Discussing a Difficult Topic: Death

I have long believed that having a discussion about death with a child is much easier when you’re discussing a fictional character than it is when the deceased is someone the child knows, or a loved one. It is a fortunate opportunity to be able to broach the topic of death with a child while not in the midst of grieving yourself.

However, life does not always allow for us to choose our timing. Should you find yourself in the position of having to discuss death with a young person, I hope you find the following list of books to be helpful. All of the titles are appropriate for raising the topic of death, and I have indicated when a book might be more suited to a specific situation.

 

Fiction books that deal with the death of a character:

 

Goodbye MousieGoodbyeMousie

Picture book

Ages 2-8

By Robie H. Harris

Illustrated by Jan Ormerod

32 pages

Aladdin

2004

When a young boy discovers his pet mouse has died, he’s full of questions. He slowly comes to accept that Mousie is gone, but first goes through disbelief and anger. He and his family prepare a burial for Mousie. The boy comes to realize that maybe someday he will have another Mousie, but not just yet.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a pet.

 

The Invisible StringInvisible-String

Picture book

Ages 3-8

By Patrice Karst

Illustrated by Geoff Stevenson

36 pages

DeVorrs & Company

2000

 

Mom tells her twins, Jeremy and Liza, that an invisible string of love connects them—and all people who love each other—and neither distance nor death can sever that string.

Though no character in this story actually dies, it is still appropriate for discussing death in general. It’s also a wonderful book for dealing with separation anxiety.

 

I’ll Always Love YouIllAlways-001

Picture book

Ages 3-8

By Hans Wilhelm

32 pages

Dragonfly Books

1988

 

Elsie (a dog) and her boy spend many happy years together. Every night the boy tells Elsie, “I’ll always love you.” When Elsie passes, the family grieves and holds a memorial service. The boy is not ready for another pet but when he is, every night he will tell the new pet, “I’ll always love you.”

Appropriate for discussing the death of a pet.

 

The Story of Babarthe story of babar

Picture book

Ages 3-9

By Jean de Brunhoff

56 pages

Random House

1937

 

In the first few pages of this classic book, “a wicked hunter” kills Babar’s mother. Babar is very sad, and must run away to flee the hunter. After several days, Babar enters a town and is soon befriended by a kind woman. He gains an education, returns to his home and is crowned the King of the Elephants.

Appropriate for broaching the subject of death in general.

 

Old PigOldPig

Picture book

Ages 3-9

By Margaret Wild

Illustrated by Ron Brooks

32 pages

Allen & Unwin

2010

 

Old Pig and Granddaughter have lived together for a long time; they do everything together. Old Pig senses her time is coming, and she works to put her affairs in order. The two pigs share one last lovely night, enjoying life together while they can. The final illustration features the young pig, alone.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a grandparent, elderly person or person whose condition allows for preparations prior to death.

 

Badger’s Parting GiftsBadger

Picture book

Ages 3-9

By Susan Varley

32 pages

HarperCollins

1992

 

Badger is very old, and knows that the end of his life is approaching. He’s not afraid, but he worries about his friends and how they will feel when he’s gone. After a day spent watching Mole and Frog run and play he sits down and pens a letter, then falls asleep. He has a wonderful dream; he’s running down a long tunnel. He feels fast, and strong, and free.

“It was as if he had fallen out of his body.”

Badger’s friends are very sad about his passing, but he lives on in their memories and through his final gifts to them.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a grandparent, elderly person or person whose condition allows for preparations prior to death.

 

Nana Upstairs, Nana DownstairsNana

Picture book

Ages 3-9

By Tomie dePaola

32 pages

Puffin

2003

Originally published in 1973, dePaola revised the text and redid the art in full color for this edition.

 

Tommy loves his grandmothers and loves visiting their home; his grandmother is always busy downstairs, and his great grandmother, who lives upstairs, is always in bed. When Tommy’s mother tells him that Nana upstairs has died, he struggles with saying goodbye. His mother explains to him that she will always be in his memory to visit whenever he needs.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a grandparent.

 

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All AgesFreddie

Picture book

Ages 4-8

By Leo Buscalglia

32 pages

Slack Incorporated

1982

 

Freddie the Leaf goes through all the seasons with his companion leaves and learns that death is a part of all life. Explaining death and new life in a cycle that children can relate to, it is also an excellent metaphor for the phases of life.

Appropriate for discussing death in general.

 

The Tenth Good Thing about BarneyBarney

Picture book

Ages 4-10

By Judith Viorst

Illustrated by Erik Blegvad

32 pages

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

1987

 

When the boy’s pet cat, Barney, dies, his mother tells him he should think of ten good things to say about Barney at the funeral. But the boy can only think of nine. When the family plants some flowers over Barney’s grave, the boy comes up with a tenth good thing and is reassured knowing that Barney’s remains will help those flowers grow.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a pet.

 

The Van Gogh CaféVGC

Middle Reader

Ages 4-10

By Cynthia Rylant

64 pages

Harcourt Brace

1995

 

An unfamiliar old man comes into the café one cold winter morning. Marc, the café owner, recognizes the man—a famous silent film star. The day passes and customers come and go but the silent star stays, gazing out the window. When all the other customers have left, Marc approaches the man and expresses his appreciation for the man’s work. Marc and his daughter sit with him and talk about his movies. The man says he is waiting for a friend and stays past café hours.

Marc leaves the man to wait. When he returns later to check on him, he finds the man has died. The star had been holding a photograph and a newspaper clipping; Marc and his daughter keep those items and place them by their cash register. Deeply touched by the experience, the two make time each Christmas to remember the star.

This is but one chapter in a wholly amazing book. See this review.

Appropriate for discussing death in general.

 

Sun and SpoonSunSpoon

Middle reader

Ages 7-12

By Kevin Henkes

144 pages

Greenwillow

2007

 

Since the death of his grandmother two months ago, Spoon has been dreaming about her. The dreams are becoming less frequent and beginning to grow fuzzy. Spoon worries that his memories of her will disappear and is desperate to find some way to help him hold on to those memories. He steals a deck of solitaire cards from his grandparent’s house and soon learns that his grandfather also found solace in that deck of cards.

Appropriate for discussing the death of a grandparent.

 

Bridge to Terabithiaterabithia

Middle reader

Ages 8 and up

By Katherine Patterson

144 pages

HarperCollins

1987

 

Jess wants nothing more than to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade, but a new girl in town, Leslie, takes that position. Despite this, the two become best friends and create a magical kingdom, Terabithia, just for them. The only way to get to Terabithia is to swing across a gully on an enchanted rope.

When Jess is away one day, Leslie attempts to go to their magic kingdom alone and dies in a fall. Jess must find a way to go on and discovers that the strength and courage he learned from her helps him deal with the loss.

When I was in seventh grade a classmate, and close friend, died. He was hit by a car while riding his bike. I’m certain, that no matter how long I live, I will never forget the scene of his funeral and the many young people struggling to understand such a tragedy. I think this book may have been a great comfort to me then.

Appropriate for dealing with an unexpected death, or death of a young person.

 

Non-fiction guides for discussing death:

 

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding DeathWhenDinosDie

Picture Book

Ages 2-10

By Laurie Krasny Brown

Illustrated by Marc Brown

32 pages

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

1998

 

Explains death, its emotional impact and various customs associated with it, directly and frankly. An excellent book for addressing the reality that death can strike people of all ages, and under various circumstances (including suicide and drug abuse).

This book is an excellent guide and can be used according to your specific needs. If there are aspects of this book you’d rather not have your young ones exposed to just yet, you can simply skip them; pick and choose what is appropriate for your child and your circumstances. Contains a helpful glossary of terms at the back of the book.

 

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Childrenlifetimes

Picture book

Ages 3-9

By Bryan Mellonie

Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

40 pages

Bantam

1983

 

Discusses beginnings, endings and the life in between in a universal way. All living things—plants, animals, insects and people—must die; it’s an unavoidable part of life.

 

I Miss You: A First Look at DeathImissYou

Picture book

Ages 4-9

By Pat Thomas

Illustrated by Leslie Harker

32 pages

Barron’s Educational Series

2001

 

Using a simple and direct approach, and covering various circumstances, this book also seeks to reassure children that the emotions they feel are normal and natural. Allowing that no one truly knows what happens after death, it explains that most cultures believe the soul lives on. Contains a helpful glossary of terms at the back of the book.

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22 Responses so far

  1. 1

    This post was a great help for me, there are brilliant ideas to apply with children. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. 2

    [...] favourite post from Turtle and Robot is one of her more recent ones.  Discussing a Difficult Topic: Death provides parents with a carefully vetted list of sensitively written and beautifully illustrated [...]

  3. 3

    becky6259 said,

    Fantastic list of books for future reference–thank you so much for posting it!

  4. 4

    Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed your descriptions and while several brought tears to my eyes, I like knowing that there are reseources out there to help kids (and adults) deal with this difficult subject.

  5. 5

    Olivia May said,

    Discussing death is always difficult, with young child or old child or adult or with oneself, very helpful topic, thank you!

  6. 6

    VancouverDad said,

    Thanks for this list. Your sister-in-law recommended your site – glad she did. And another friend was just recently looking for ways to describe death to her kids. Mine are almost ready for the same explanation – so I am keeping this list tucked away for the future. Thanks again. :-)

  7. 7

    WhoIsMyGuru said,

    The books on this list are beautiful – just reading the summary of The Old Pig brought tears to my eyes. If I ever needed it, I think I would have to pre-read the book many times first. Thanks for the list!


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