I don’t know about all you, my fellow Cannonballers, but I’m the go-to book person in most of my circles. I would be very upset if this were not true, in fact. Especially when it comes to picture books, which are what I’m both most educated in and most passionate about. But this means, that a lot of times I get asked about “What are good books about X hard thing?” and – while I almost always have a few essential recommendations for every given X, I also like to stay as up to date and informed as I can about new books. Which just means that – for the purposes of this review, anyways – sometimes I spend an entire week reading picture books about death, dying and grief, so other people don’t have to.
First thing: I’m still dealing with Long Covid, so I can’t leave the house, so libraries and bookstores, thrift stores – my usual trolling spots – are out for now, so these are all books I could read on my Kindle app, most of them free, through Kindle Unlimited. I’m going to give interlibrary loan & pickup via nephew a try soon, but for now, these are all accessible via Amazon. Second, you need to know is that I am not religious (I consider myself, in fact, anti-religious), so religious books are not going to do well on my personal metric here, for multiple reasons. A) I do not find them personally comforting, nor would I find them comforting to pass on to the littles in my life and b) as a former public school teacher, I could never have used those books as a resource in my classroom, no matter how good the rest of the topics are handled. I am including them here though, just so that if you are religious, you’ll know there are some not-horrible (or 30+ years old) options.
So let’s start there: The 2-star religious books.
Forever in Our Hearts by Kristina Andrade is a very good book about miscarriage for Christian people to read to their children. It’s BY religious people who’ve experienced pregnancy loss – both the author and the illustrator mention at the end of the book that they’ve experienced miscarriages, and I think that pain and confusion and difficulty of that situation is evident in the writing & illustrations. The book did an incredible job of explaining what a miscarriage is, and how kids could be feeling a lot of feelings – especially feelings they’re unfamiliar with, like seeing their parents be sad. It’s just that the means of comforting the children in the story is Jesus. And Heaven and God’s Plan. And, as a recovering Catholic, I just don’t find those explanations comforting, and wouldn’t feel comfortable passing them on to any children I’d be trying to comfort in this situation. So this book is just not for me, even though I can recognize that it is well written, and comes from a place of both understanding and hope. Hopefully, though, any people who do find religion comforting will find this book and be able to experience the real, deep, faith this author has in God’s plan.
Home in Heaven by Stefan Waidelich was another Jesus-is-my-comfort-in-hard-times book about grieving, this time about the death of a grandmother. Let me say, again, here, that the non-God parts of the book – the kid not understanding anything that was happening, the parents using metaphors and overly disguised language that she couldn’t figure out, the idea of death ushering in other major life changes (like moving, and seeing your parents grieving) – were excellent. It’s just that I cannot find the comfort in a this book the way it is intended to be comforting, so 2 stars.
Lulu Faces Loss & Finds Encouragement by Danica Thurber gets 5 stars from me, for its gracious, generous & thoughtful portrayal of an illness that leads to death, as seen through the eye of a child. Lulu is a school age character of color who loves her Grandma and all the fun things they do together, especially gardening. But her grandmother starts not feeling well, and over the course of the book, she dies of her illness. It’s a story many of us are sadly familiar with, but the part that Thurber manages to capture so well is the gradualness of the whole thing, from Lulu’s point of view. When Lulu’s teacher tells her class about encouragement, she decides that is just what her grandmother needs most, and so, at every weekly visit, Lulu brings something new to encourage her Grandma – ranging from a pot full of paper hand/heart flowers to balloons, to her teddy bear so she won’t be lonely when Lulu’s not there. And during each of these visits, the reader can see the grandmother’s incremental decline, and Lulu sees that Grandma is getting worse (she can’t open her eyes in the last few visits, or even smile at her final visit), but she doesn’t necessarily know what that means, even though her mom and Grandpa are explaining that Grandma is “very sick” the whole time. She’s still pretty surprised when her grandmother dies, and that’s so real.
As somebody who has literally helped small children through the process of illness leading into dying (unfortunately more than once), I can vouch 100% for the validity of that shock: No matter how many discussions you’ve had about death, and how it’s coming, and what it means, some kids just don’t understand what you’re talking about – the ‘not coming back’ aspect, in particular – until they experience it. In part, because they are small children: Depending on their age – for example, if they’re very young – the concepts of ‘forever’ or ‘always’ may not even be a thing they can comprehend. But even if they are Lulu’s age, and it seems like they’re understanding all the explanations along the way, the actual dying can still be a real shock, and I think the author captured that feeling really well.
The best part of Lulu Faces Loss & Finds Encouragement, for me, was that the author then continued the story after her grandmother’s passing. We see Lulu and her mom & Grandpa facing their loss together, we see them grieving and being sad, we see them embracing & encouraging each other through the hardest days. The idea that Lulu is an active participant in both the loss and encouragement aspects of death and grieving is the selling point of this story for me: It gives kids a way to move forward in their grief, letting them feel like there are concrete steps to take in order to help them – and their families – heal. Too often, books about grieving for younger children forget that they might feel helpless in this new arena of their lives, and don’t give them tools to help them feel more in control while they’re going through it.
Being honest – As an adult, we know there is no truly “controlling” grief or grieving or how we do that.
But there are things we can do to feel more in control, things we all do to help manage our emotions and get us through the really rough days (even if those things are just ‘curling up on the couch and watching Clue for the 197th time, because you know it will make you smile’). Little kids don’t know that grief – that sharp, hollow you out in the center, make you forget that you’ve ever been happy in your life grief – doesn’t last forever. They don’t have tools to cope with those feelings and know they can survive them, until we give them to them.
Lulu Faces Loss & Finds Encouragement is just one way to help give kids those tools. I’ve got a couple more up my sleeve, reviews upcoming. And if you’re religious, the first two books I’ve mentioned may also be helpful tools for your kids.