Fantastic Fiction for Kids – Death and grief

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This week’s Fantastic Fiction for Kids is once again selected by me, Zoe, at Playing by the book.

Today it is exactly a year since my paternal Grandfather died, and it is with him in my mind and in my heart that I have selected today’s beautiful, but I’m afraid to say heart-breaking books, all about death and grief.

Each of these books has left me in tears, but I nevertheless urge you to read them – they are all beautiful, moving and ultimately full of love.

Falling Angels
by Colin Thompson

Sally is a girl who believes in her dreams, and with this belief comes an ability to fly. Although her mother doesn’t believe her, Sally’s Grandmother does, and Sally delights in flying to beautiful places around the world bring back treasures for her confidante. Sally is so happy when she discovers her Grandmother can also fly:

“So why can’t everyone do it?” Sally asked.
“Becuase they’ve forgotten how to and once it’s forgotten, it never comes back..
Some people see the world with their eyes,
some people see the world with their hearts.
All you have to do is keep your dreams.”

One day Sally’s Grandmother visits all the places she explored as a young child and when she finds her favourite place she takes her last breath and stays there forever.

A book about hope and dreams, exploring how remembering the life of a lost love one can bring great joy, this book will nevertheless make your heart ache. Thompson’s illustrations will transport you, full of intricate detail, secret passage ways and quiet and magical places.

Seven for a Secret by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Jim Coplestone

This gentle, yet powerful book follows an exchange of letters between Ruby and her Grandpa. Ruby lives in a city and life isn’t easy for her parents who don’t have much money. Grandpa lives in the countryside and likes to write about the nature, including the magpies, he can see in his garden. Through the exchange of letters and over time it becomes clear Grandpa is ill. At around the time Ruby’s baby brother is born, Grandpa dies (this juxtaposition of life with death also occurs in Beautiful – see below). When Grandpa dies he leaves his house and another surprise to Ruby’s family enabling them to leave the city with their lives changed for ever.

The format of this book – a story told through letters – is very effective and engaging. The illustrations are delightful and the warmth in Ruby and her Grandpa’s friendship will stay with you long after you’ve finished the story.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake

Michael Rosen wrote this autobiographical book following the death of his own son Eddie (about whose childhood Rosen wrote many very funny poems). It is an honest and up-front book about the feelings you might have following the death of a loved one (“Sometimes this makes me really angry. I say to myself, “How dare he go and die like that? How dare he make me sad.“), and shows how adults as well as children can experience grief. Rosen also writes about how he tries to manage his sadness – by writing, by trying to do one thing each day that makes him feel a little happier, by reminding himself that sad is not the same as bad. Although very raw, containing no eupemisms or metaphors, this book is nevertheless one that could be loved by children, especially because of the familiarity created by Quentin Blake’s as-ever brilliant illustrations.
Beautiful by Susi Gregg Fowler, illustrated by Jim Fowler

Uncle George knows he is ill and so has started gardening with his nephew, hoping that being in the garden and nurturing it once George isn’t around any more will be a comfort to his nephew. George goes away for treatment and the young boy does indeed enjoy looking after their shared garden. Just as the flowers are about ready to bloom Uncle George comes home from hospital – “He’s coming home, but he’s getting sicker. The doctors can’t help any more. Now he just wants to be with us“. George is no longer able to talk but he and his nephew are able to share some beauty in his last days through the beautiful bunches of flowers that the boy picks from his garden.

Death is never mentioned explicitly in this book, where the sorrow and sadness are matched only by the tender love, thoughtfulness, and moments of joy that the family seek out. The pictures are lovely – bright, hopeful images (especially nice nasturtiums), that would delight any gardener. This book might be particularly useful and comforting to read to prepare a child for a death in the family – it deals with hospital visits, nurses and new equipment coming into the home.
Duck, death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

Unlike some other books included in this roundup (which focus on the feelings of those left behind when someone dies) Duck, death and the Tulip explores what it might feel like to face up to one’s own death. Duck is a little unsettled when he first notices Death creeping along behind him, but over the course of time they become friends, even sharing a joke or two. When Duck finally does die, it is a peaceful and reconciled death, without fear but full of love and care. Erlbruch’s illustrations are delightful – uncluttered yet packed full of acute observation, particularly in the facial expressions of Duck and Death.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers’ newest book will not disappoint grown up lovers of this author’s work, where once again his simple text and clean illustrations belie the profundity they hold.

A young girl with a love of life is so hurt by the death of someone dear to her she protects her heart by storing it in a glass bottle. Whilst this ensures she no longer feels sorrow or pain, she also loses her curiosity about the world around her until one day someone is able to set her heart free.

M’s reaction to this book was one of puzzlement. Apart from wanting to know how the person had died she didn’t want anything more to do with it. I fell utterly in love with the book, but I am not yet convinced this will be such a hit with children.

For a fantastic recent interview with Oliver Jeffers take a visit to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Whilst the topic for this week’s Fantastic Fiction for Kids may make some people uncomfortable, each and every one of these books deserves a place on your bookshelves. They have moved me to tears, given me food for thought, brought back memories of friends and family loved and lost, and they have comforted me.

As to reading them with your children I’m not sure that I would recommend any of them unless or until appropriate circumstances arise. I have not read them all with M, but those I did, did not seem to speak to her the way they did to me, even though these books are each so well written and beautifully illustrated they deserve to be read by everyone.

J and my Grandpa

23 Responses

  1. Christianne @ Little Page Turners

    Thank you so much for these recommendations. My father lost a 2-year battle with melanoma last month. My own grief has been so raw I haven’t had the heart to see how my daughter (5) is processing the passing of her grandpa. These books will give me a place to start with her.

  2. Zoe

    Hi Christianne,
    I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I’m thinking of you and your family.

  3. Ian Newbold

    Thank you for bringing these books to my attention, as a young widower I have actually shied a little from reading books about grieving, but as my son develops his grief, they may be a very useful tool. Will probably start with Michael Rosen, just because I love all his other stuff, but thanks for the whole list.

  4. Zoe @ Playing by the book

    Hi Ian,

    The Michael Rosen book is very special, additionally so if you grew up reading his poems about his son. In one way it isn’t like the others I’ve included here – it could be classified as non-fiction, or rather autobiography. I hope it gives you and your son some reasons to smile as well.

    • Zoe

      Wow Maggie – it makes me so happy to see someone else having fun with their little ones partly as a result of what we’ve done here. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of your stART projects!

  5. Choxbox

    Each one sounds like a gem.

    One more to add – though for an older child and maybe slightly on a tangent – Charlotte’s Web. It does not directly address grieving but deals with the concept of death and how life moves on. Awesome.

    My daughter read it on her 6th birthday and was in tears. I was alarmed initially but we both came to terms with it – she with the idea and me with her being introduced to it.

  6. Natalie

    I am sorry about the loss of your grandfather. Easter IS a good time to talk to kids about death and grief. So far we have been fortunate – we haven’t had death in a family for a while, but Anna asks a lot of questions about death still. I want to add a couple of good books to your list – Turtle Girl by Carol Crowe and Rudy’s Pond by Eve Bunting.

  7. Swati

    Death is. The sooner we make friends with it, learn not to be afraid of it, the better it is. When my grandmother passed away, my explanation to my two year old included the connection between old age and death. So, at a shop, in the middle of some other conversation, came this gem – “So, mummy, when I have children, you will be dead” – which shocked that person very much. But I was glad that death was accepted as a part of life.

    Read ‘Annie and the Old One’ by Miska Miles too, for learning about calm acceptance of death.

  8. Maggy, Red Ted Art

    Zoe – now I feel bad… I only “just” realised the topics of your books this week (bad me, I was so excited about all the book and art stuff that wanted “to tell you about” that I didn’t read this post properly!).

    What a brave topic to tackle through books. I think grieving is such an important thing and oftern parents (and individuals) don’t know how, especially when you are trying to explain it to children.

    Thank you for the list. I hope I dont “have to use it” for many years to come, but it will no doubt be useful at some stage to explain about life.

    Thank you. And sorry if my last comment was “General” and therefor insensitive!


  9. Zoe

    Hi Maggy,
    I quite understood your excitement about your project so don’t worry! I know I’ve done similar myself 🙂

  10. Kim Baise

    Great selection of books for this difficult time/subject = the death of a loved one.
    This week my sister Nancy and her 2 girls buried their cat in the back yard. Nancy had Jake the cat for over 20 years. They decorated the grave and the next day her little 4 year old wanted to dig the cat back up!! She missed him so.

  11. Janelle

    What an excellent resource. Thanks so much for the book suggestions. My kids still have two great-grandparents but the time will soon come when they will pass on. Explaining death to young children is extremely difficult and it is helpful to have lists like this to refer to. I also think it is wonderful that the books helped comfort you, too!

  12. sandhya

    A was just 5 when she received a pair of goldfish as a return gift at a b’day party. Unfortunately, we did not know very well how to take care of them and after a few days, both died. A was inconsolable, so we took the weak way out. We somehow convinced her that the fish were merely unconcious, and that if we release them in a pond, the will get revived. So we did. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. But a few months back, we encountered this book-“Goodbye Mousie” by Robie H Harris, and that is when I gently broke it to her. She was quite upset, both with the fact that they were dead, and that we had not told her. We told her that she was too young to really explain it to her, and that we were sorry about it, but did what we felt was the best thing to do at the time. We then went back to that pond to say goodbye to the goldfish.

  13. Andy Weisskoff

    What a beautiful and comprehensive website! Thanks for setting it up.

    I self-published a book called Glass Palace a couple of years ago that was designed for middle grade kids (the 4th/5th grade sweet spot). Since then, adults and children both have found it very helpful for moving through the grieving process. A therapist friend is using it in her grief groups at the elementary school where she works. It recently got a very flattering review that also summarizes the story. If you get the chance to read it, I would love to know if and how it helped.

  14. Should children's books come with warnings?

    […] Blogs are also great for finding book recommendations, and I have purchased a good few children's books based on things I have read around the web. Including this morning no less, when I ordered Michael Rosen's Sad Book, based on a post I read on Playing by the Book. […]

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    […] and exquisite illustration. One book that I haven’t read yet, but is on my list is Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. The review at Playing By the Book suggests a brilliant, though perhaps more […]

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