As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been struck by the number of Swedish books for children I’ve found in translation which are about death. Whilst researching my post about Swedish picture books in translation I came across two books that I felt were so very lovely I had to give them their own post.
Both written by Ulf Nilsson – All the dear little animals (illustrated by Eva Eriksson) and Goodbye Mr Muffin (illustrated by Anna-Clara Tidholm) are two gentle and powerful picture books about a subject sometimes taboo for children, death.
All the dear little animals is a marvellous, sensitive, funny, thoughtful book. A group of young children, bored one day, set up their own company, Funerals Ltd, to bury any and all the dead animals they can find. It starts with a bee they find in the windowsill, but before long they’ve got a dead hamster called Harold from a neighbour, three fish from a bag in the fridge, a squashed hedgehog from the road and more.
All the animals are laid to rest with great care and kindness. One of the children, who is scared of touching the dead animals, finds his forte is writing hymns for them, whilst they all enjoy making crosses, painting gravestones and planting flowers. Over the course of the day they create a beautiful cemetery in their secret clearing at the bottom of the secret path.
As the day draws to a close and they are heading home, they witness death actually taking place – a bird flies into a window and with a flutter and a shudder dies at their feet. The game suddenly takes on a whole new meaning, and as they give the blackbird their most beautiful send off “sadness lay like a black quilt over the clearing“.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Yes, it is about death, but it is so full of kindness, thoughtfulness and humour that the topic isn’t frightening or disturbing. Most picture books I’ve read about death I probably wouldn’t introduce to kids unless they were in the process of grieving (cf this round up on death themed picture books I did last year), but All the dear little animals is a perfect book for kids to read about death to raise it as part of life, as part of what we will all witness one way or the other at some point in our lives.
Of course I don’t know for certain, but having read it with M I feel she is much more prepared for the death of a loved one now we’ve had an opportunity to explore what death is like, what it can make ourselves and others feel like: In the context of the book all sorts of questions about death are raised including the idea of one’s own mortality.
It sounds, and is, serious, but M adores this book – it makes her giggle every time we read it, and at the weekend I found her burying plastic toys in the garden and creating elaborate graveside decorations out of dried seed heads, sticks, stones, shells and marbles. Although for some this might appear a little morbid, I felt happy to see her exploring in her own mind something that is so much part of life and yet which is often left unspoken and unexplored with kids because it can be a difficult issue to talk about. And mirroring the final words in the book “the next day we [she] found something else to do. Something completely different.”
All the dear little animals is unquestionably one of the best books I’ve read in the last few months and I urge you to track down a copy whether or not you are interested in Swedish picture books.
Goodbye Mr Muffin is another lovely book by Ulf Nilsson. A family’s guinea pig, Mr Muffin, is old and ailing, and as the story progresses we witness his decline in health, his eventual death, preparations for his funeral and his final journey. A more sombre book than All the dear little animals, Goodbye Mr Muffin struck me as a story that could be profoundly helpful to children if they should have someone they love who is dying, or who has recently died. Not only does it explore some of the nuts and bolts, the practicalities of death, what can happen before and after (such as visits to the doctor, what happens at the graveside, things to do to honour the deceased), it also creates a safe space where kids can think about what death is actually like.
Although the imagery and cultural context is clearly Christian (“The Lord is my Shepherd” is sung at Mr Muffin’s funeral) actually what happens when someone dies and where they go (if anywhere) is dealt with in such a way as to be resonant to many people of any or no religious background, I believe.
I feel really lucky to have discovered these two books – I hope you’ll feel the same if you mange to find copies to read for yourselves.