machine. The pages were printed twice to “gender” the book about a sick grandfather or grandmother, with simple text such as:
I went to the funeral, but it was hard… I had to choose something from grandma/grandpa to keep for myself.
Our eldest son was starting to read and I didn’t want him to worry about my parents too. I put the binder in a drawer and never took it out again.
Now I ordered The Invisible String, billed as “the best-selling phenomenon that has inspired readers around the world”. In my study, I read the story of a mother explaining to her children that an invisible thread permanently connects them to those they love.
Then Jeremy asked quietly, “Can my thong reach up to Uncle Brian in heaven?”
Nope! I had an aesthetic, allergic reaction: could I do that to children? Could I do this to myself?
“We tell each other stories to live,” wrote Joan Didion. But we also tell stories to die. And I didn’t want to bother the kids with stories of convenience, tell them acceptable things to save us from having to think harder. EB White feared that in writing for young readers he would “slip into some kind of fancy or cheap cuteness…I don’t trust myself in that treacherous business”, he admitted, “unless I have a little fever”.
I wanted a book that was neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft. A book to hold us, as in holding us in place, holding us together.
I felt a version of that hug when I read to my sons the picture books my grandfather once read to me. The saturated color of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar sent me back to the home palette of the 1970s. I could have been on my grandparents’ sofa adorned with bright orange autumn leaves , at a time when everyone I loved was still alive and I hadn’t experienced loss, even though the book itself was created in response to grief.
Carle crafted his luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the deprivations of a dark, war-torn childhood. In a devastating miscalculation, his mother – a homesick immigrant to the United States – brought her family back to Stuttgart on the eve of World War II. Soon Carle’s father, a man who taught his son the beauty of stories and nature, was captured by the Russians as a prisoner of war, while 15-year-old Eric was conscripted to dig trenches. .
Reading about it, I realized that I was trying to keep us in a bright color palette, as if by existing in a perpetual cocoon we would be safe from harm. According to Carle, part of the appeal of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was that “children can relate to the helpless, insignificant little caterpillar”. When the butterfly emerges, “it’s a message of hope… I too can grow. I too can spread my wings (my talent) and soar into the world. However, to fly in the world, you have to understand it. My aversion to talking about mortality held our children back.
Around this time, two things happened: my partner’s prognosis improved, and I stopped my late-night book shopping.
Near our house there is a children’s bookstore. The bookseller kindly directed me to the best books for navigating rough terrain. It turns out that children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by the greatest mystery in life: death. Who knew that the right book on this subject could be instructive and comforting? I guess the bookseller did. But I now encourage adults to add this subject to the children’s literary regimen early, not to wait until your family is forced to face this conversation at the last minute. Giving children a framework to think about death provides them with a buffer when the inevitable difficult time comes.
Recently I asked my seven and ten year old sons to help me look at a selection of picture books about loss and grief. “You have these feelings inside that haunt you,” my eldest son says, “but if you can put it into words, you can let go of all that emotion. Even if it’s hard, you understand. These books have sparked thoughtful, pragmatic, candid and insightful conversations.Here is our joint review.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break – Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi
A character dressed in black visits a children’s home the night their grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story by explaining, “Who would yearn for day if there was no night?” For us, this book was a great success. The visitor turns out not to be so scary. The idea of grief and pain being a counterbalance to joy and pleasure made intuitive sense.
The Memory Tree – Britta Teckentrup
Animals in a forest hold a memorial for their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their memories, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. “I absolutely loved it,” the older co-reviewer says, “especially how venting their sorrows made them feel lighter.”
Beginnings and Endings with Intermediate Lives – Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
All reviewers thought it was fantastic. One says, “Most of the other books were a story about death, but this one was unique in that it explained death.”
The invisible string – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew Vriethoff
“Ten out of ten”, answers the septuagenarian. I may not be a big fan of this bestseller, but I’ve noticed the comfort of imagining a magical thread that connects us to those we love the most: “The idea of twine makes me happy.
The boy and the gorilla – Jackie Azua Kramer and Cindy Derby
After the death of a boy’s mother, he is followed by a gorilla. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolor illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief turning into a spirit animal that offers protection. They also liked to think about “where you could go” after death.
What happens next? -Shinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky and original book. After the death of his grandfather, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often hilarious ideas about the afterlife: “Death is like a vacation in a luxury hotel”, says a child. The boy decides to write his own book on the best way to live. Highly recommend.
If Everyone Were… – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
A granddaughter remembers all the ways her grandfather enriched her life. We all loved Allison Colpoys’ illustrations and the message our loved ones live on in our memories.
Death, the duck and the tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over his shoulder, he sees a skeletal figure: “Well,” said Death, “you finally noticed me.” I think it’s a solid 9 out of 10, but I have to admit the kids only gave it a 6.5.
The Sad Book of Michael Rosen – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
Written after the death of her son, Rosen eloquently expresses the experience of mourning, “a cloud that approaches and covers me”. Added to this is the stormy palette of Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations. Again, this is a book that older readers might enjoy – let’s not pretend that children’s books are just for kids!
Fallen Leaves: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World – Rachel Tonkin
I cannot fail to mention this breathtaking book, which chronicles a year of change in the undergrowth of a forest. (“Leaves teach us to die,” Thoreau wrote.) A blue-tongued lizard is decomposing, and we see in cross-section the carcass decomposing, its nutrients moving through the soil.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney – Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
In this 1971 classic, a family throws a funeral for their cat and a child is asked to recall the 10 best things about the pet, with the tenth thing being the cat fertilizing the soil.
Let’s talk about when someone dies – Molly Potter and Sarah Jennings
This is a great practical guide to help children understand the mechanics of death, the mixed emotions of grief, and our different cultural beliefs about the afterlife. “Basically,” as one reviewer put it, “an encyclopedia of death.”
With thanks to Michael Earp of The Little Bookroom for their brilliant suggestions.
Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime Story is published by Simon and Schuster and is available now