posted in: Amelie Fried, Jackie Gleich, Judith Kerr | 27

On Sunday when I was interviewed by Jojoebi she asked me what advice I had for parents who want their kids to become more engaged with reading and books. I don’t know that I’m the best person to turn to for such advice, but what I did suggest was that kids could be taken to see authors and illustrators live as a way of enthusing them about their books. I’ve seen this work both for kids, and for me.

I’m not Judith Kerr‘s biggest fan – I’ve always loved The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but the Mog stories have rather annoyed me – yet when I heard her interviewed over Christmas she came across as such an amazing, graceful, thoughtful person I was inspired to see out her books again and read them afresh. Ok, so it wasn’t quite seeing her “live”, but the point is, hearing her speak as a person, not words on a page… well it made me feel excited and interested and curious.

My Henry by Judith Kerr is a eulogy on a loved one, who has died. An old lady sits in her comfy care-home chair and imagines all the trips she can still take, albeit in her dreams, with her husband who has passed away. He may be physically gone, but she is still able to enjoy adventures with him whether they be riding dinosaurs or unicorns, hunting for lions or climbing Everest.

This heartbreakingly tender love letter, dedicated to Kerr’s deceased husband Tom, is told in lilting rhyme, making it an enjoyable book to read aloud. Kerr’s pastel pencil illustrations are soft and gentle, matching the tone of the text perfectly. Whilst tinged with sadness, it’s actually so full of love and imagination the book feels optimistic. I can’t help but wonder if, when I am old and alone, I will remember it and find solace in Kerr’s passion and poetry.

I think My Henry would be a great book for talking about people’s inner lives, and building up an awareness that we all have so much going on in our heads that other people never find out about, or even consider is happening. A book that can help develop skills of empathy is one to be valued!

This also might be the right book to read before going to visit old relatives – especially if the kids consider it “boring” or unpleasant. M has actually rather taken to this book – I think this is because the dream adventures undertaken are exactly the sort of adventures M would like to set off on!


Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? by Amelie Fried, illustrated by Jacky Gleich is a book I chose to read as part of the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge over at Gathering Books. Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for best picture book in 1998 (by coincidence Kerr has also won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, for the German translation of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit).

Whereas My Henry made my heart tighten, Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? left me sobbing.

Bruno’s grandfather has died. At the funeral Bruno is confused and curious – has Grandpa really died or is he just sleeping? Where has he really gone – into the ground or up to heaven? The answers the adults give to his questions don’t seem to make sense. Contradictions abound; after the funeral when so many adults were in tears, the mourners share a funny stories over a meal. “Bruno can’t understand why there was never a celebration like this while Grandpa was alive.” Then there’s Grandpa’s room, which looks like it always has, except tidier. So has Grandpa returned?

Bruno turns words over in his head like “burial”, “inherit”, “soul” as he tries to make sense of what has happened. He is not frightened but instead curious in a calm sort of way. However, as days pass his feelings change. First he is furious with his Grandfather for leaving without making good his promise to take him fishing. Then, suddenly sorrow catches up with him and Bruno cries for the first time.

At first, Bruno feels a pain in his chest. He thinks that maybe there’s a hole in his heart. Every night before going to bed, he looks at his grandpa’ picture and says, “I’ll never forget you.”
He makes this promise every day. Sometimes he can feel Grandpa smiling at him from far away.
Bruno feels the hole in his heart slowly closing up.

Time moves on, slowly life returns to a sort of normal, and a new baby is born into the extended family. Bruno comes to terms with his Grandpa’s death but he will never forget him.

Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? deals with death and grieving in a very honest, upfront way. There are descriptions of the wake with an open coffin, the funeral procession and service, and the burial as well as the range of emotions the family experiences in the months after Grandpa’s death. Whilst some parents might find the content too “explicit”, I felt the story was told with a quiet, reassuring calmness that made me quite happy to share this story with M and J.

Illustration from Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit? Copyright: Jacky Gleich

If I’m honest the illustrations – rather grimy looking pictures mostly in various shades of brown – did not immediately grab me. But now, I can’t imagine any other illustrations to go with this text. Having read the story numerous times, Gleich’s pictures match the sombre but un-threatening approach taken by Fried, and also speak to me of the European village setting of this tale, with wooden houses and a time perhaps now gone.

Despite the sobbing, I’m so very glad I’ve read this book. It’s powerful, sensitive, thought-provoking and reassuring. If you thought A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was a great book, I think you will feel similarly about this one. I do hope you’ll be able to find a copy to read.


As with all children’s books on death it’s perhaps hard to know who would pick up these books, and when. I’ve read several books about death (these and these) with my kids as just part of our everyday reading. I’m not sure how much they’ve “got” them, but in reading the books on ordinary everyday-days I hope I’ve done a little bit to dispel fear and taboo around death, and that when that time does come and death is part of our family, the kids might remember the books and feel less alone, or less confused, or somewhat comforted as they pull them off our shelves.

27 Responses

  1. Stacey

    Gosh… I always feel like it’s so important to have books on hand for the yucky stuff. I’ll be sure to add these to our list.
    Stacey recently posted..Awards

  2. Lori @ RRSAHM

    Thanks for this- I’ll have to track down Is Grandpa Wearing A Suit? for my four year old. My husband- his dad- passed away just over a year ago, and there are only a handful of books I’ve found that approach the subject without using too many metaphors or being just too… florid.

    There is a brilliant book called Duck, Death and The Tulip. It is, I think, a book for older children- but I take much comfort from it and it’s quite beautiful.
    Lori @ RRSAHM recently posted..The Catalogue of Loss

  3. Zoe

    Hi Stacey, Helena, Lori,
    I think these books a great to have on hand not just for the kids, but for grown ups too.

    Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit is definitely very sensitive, and is quite unusual in the children’s books on death that I’ve read in that it is so grounded in reality – no metaphor, no animals.

    Duck, Death and the Tulip is brilliant I agree, Lori. I also really like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

  4. Ranjani

    Dear Zoe
    I drop in here frequently to check out your book reviews and the amazing activities that you do with your kids.Thanks for the pointers to these books..they seem very appropriate to handle a sensitive subject. I have also felt very touched by Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

    Btw, I ordered the book “What goes on in my head” for my 9 year old, after seeing your review. It is a fantastic book, which is being enjoyed by all of us at home !

  5. Bill Kirk

    When my father-in-law passed away a few years ago, my wife and our 9 year old grandson and I went to the funeral, which included a viewing. Everyone had an opportunity to place something in the casket for grandpa to take with him. Our grandson drew a picture of him and his great grandpa fishing in a boat with a note saying when he (our grandson) gets to heaven, he’ll go fishing with great grandpa again. Thanks for sharing your comments about this book.

  6. sandhya

    A wonderful collection of books, which would really help little ones deal with loss.

    A had goldfish when she was 7. They died inexplicably, and we had to pretend that they were just unconscious as she was distraught. Later, I came across a book ‘Goodbye Mousie’ by Robie H. Harris and Jan Ormerod. It was a wonderful book to introduce the concept of a loved one passing away, and we could finally come to terms of the death of the goldfish.
    sandhya recently posted..Whose name means ‘Bright/ Radiant’

  7. Elli

    I’ve got a tendency to weep at the end of many children’s books – they don’t have to be even vaguely about death. One that always gets me is Oliver Jeffers’ ‘How to Catch a Star’ – I’m always desperately trying not to lose it by the end. So I’m not sure I’d be very good at reading these books aloud to my children, but I agree that they look fantastic resources. And I’m proud of my daughter for reading ‘Anne Frank’ aged 9, despite the librarian trying to warn her off it. It’s important that children read about these things.
    Elli recently posted..Dear Mr Waiter

  8. Library Mice

    Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle is a sad and yet beautifully hopefull book about death and grief. Gets me everytime!
    Library Mice recently posted..Grace

  9. Myra from GatheringBooks

    Hi Zoe, such a gripping 2-in-1 review of books that deal with such an important issue. These are unfamiliar titles to me, so I just checked our online database and we have both books here! Have placed both on reserve. I’m now bookmarking your post. 🙂

    Have you heard of the Newbery Honor Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles (illustrated by Peter Parnall) – I’m not even sure why it’s a Newbery book, since it’s a picture book (shouldn’t it be a Caldecott Honor book then? I get so confused on occasion). Anyways, that’s also a good book that you can explore that deals with grieving. Lovely illustrations as well.
    Myra from GatheringBooks recently posted..AWB 2012 Database

  10. Victoria

    I’ve loved Judith Kerr since I was old enough to read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I bought it recently to see if it was suitable for my 9yo (just about) and loved re-reading it.
    Victoria recently posted..Dickens’ London

  11. Elli

    Thanks Library Mice – ‘The Heart and the Bottle’ is one I didn’t know. I’m sure I’d be blubbing my heart out by the end though!
    Elli recently posted..Dear Mr Waiter

  12. Sam

    I just got this from the library and I’m afraid I was blubbing at the end of it. My OH came home from work and I was telling him about the story and burst into tears again. Oh dear! The next day I read Sniff by Yokococo about a dog pining for granny – tears again 🙁


  13. Zoe

    Ah! I wish I could have threaded comments so I could reply properly to each one of you…

    Ranjani, especially lovely to hear from you. And I’m so pleased you’ve enjoyed What goes on in my head – I’m always aware when writing reviews that my reviews are personal, and what I/we feel about a book, so am a little nervous when I find out people have got books based on my reviews.

    Bill, thank you for sharing the memories of your father-in-law’s funeral. I do hope you can get hold of a copy of Is Grandpa Wearing a Suit to read, and in a funny sort of way, to enjoy – certainly to appreciate. The text is sophisticated enough to be ok for older kids – eg your son. I don’t think older kids would look at this book and dismiss it because it looks too young for them.

    Susan, your words are so very true. Reading these book, alone and with my kids, has certainly had a powerful effect on me, on me feeling less alone and more connected.

  14. Zoe

    Sandhya – I’m a big fan of Jan Ormerod, so am very happy to have a new-to-me one to look out for.

    Elli – Isn’t it hard, trying to read the book when trying not to cry, and wondering at the same time whether the kids have noticed, or whether they’re worried, or what they make of it.

    Library Mice – Yes, Jeffer’s book is another beautiful meditation on death and grief.

    Myra, no, the book you mention is new to me. Unfortunately it’s not in our library system, but I’ve put it on a wish list. Thankyou. And Thankyou for the challenge – I’ve already read such great books as a result!

  15. Zoe

    Victoria – I still haven’t read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, but I have now reserved it at the library. Thanks for the comment which has acted as a prompt!

    Sam – Sniff is new to me but my library DOES have it, so I’ve reserved it. Thankyou for the suggestion.

  16. Zoe

    Hello The Mad House,
    Yes, I think books can not only help kids understand their own feelings, but they can also help them understand their parents behaviour and grief.

  17. Ali B

    I agree with The Heart and The Bottle. Goodbye Mog is also a beautiful book about death, grieving and life ultimately moving on. I also love Badger’s Parting Gifts. All leave me with a lump in the throat! I had a conversation with some of my students about books dealing with grief and loss, and whether children would find them too upsetting- my argument is that it is rare to find a primary class that isn’t touched by death in some way, whether of a grand parent, family friend or, in one case in my teaching career, the head teacher of the school. By helping children rehearse emotions through reading, I think we empower them to handle hard times. Lovely post, thank you
    Ali B recently posted..Follow the Yellow Brick Road

  18. Mary Jo

    Thanks for the review. I agree that books like, Is Granpa wearing a suit, help children have a better understanding of a difficult part of life.

  19. choxbox

    Btw came across My Henry recently – agree, it is awesome. Love The Tiger Who Came To Tea and not so much the Mog books. Also When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit is excellent.

    Charlotte’s Web is the first book my (then) 6-year old read which dealt with death. I had not read it yet and so could not figure out what had made her so upset. When I read it myself I had a lump in my throat too. Beautifully explained.

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