Bright, shining books spilled from my children’s bookshelves. Their pages, a carnival of anthropomorphised animals dancing, singing, leading their fullest lives. CS Lewis believed “a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say”, but none of these ones contained what we needed to tell our six- and three-year-old sons. Their father had just been diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia.
His prognosis was poor and one night I typed “children’s book” and “death” into an internet search engine. Each title that appeared filled me with heart-knotting dread. It’s not that we’d avoided discussing mortality with our kids, but neither had we leaned into it. As I clicked “Add to cart”, I wondered if one of these books would like to handle the conversation for us?
Before long, I picked the packages out of the mail. I took them furtively to my study and the books were… clunky, mawkish… as if my own awkwardness about this topic had brought forth a haul of embarrassing things. Saccharine stories about, say, butterflies dying with illustrations by the author’s artistic relative. I quickly stowed them out of sight.
I did not discuss these investments with my partner. As we waited for the next oncology appointment, we tacitly agreed not to mention the future. One child went to school and the other to childcare, and he and I sat at our desks. But at my desk, I could not stop myself. The search terms “children’s book” and “cancer” swept up a range of more specific titles: When Mommy Had a Mastectomy; Our Family Has Cancer Too !; Mommy in The Hospital Again; Where’s Mom’s Hair? Picture books with a painted by number feel, providing simple, literal information for young children. I bought a copy of Someone I Love is Sick for our younger son.
Next a binder folder appeared in the letter box. It had different laminated pages to click in or out to tailor an appropriate story. Each page was plainly illustrated with elderly people of various cultural backgrounds, finding, say, they are bald, or on a hospital gurney being wheeled under a radiation machine. The pages were printed twice to “gender” the book about either an ill grandfather or a grandmother, with unfussy text such as:
I went to the funeral, but it was hard… I got to pick something from Grandma / Grandpa to keep for my own.
Our older son was starting to read, and I did not want him too worrying about my parents. I put the binder folder in a drawer and did not take it out again.
Now I ordered The Invisible String, billed as “the bestselling phenomenon that has inspired readers around the world”. In my study I read about a mother explaining to her children that an invisible thread permanently connects them to those they love.
Then Jeremy quietly asked, “Can my String reach all the way to Uncle Brian up in heaven?”
No! I had an aesthetic, allergic reaction: could I do this to the kids? Could I do this to myself?
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. But we also tell ourselves stories in order to die. And I did not want to fob the children off with tales of convenience, to tell them acceptable things to spare us having to think harder. EB White feared that writing for young readers, he’d “slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness… I do not trust myself in this treacherous field,” he admitted, “unless I am running a degree of fever.”
I wanted a book that was not too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft. A book to hold us, as in hold us in place, hold us together.
I felt a version of this embrace when I read my sons the picture books my grandfather had once read to me. The saturated color of, say, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar sent me ricocheting back to the domestic palette of the 1970s. I could have been on my grandparents’ couch patterned with bright orange autumn leaves, a time when everyone I loved was still alive, and I had not known loss – even if the book itself had been created in response to grief.
Carle conceived of his luminous masterpiece as an antidote to the deprivations of a bleak, war-torn childhood. In a devastating miscalculation, his mother – a homesick immigrant to the United States – moved her family back to Stuttgart on the eve of the second world war. Soon Carle’s father, a man who taught his son about the beauty of stories and nature, was captured by the Russians as a prisoner of war, while the 15-year-old Eric was conscripted to dig trenches.
Reading about this, I realized I was trying to keep us in a palette of bright colors, as if by existing in a perpetual cocoon, we’d be safe from harm. Part of The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s appeal, Carle believed, was that “children can identify with the helpless, small insignificant caterpillar”. When the butterfly emerges, “it’s a message of hope… I too can grow up. I too can unfurl my wings (my talent), and fly into the world. ” To fly into the world though, you need to understand it. My aversion to discussing mortality was holding our kids back.
Around this time, two things happened: my partner’s prognosis improved, and I quit my late-night book buying.
Near our house there’s a children’s bookshop. The bookseller gently directed me to the best books to navigate rugged terrain. It turns out children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by life’s biggest mystery: death. Who knew the right book on this subject can be informative and comforting? I guess the bookseller did. But I’d now encourage adults to add this topic into children’s literary diet early, to not wait until your family is forced to confront this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death provides them ballast when the inevitable hard time comes.
Recently I asked my seven- and 10-year-old sons to help me look at a selection of picture books concerning loss and grief. “You have these feelings inside haunting you,” my older 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 sparked conversations that were thoughtful, pragmatic, candid and enlightening. The following is our joint review.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break – Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi
A black-cloaked figure visits a house of children the night their grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story, explaining: “Who would yearn for day if there was no night?” In our house, this book was a big hit. The visitor is revealed to not be so frightening. The idea of grief and sorrow being a counterweight to joy and delight 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 recollections, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. “I absolutely loved this,” says the older co-reviewer, “especially the way emptying out their sorrows made them lighter.”
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between – Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
All reviewers thought this was fantastic. Says one: “Most of the other books were a story about death, but this was unique in that it explained death.”
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew Vriethoff
“Ten out of ten,” says the seven-year-old. I may not be a huge fan of this bestseller, but I’ve noticed the comfort to be had in imagining a magic thread connecting us to those we love best: “The idea of the string makes me happy.”
The Boy and the Gorilla – Jackie Azúa Kramer and Cindy Derby
After a boy’s mother dies, he is followed by a gorilla. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolor illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief morphing into a spirit animal that gives protection. They also liked thinking of “where you might go” after death.
What Happens Next? – Shinsuke Yoshitake
We all loved this quirky, original book. After his grandfather’s death, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often hilarious ideas on an afterlife: “It makes death seem like a holiday in a luxury resort,” says one child. The boy decides to write his own book on how to best live. Highly recommend.
If All the World Were… – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
A granddaughter recalls all the ways her grandfather has made her life richer. We all loved Allison Colpoys’ illustrations, and the message that our loved ones live on in our memories.
Death, Duck and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over its shoulder, it spies a skeletal character: “Good,” said Death, “you finally noticed me.” I think this is a solid 9 out of 10, but have to admit the kids only gave it 6.5.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives eloquent expression to the experience of grief, “a cloud that comes along and covers me up”. This is complemented by the stormy palette of Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations. Again, this is a book that older readers might appreciate – let’s not pretend children’s books are only for children!
Leaf Litter: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World – Rachel Tonkin
I can not mention this stunning book, which chronicles a year of change in a forest’s undergrowth. (“Leaves teach us how to die,” Thoreau wrote.) A blue-tongue lizard decays, and we see in cross-section the carcass breaking down, its nutrients moving through the soil.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney – Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
In this classic from 1971, a family holds a burial for their cat and a child is asked to recall the 10 best things about the pet, the tenth thing being the cat fertilizing the earth.
Let’s Talk About When Someone Dies – Molly Potter and Sarah Jennings
This is an excellent practical guide to helping kids understand the mechanics of death, the mixed emotions of bereavement and our different cultural beliefs regarding an afterlife. “Basically,” as one reviewer puts it, “an encyclopedia of death”.
With thanks to Michael Earp at The Little Bookroom for their brilliant suggestions.
Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is published by Simon and Schuster and is out now