12 picture books to tackle grief and death

I’ve learned a lot about loss over the last year.

We’ve been lucky not to suffer a bereavement due to Covid or otherwise, but friends have gone through incredibly painful loses which have only been intensified by the loneliness of the lockdown situation.

Not being able to hug a person who is hurting is a truly upsetting situation, even when you know it is for the greater good.

From a professional point of view, I’ve been writing about the topic regularly, speaking to all sorts of inspiring individuals who have coped with unimaginable events and experts who have given me a new insight into grief and what it means.

These people included a dad-of-two who set up a men’s grief charity after his wife was murdered and two mums widowed suddenly both with a son under three, along with the phenomenal Linda Magistris, founder of The Good Grief Trust.

Her mission to remove the taboos and myths around bereavement and how we approach them is one of the reasons I decided to start Party Dress Day in January 2021 and raise money to help the charity. The next one takes place on Friday 28 January 2022.

While we try to shield our children from the most painful aspects of life until they are old enough to understand, this isn’t always possible. Grief is an experience all of us will face at one time or another, whether that’s a pet or grandparent, or in the worst cases, a parent, sibling or friend.

As we mark one year since the lockdown in the UK with a national Day of Reflection, here are a selection of books to open up discussions about grief and death with your child in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. The most important thing is to reach out and talk, not shy away.

1. Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies. £6.99 (paperback), Simon & Schuster

Syd loves Grandad very much and often pops round to his house for a visit. One day Grandad leads his through a special door in the attic – and they set off on an unforgettable voyage to a tropical island far away.

After exploring this new world together, Grandad has some news for his beloved grandson. He has decided to stay and after a final farewell, Syd has to sail home alone, through rough and scary seas.

But while he misses his loved one, he will always have his happy memories and best of all, he knows Grandad is safe too. The story is touching and Benji Davies’s cinematic illustrations make this a book that will stay with you. Buy from Amazon

We meet Benji Davies

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb

2. The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb. £6.99 (paperback), Macmillan

Fans of Julia Donaldson’s fantastical stories will find this book about a little girl, her mum and a string of paper dolls a departure from her usual style.

It’s one of her few tales set in the real world and is incredibly emotionally evocative, following the child as she takes her homemade companions on all sorts of adventures dreamt up in her imagination. The five of them face peril but they bravely survive – until one heartbreaking day when we realise they are not as invincible as we assumed.

One of Julia’s sons, Hamish, lived with mental illness from childhood and sadly took his own life in his twenties. This story is her most personal, inspired by his vivid imagination and her experiences of letting him go.

The final scenes of the girl learning to live on without her precious dolls, and later making a new set with her own daughter, will likely leave you with a tear in your eye as much as it will your child. It is sad but at the same time, utterly life-affirming. Buy from Amazon

We meet Julia Donaldson

3. Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr. £6.99 (paperback), HarperCollins Children’s

Judith Kerr had a magical knack of taking inspiration from her everyday life and turning it into stories that speak to multiple generations, mixing humour and wisdom all at once.

The Mog books about a catastrophic pet cat and her long-suffering but adoring family was inspired by her own family pet and her longest running character, starring in 17 stories.

The last one is Goodbye Mog, published when the writer was 79 and realised “one would be an idiot not to think about it at my age. I just suddenly thought I must do something that nobody ever mentions too much. We’ve had eight cats and they’re all buried in the garden now.”

The story is beautifully done. Mog is very old and tired, and passes away, but her spirits sticks around to see how the Thomas family are coping. They are not doing well but eventually, a new kitten arrives, who is very nervous and stupid.

As a parting gift to her family, Mog helps the new addition to settle in before floating off into her future – just as Debbie reflects how she will never forget the pet that came before. Buy from Amazon

What we’re reading: The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr

4. The Biggest Thing Of All by Kathryn Thurman and Romina qqq. £6.99 (paperback), Upside Down Books

This poignant and beautifully illustrated story gently explains death and grief using the connectedness and continuity of nature and families, in a sensitive and simple way. It also features a mixed race family, who are often underrepresented in picture books.

Lily works in the garden with her grandparents to grow flowers and they explain to her how everything from the ants to the stars are part of something bigger. When her grandma becomes poorly, the family rally round to care for her until the day she is no longer there.

Grandpa stays in his room with his sadness and Lily cries and feels angry, until the winter turns to spring, the garden returns to life and everyone who loved Grandma comes together to share their memories and realise her love lives on.

It’s incredibly touching. Buy from Amazon

25 picture books with Black, Asian and minority ethic main characters

5. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. £7.99 (paperback), Penguin

The animated version may be synonymous with Christmas, but the original picture book bares no trace of the festive season at all and Raymond Briggs was inspired to write it following his own experiences of grief, with an intentionally sad conclusion.

An only child, the author lost both of his parents to cancer within two months in 1971 and his wife Jean to leukaemia two years later. The couple had not had children due to her schizophrenia, leaving Raymond alone in the world.

He said of the book: “I don’t believe in happy endings. Children have got to face death sooner or later.”

In his classic, wordless masterpiece, he celebrates childhood’s simple joys and everyday heartbreaks, as James and his snowman play while the rest of the world sleeps. But inevitably, after a magical night of soaring through the skies, the pair have to part and the snowman melts away.

The ending gets you every time but is a wonderful way to introduce children as young as two to the concept of losing someone who love and the value of happy memories. Buy from Amazon

6. Missing Mummy: A Book About Bereavement by Rebecca Cobb. £7.99 (paperback), Macmillan

Acclaimed author-illustrator Rebecca Cobb’s touching book about losing a parent does a superb job of stepping into a grieving child’s shoes. It covers the gamut of emotions they might experience – confusion, anger, sadness, jealously, guilt – and addresses them in a reassuring way.

Her artwork aesthetic that mirrors children’s drawings is perfectly suited to the difficult themes and the book doesn’t shy away from funerals or tears, balancing them with plenty of displays of love between the bereaved family and a few humorous touches. It’s warm, honest and full of hope. Buy from Amazon

7. Arno and his Horse by Jane Godwin, pictures by Felicita Sala. £11.99 (hardback), Scribble UK

Losing a favourite toy is heartbreaking when you are small but when Arno’s little horse goes missing, his distress is down to more than just fondness. The wooden animal was crafted by his late grandfather and is his link to the person he is grieving and the stories he told him.

Beautifully illustrated with earthy colours and a diverse cast of characters, with sensitive rhyming text, Arno and his Horse explores how memory and objects can connect us to the people and things we love, even after we lose them. Buy from Amazon

8. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. £6.99 (paperback), Walker

The untimely death of Michael Rosen’s son Eddie from meningitis, aged just 18, was the inspiration for this breathtaking exploration of sadness for primary school aged children. The former Children’s Laureate is brutally honest about the ways his sadness affects him and what he does to cope with it, like plastering on a big smile when he is anything by happy.

Master illustrator Quentin Blake does a wonderful job interpreting Michael’s moving words, with images of the writer and gorgeous use of light and dark to convey emotion. To make such complex, painful topics for a young audience is quite an achievement and this story is for anyone, of any age, to reflect on the things that make us sad and feel not so alone. Buy from Amazon

9. Ivy and the Rock by Jess Childs, illustrated by Heather May Williams. £5.99 (paperback), Bumblebee Books

A parent is like a rock, giving a child solid support as they grow and a reliable place to return to. But losing them is a sad inevitability of life.  This is the experience of Ivy Jones, whose colourful stone is her companion in the Wildest Wood, helping her to explore the flowers and venture further afield.

So what do you do when your rock is no longer there? The moral of this gentle rhyming book is that beneath the rock are the roots of everything you are and the love that linked you.

Author Jess Childs has done a lovely job of explaining this tough topic for children, with the story’s verse inspired by a poem she wrote and read at her own father’s funeral. Buy from Amazon

10. The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. £6.99 (paperback), HarperCollins Children’s

With love comes loss and to experience the best emotions in life, you need to feel the worst of them too. This is the important message of Oliver Jeffers’s exquisite story about a little girl who loses his grandfather and finds a way to protect herself from the pain that brings.

After finding his chair empty, she puts her heart in a bottle that she wears around her neck – but while it is safe from harm, her heart can no longer enjoy all the wonders of the world, like the sea and stars. As she grows older, the bottle gets heavy too and she enlists another little girl to help her rescue her heart and her curiosity from inside. Buy from Amazon

What we’re reading: The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers

11 The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr. £12.99 (hardback), Little, Brown

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone. You might not know how to feel. So let bestselling American author Todd Parr guide you through the emotions, from sad to mad, wanting to hide to struggling to find joy.

What’s so beautiful about this simple story is how uncomplicated it is while simultaneously explaining a very complicated and deeply emotional experience to children. Todd uses bold and bright artwork, with a goldfish who has lost its tank companion as the main character, to show that its normal to find the death of a loved one hard – but there is always someone to love you and memories to keep you warm. Buy from Amazon

12 My Henry by Judith Kerr. £6.99 (paperback), HarperCollins Children’s

The death of a partner is a rare subject for picture books but in the hands of the masterful Judith Kerr, it becomes a poignant and celebratory children’s story. The widowed central character spends her days reminiscing about happy times with her late husband Henry, meeting him in her imagination each day for magical adventures.

The elderly couple ride on unicorns, climb Everest and have treetop tea parties, but sometimes they just sit together and think about the simple joys of their life together. Combined with Judith’s soft drawings and rhyming text, it is a beautiful example of how loved ones live on in our hearts and minds even when they’ve “got their wings”. Buy from Amazon

Read more…
Three books to help your child’s fear of the dark
10 of the best picture books about love
16 of our favourite stories about amazing mums

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