This morning I was walking my six-year-old to school when the droning sound of a lawn mower and the smell of freshly-cut grass saturated my senses. It immediately took me back to my childhood in Michigan, where a two-acre yard filled with pine trees, fruit trees, and an overstuffed garden, was my daily stomping ground. That yard needed a lot of mowing and I spent many summer hours watching our riding mower chomp in lines, zig-zags or circles, depending on who was in the driver’s seat. It was in that hundred year old farmhouse and on that land that I had my first experiences with death. The death of worms we squished, the death of rabbits our cat killed, the death of our dog who was hit by a car, the death of our grandpa, and even, when I was eight, the death of our baby brother who only lived for half an hour. Through it all, my parents were patient and accessible. They were honest and hopeful in our conversations, always allowing questions and giving us time to process.
Back to today. I watched my daughter with her Hello Kitty helmet, kicking her pink razor scooter into motion, the wheels spinning and lighting up (Santa was good to her last year). My mind full of thoughts of my own life-changing moments, I began to realize how much lies ahead for her. I hope I will be brave enough to prepare her for her own transformative experiences, but even if I'm not, they will come anyway.
One of the things I'm tasked with blogging about are picture books with a spiritual element to them. And today, we’re diving right in to talk about picture books that teach us about death, and how they can be part of our ongoing discussion with children. So far, my daughter’s most traumatic lesson in death was when a butterfly that we hatched from a caterpillar died on the day we released it into the wild (can you tell that we don’t have any real pets? Ah, the joys of apartment living). She cried. I stumbled over my words, trying to explain that butterflies don’t live very long anyway, and that this one hadn’t been very healthy from the start. It wasn’t until later that I read the book Lifetimes (see below) and found the perfect way to explain what I had been trying to say.
If you’ve ever written a picture book, you know how carefully each word is chosen. Using picture books as a conversation-starter gives you a simple jumping-off point and allows you to turn that conversation over to a child, prompting them to ask questions and to share what they care about, what they are worried about.
Every book teaches something different about death. So choose the ones that you want for your family. Do you want to teach them about Heaven? Or teach that even in death you are giving back to the earth? Or that when one is remembered, they are never truly gone? All of the above? Something different? Whatever your belief system, in the words of my professor and child-development expert, "you need to give them something."
There are many books about death, but each is unique. Some leave unanswered questions, some try to answer every question a child may have. Some talk about life and death in nature and use that as a backdrop to talk about when people die, such as this one:
Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
Snippet: “There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.”
"Lifetimes...lets us explain life and death in a sensitive, caring, beautiful way. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings. And about endings. And about living in between. With large, wonderful illustrations, it tells about plants. About animals. About people. It tells that dying is as much a part of living as being born. It helps us to remember. It helps us to understand."
Some are about losing a pet, like these ones:
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Snippet: “This is a story about Elfie-- the best dog in the whole world. We grew up together, but Elfie grew much faster than I did.”
"A child's sadness at the death of a beloved dog is tempered by the remembrance of saying to it every night, "I'll always love you."
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Snippet - "When dogs go to Heaven, they don't need wings because God knows that dogs love running best."
"From expansive fields where dogs can run and run to delicious biscuits no dog can resist, Rylant paints a warm and affectionate picture of the ideal place God would, of course, create for man's best friend. The first picture book illustrated by the author, Dog Heaven is enhanced by Rylant's bright, bold paintings that perfectly capture an afterlife sure to bring solace to anyone who is grieving."
Some are about losing a loved one, like this:
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Snippet: "Once there was a girl, much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world."
"There is a wonder and magic to childhood. We don’t realize it at the time, of course...yet the adults in our lives do. They encourage us to see things in the stars, to find joy in colors and laughter as we play. But what happens when that special someone who encourages such wonder and magic is no longer around? We can hide, we can place our heart in a bottle and grow up . . . or we can find another special someone who understands the magic. And we can encourage them to see things in the stars, find joy among colors and laughter as they play."
And some are made broadly applicable by using anthropomorphized animals as main characters, like these:
Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth
Snippet: “She knew that she would always remember Crystal, and that Crystal would always be with her wherever she went, right there in her heart.”
"Crystal had lived in the garden for many years. She was growing old. Zelda was just starting out in life. They were best friends. But one day Crystal was not in the garden. She had died. In this gentle story Zelda learns that true friendship is a gift that doesn’t die."
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
Snippet: “Badger wasn’t afraid of death. Dying meant only that he would leave his body behind and, as his body didn’t work as well as it had in days gone by, Badger wasn’t too concerned about that. His only worry was how his friends would feel when he was gone…”
*Touches on a broadly applicable afterlife.
"The tale of a dependable, reliable and helpful badger who realizes that his old age will soon lead to death. His friends learn to come to terms with his death in an enchanting tale."
And sometimes you have a brilliant death-themed picture book that breaks the mold completely, like this one:
Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales
Snippet: “When Grandma Beetle woke at dawn, she heard a knock at the door. And, oh my, waiting outside she found Senor Calavera. Senor Calavera tipped his hat. What a skinny gentleman! With a pass of his hand he signaled to Grandma Beetle. It was time for her to come along with him.”
"In this original trickster tale, Senor Calavera arrives unexpectedly at Grandma Beetle's door. "Just a minute," Grandma Beetle tells him. She still has one house to sweep, two pots of tea to boil, three pounds of corn to make into tortillas...Grandma Beetle cleverly delays her trip and spends her birthday with a table full of grandchildren and her surprise guest."
There are so many wonderful ones, but I hope this helps you get started on your own list. And if you are trying to write a picture book about death? As always, study from the masters.
As I think about my growing-up-way-too-fast, scooter-kickin’ six-year-old (and her two younger sisters), I am both nervous and excited for the future. I’ve learned that I can’t protect them from all of the hurt in the world, but I can do my best to prepare them to come through those hurts both stronger and more empathetic. Picture books are an empowering tool to help us get there.
This post was written by Maria Oka, a mother of three very busy girls whose reading and writing spans from books for the very young to older picture books. Besides being interested in rollicking laugh-aloud books with her girls, Maria is also interested in children's books with a spiritual element. She reads, writes, and tries to juggle dinnertime, school schedules, and a very attached-at-the-hip baby in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three munchkins.
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