I went looking for good books on death and grief when my own children became very curious about death, but most of the standard recommended books seemed stilted, dated, and wooden. They lacked heart. But then we found these wonderful books.
Some of the books here brilliantly describe the facts of death (When a Pet Dies for very younger readers, Fox for slightly older readers). Some deal with the death of a pet (When a Pet Dies, Sonya’s Chickens, The Longest Letsgoboy), and others deal with the death of a family member (Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, The Immortal Jellyfish, Grandad’s Camper, Pilu of the Woods, Pencilvania). Brian Selznick’s Kaleidoscope, meanwhile, grapples with unspecified feelings of loss and grief and, like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, could be a source of comfort to adults as well. But all of these books are touching and heartfelt, and some of them are exquisitely beautiful, too.
When a Pet Dies, Fred Rogers [Amazon | Bookshop]
A gentle, masterful book that sensitively explores feelings and encourages conversation
Geared toward the very young, this non-fiction exploration of feelings of grief after a pet’s death is beautifully sensitive. If you’re wondering how to explain death to a toddler, this book provides you with a wonderful, simple model. Along the way, it answers many questions toddlers might ask, like whether a dead pet might still need to eat, or still need care, or whether something could have been done to save it. The book is filled with photographs of children and their pets, and although these pictures might look a bit dated to a parent, young children will find them engaging. And in a book about such an intense subject, looking at pictures of other children attending a pet funeral or feeling sad or angry should be tremendously helpful. As you might expect from Fred Rogers, though, the most powerful part of this book is its treatment of feelings. Patient, reassuring, and accepting, this is a voice we would all be lucky to hear in our times of grief.
Fox: A Circle of Life Story, Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus [Amazon | Bookshop]
This beautiful and frank book about death looks to science to offer comfort
This bittersweet book focuses on the life cycle of a fox mother. During her life, she hunts animals to feed her babies, and after she is struck by a car she, too, becomes food for a wide variety of forest creatures. But although parts of the book are heartbreaking, its perspective is heartening and beautiful: the particles from dead creatures don’t disappear but instead help nourish other life. They are, in fact, recycled into new beginnings for other creatures. The final pages of the book offer a more comprehensive explanation of these ideas – the building blocks of life and decomposition, for example – that is both matter-of-fact and tremendously sensitive. This is a gorgeous book that might give comfort to children who don’t have a religious background (and many of those who do, too).
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake [Amazon | Bookshop]
A masterpiece about grief and sadness, filled with profound feeling and tremendous empathy
Michael Rosen is an absolute treasure of a writer, a unique and irreplaceable voice in children’s literature, and his Sad Book is probably my favorite book about grief and sadness – though I cannot read it without crying. This book is autobiographical, about Rosen’s own sadness after the death of his son Eddie, and its gentle, compassionate frankness about death and grief is somewhat reminiscent of Fred Rogers. But although Rogers’s tone is like that of a warm, consoling parent, Rosen’s is that of a companion, someone who is here in grief with you, who feels it right now, as you do. In other words, this is a book you could open in the depths of grief to experience a sense of fellow feeling. It is a devastating and beautiful masterpiece, from Rosen’s poetic words to Quentin Blake’s soulful illustrations – a book that perfectly captures sadness and sits quietly, understandingly beside you in your grief. It is a gift.
The Immortal Jellyfish, Sang Miao [Amazon | Bookshop]
A gentle, dreamlike fantasy about freedom and release in the afterlife
In this soulful book about a grandfather’s death, a boy journeys in his dreams to Life Transfer City, where the departed choose what form they will take in the next life, the form they will use to visit their loved ones in their dreams. A lion who had been trapped in a circus and “had no freedom while he was alive” chooses “to become a cloud so he could drift freely through the world.” And the boy’s grandfather chooses a new form, too. (And after reading this, many children will want to talk about what form they would choose.) The book’s approach works beautifully with that common response to grief, to see in the appearance of an animal a signal from a lost loved one. And here, too, it’s a beautiful and bittersweet perspective on death as an opportunity for release, freedom, and a kind of joy.
The Mountains of Tibet, Mordicai Gerstein [Amazon | Abebooks]
A peaceful, open-hearted book about a man’s journey to his next life
In this gentle and moving book from the 1980s, a man lives a full life in Tibet and is faced with a choice when he dies: to enter a place some people think of as heaven or to live another life. He chooses to be reincarnated, and the type of life he will live is then up to him. What galaxy, what planet, what country he lives in, which creature he would like to be, and even which parents he would like (sweetly, he sees a sea of potential parents calling out to him, “Come to us! Come be ours!”). Be aware that his final choice is whether he’d like to be born as a boy or a girl. While this decision, to be a boy or a girl, doesn’t fully reflect current ideas about gender, it’s notable that the man opts for exploration: “I seem to remember that I was a boy… This time I’d like to see what being a girl is like.” This joyful and open-hearted portrayal of reincarnation is not only touching but soothing as well – a peaceful book with a gentle heart.
Memory Jars, Vera Brosgol [Amazon | Bookshop]
A sweet and tender tale about grief and vulnerability
Following her grandfather’s death, Freda struggles with time passing, memories fading, and how temporary joy can be. After she learns that blueberry jam can be preserved in jars, she wonders: what else can I save? She goes on a spree, packing all of her favorite experiences into jars — and then she begins jarring her favorite people. There’s a touch of humor to it, but lots of genuine emotion, too, and perceptiveness about how tempting it is to combat grief and anxiety by exercising meticulous control. But Freda’s grandmother’s support helps her to release control and be vulnerable again. After all, even though opening oneself to emotion means fully experiencing grief, it also means fully embracing joy.
Death, Duck, and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch [Amazon | Bookshop]
A delicate, highly unusual book about the interconnectedness of life and death
This German book explores both the moment one realizes one is mortal and the way in which we might come to live peaceably alongside this knowledge. Here, Duck befriends Death, and the two go on outings together and muse about dying and the afterlife. And when Duck finally dies, it is Death who is beside her. The conversations are quite blunt and might startle some adults — Death really doesn’t mince words — but this frankness about death might be appealing to many children. In fact, this was one of my own children’s favorite books about death, one she read repeatedly when she was four. Despite its darkness, I think it’s beautiful and philosophical, and while it might seem quite intense and potentially frightening, my 4-year-old never saw it that way. (Some children might indeed find it scary, so part of me wants to urge a bit of caution, but if I had been that cautious, my child might not have read this book, which meant so much to her.)
The Rough Patch, Brian Lies [Amazon | Bookshop]
A delicate encouragement to remain open to new love after loss
Evan and his pet dog are the best of friends, and together they lovingly tend to Evan’s garden. But when his dog dies, Evan is so heartbroken that he can no longer bear the lush and thriving beauty of his garden — not without his friend. So he hacks it to pieces to make it reflect the anger and despair he feels inside. And that’s how it stays until a small pumpkin vine creeps into his garden and helps Evan begin to deal with his grief. Small step by small step, he opens up to life again. He isn’t ready for a new friend until, suddenly… he is. Evan’s response to grief is a common one: why love again, when it only leads to pain? But this sweet book encourages us not to shut out the world — to remain open to love, to have hope.
Up the Mountain Path, Marianne Dubuc [Amazon | Bookshop]
A gentle, peaceful tale about the pleasures of passing down traditions — and carrying them on after a loved one’s death
Mrs. Badger has a beloved tradition: every Sunday, she walks from her cottage to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, greeting and helping animal friends along the way. One day she meets a little kitten named Lulu and takes her under her wing, showing her how to climb the mountain and be a kind caretaker of nature. Over time, their roles reverse, and Lulu cares for her friend until Mrs. Badger passes away. Mrs. Badger’s death is dealt with indirectly and never definitively announced, but the Sunday walk up Sugarloaf Mountain becomes Lulu’s tradition, one she begins to pass down to another kind soul. This is a quiet, gentle book, filled with friendliness and a love of the outdoors, and although still bittersweet, it’s a more upbeat take on grief. Just like climbing a mountain, loving another person involves vulnerability and risk, and Lulu’s bravery allows her rich rewards. She can honor Mrs. Badger by carrying on her traditions — and find solace in those traditions, too.
Grandad’s Camper, Harry Woodgate [Amazon | Bookshop]
A sweet story about grief and connection, featuring older LGBTQ characters
Woodgate noticed that there weren’t many old LGBTQ characters in children’s literature, so they wrote a book about a girl who goes to visit her grandfather, who is still grieving the loss of his beloved husband. He recounts to his granddaughter the many adventures her two grandfathers, Grandad and Gramps, had together in their camper van — a cheerful pink vehicle with a rainbow pride flag streaming behind it. But grandad hasn’t gone on any trips since his partner died, and his granddaughter gently suggests that that should change. Maybe they should go somewhere together? The love and tenderness between her two grandfathers is so beautifully rendered here. Even though it’s painful that Gramps has passed away, there’s still so much pleasure in talking about him, remembering, and honoring him — particularly with those who loved him, too. It’s a tremendously sweet story.
The Longest Letsgoboy, Derrick Wilder and Cátia Chien [Amazon | Bookshop]
A comforting book about the death of a pet that transcends the genre with its inventive, poetic language
This beautiful wildcard of a book is told from the perspective of a family dog, recounting his last day and his journey into death. The dog’s message here is a comforting one: I miss my family, but I’m okay and I’m happy to see you enjoy your life and your new pets. What’s remarkable about the book, though, is its poetic playfulness with language. It might take you a minute to work out the dog’s sweet and inventive vocabulary: “Letsgoboy” is a walk,” “puffers” are clouds, and the woods are filled with “tweeters, branchjumpers, and fuzzhoppers.” One typical page reads, “I hear tweeters’ replies in my one good listener, feel tallsticks’ gentle trembles through diggiedirt.” It’s this unusual take on language that makes the book so refreshing, a read-aloud joy – and a book about death that readers might want to return to even outside of times of grief.
Sonya’s Chickens, Phoebe Wahl [Amazon | Bookshop]
An honest, sympathetic book about life and death in the animal world
Sonya loves and cares for her family’s pet chickens and is distraught when a fox breaks into the coop and carries away one of her beloved animals. Her parents are immensely sympathetic to her distress – it’s very sad – and her dad also explains to her that just as she cares for her chickens and tries to keep them safe and healthy, the fox tries to do the same with its kits. While the chicken’s death is heartbreaking for Sonya, it’s a source of life and comfort for the foxes. This book carefully balances Sonya’s sadness with facts about life and death in the natural world – she’s allowed her feelings, but understanding that her chicken’s death wasn’t random or meaningless takes some of the edge off her pain. In the end, just to be safe, Sonya fixes up the coop and continues to care for her precious pets just as she always has. While the chicken’s death here is genuinely distressing, Sonya’s love for her pets is portrayed with so much tenderness – she, like the fox, is doing the best she can for those in her care.
Pencilvania, Stephanie Watson and Sofia Moore [Amazon | Bookshop]
An immensely touching and creative novel about grief and the life-altering power of art and creative expression
This heart-wrenching and brilliantly creative novel about life after the death of a beloved parent is an intense and wonderful read. Zora and Frankie’s mother promises them that she’ll recover from leukemia, so Zora is not only devastated when her mother dies, but she feels betrayed and angry, too. The two sisters move in with their grandmother, a relative stranger, and Zora is so heartbroken that even her passion for drawing vanishes. But when Zora and Frankie are magically transported to Pencilvania, a world populated with all the drawings Zora has ever made, she has to grapple with her grief and decide the course of her life: Can she bring herself to draw again, if it means saving the loving and supportive citizens of Pencilvania from the power-hungry and evil horse Viscardi? If it means saving her sister? Like in Harold and His Purple Crayon, Zora can draw her way out of problems, but the scale of the universe, and her powers within it, make this idea perhaps even more enchanting. It’s a truly lovely idea, that we might all have a Pencilvania of our own, filled with the friends we created as children. And just as you would hope, this book is bursting with brilliant illustrations. Sofia Moore’s pictures are fantastic, showing not only Zora’s more sophisticated and experimental drawings, but also her early stick figures and scribbles. While reading it, I was reminded so often of Lynda Barry’s thoughts about the aliveness of children’s drawings, their character and charm. To spend a few hours in a world of these drawings is a true pleasure, nostalgic and hopeful and sweet. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and there are magical, lovable characters, too (Airrol the horse, for instance, and the baby-like Eeps). But the novel also aches with loss, with a feeling of real and intense grief, and several adorable Pencilvanians die. Even so, if you’re willing to shed a few tears, the payoff is terrific: Zora’s loss is immense, but her ultimate decision to embrace life and change is tremendously moving, too.
Pilu of the Woods, Mai K. Nguyen [Amazon | Bookshop]
A middle-grade graphic novel that grapples with grief and regret and encourages self-compassion
Willow struggles with overwhelming feelings, especially following her mother’s death. If I bottle them up, she decides, perhaps I can control them, perhaps I’ll be safe. But after a blow-up with her older sister, Willow runs away to the woods and meets another runaway, a magnolia tree spirit, who helps Willow question whether bottling up her feelings is truly helpful. This tender, bittersweet graphic novel is often intense: Willow’s feelings are depicted as cute, ghostly monsters, but at times those monsters fly into a rage. And Willow’s grief about her mother’s death, and about the harsh words she said to her mother in their last conversation, is heavy. But, like Willow, the book confronts the pain head-on and ends with hope and peace. And there’s so much gentleness and caring here, too, with plant and mushroom metaphors and a beautiful forest setting. Of course, there’s also Pilu the magnolia tree spirit — in finding compassion for Pilu, Willow learns how to find compassion for herself, too.
Kaleidoscope, Brian Selznick [Amazon | Bookshop]
A moving, inventive meditation on friendship and loss, for slightly older children and adults
Selznick’s books for middle-grade readers are often hybrid art-stories, as much picture as text, and his new one inserts both art and text into a kaleidoscope and produces something beautiful. Written during the pandemic, the book meditates upon a friendship between the narrator and James — a friendship immensely important and vital, and also one that is permeated with longing and grief. Themes and ideas echo through the brief stories, and although the project might feel a bit aimless at first, meaning and emotion accumulate and compound into something sad, sweet, and deeply affecting. It made me think of two other books I love: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
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