Talking to children about the really awful stuff is hard, but a well-written picture book can help a lot. Reading a book together is such a lovely activity, and you can follow it up with a gentle discussion about themes of sadness and loss. If you need to explain the loss of a grandparent or a family pet, one of these books might just help you do it in a way that your child will understand and accept.
Here are our top five books about death and sadness for children
‘We’re not gone. Oh no no no! We’re holding hands and we won’t let go.’
Julia Donaldson is the queen of picture books, so it’s no surprise that she’s on this list. Paper Dolls is about a girl who makes paper dolls with her mother and takes them on adventures around the house and garden. A boy snips them to pieces with his scissors, but the dolls don’t disappear. Instead, they go into the girl’s memory. Try to keep your voice from shaking when you discover the grandmother who’s in there too. My husband falls apart every time he reads this, but it’s a lovely, gentle introduction to the idea of people and things living on in our hearts and minds.
‘It was very peaceful. There was not a sound – not even one note of birdsong.’
There are twelve Frog books in all, and they’re pretty great. In this one, Frog comes across a blackbird that isn’t moving, and his friend Hare explains that the bird is dead. They hold a funeral for it and bury it in the ground, and then afterwards they play in the sunshine and hear a bird singing in the trees. The message is that life goes on, after a death has been acknowledged and mourned. It’s simple and it’s sweet.
‘This made them think of Rabbit, which made them happy.’
This book is an explosion of colour and life. It’s about Rabbit, who likes doing rabbity things and some unrabbity things, too, like painting and making music. When he disappears, his friends are sad. But over time, they learn that doing the unrabbity things Rabbit loved makes them think of him in a happy way. It’s perfect for teaching children that thinking about lost loved ones won’t always be so painful.
‘She took delight in finding new things, until the day she found an empty chair.’
The girl in this story puts her heart in a bottle to keep it safe after suffering a loss. It works, but she loses interest in the things she once loved. It takes an encounter with someone who is still curious to teach her what she needs to do, and she releases her heart, leaving the bottle empty. Its message is an important one: it can be tempting to hold back from loving after being hurt, but it isn’t the right thing to do.
‘What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died. I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.’
This one’s for slightly older children, and is beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake. It’s about Rosen’s grief for his son, Eddie, who died at 19. The language is very simple but searingly powerful. It’s a way to introduce children to the idea that sadness is inevitable, at times, and it outlines some straightforward coping mechanisms, too. It acts as an important antidote to the lie we often tell children about everyone living happily ever after.
We’d love to know which books have helped you to tackle this difficult topic. Please let us know in the comments. Read Laura’s blog Gone Forever: When Children Ask About Death
Laura is a writer who lives in Leicestershire with her husband and their two children. When she’s not writing or reading, she can usually be found trying to get her son to put his shoes on, encouraging her daughter to sleep past 5am or moving small items from one room to another. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog about getting cancer when she was pregnant.