Saturday, December 19, 2009

Grieving in Picture Books

Earlier this week a few friends and I, teachers all, were making plans to get together for lunch during winter break. One friend reminded us that she's not available on one particular date because it's her son's "death day," the date he and his wife and little boy were killed in a car accident several years ago. She will be spending it with her other children.

For my part, I can assure you that our Christmases haven't been the same since my father died nearly five years ago. The old traditions don't seem to work anymore, and new traditions are still half-formed. Sometimes I'm not sure they'll ever grow into anything at all.

Another friend recently confided in me that she doesn't know what to do about her mother, who can't handle the holidays since her younger daughter died just last year.

Because the holidays are a time for family, they may remind us of family we have lost. And they may not feel particularly frolicsome for other reasons. There are many kinds of loss, including plain old loneliness. Today I am missing my home teaching students. Four of the five will be going back to school in January and I will be assigned new ones—our last day was yesterday.

Books for children about grief or loss—whether of a pet, a grandparent, or even oneself—tend to be didactic or overdone for obvious reasons. Here I will try to highlight the handful of books about death that avoid over-sentimentalizing loss, treating it with respect, compassion, and a subtle human pain.

The first book is new, and it's one I've been wanting to share with you for a couple of months. Australian author Mem Fox is best known for her book, Possum Magic, and for her efforts to promote children's literacy, especially reading with your children. Possum Magic and other books by this author are so cheery that it's almost a shock to come across this tender, solemn tale. The Goblin and the Empty Chair is a demanding book because it unequivocally expects you to read between the lines. Here we have a family consisting of a mother, a father, and a daughter. They are seen through the eyes of a lonely goblin who is basically spying on them, worrying about how sad they are. The goblin has his own problem—he hides his face from everyone because of his horrible looks.

It will make things more clear when I tell you that the book is illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. This story reads like a fairy tale, with some evocation of the tradition of the helpful brownie or household elf. In the Dillons' illustrations, the goblin and the people have a quiet elegance; they certainly aren't cute. The empty chair of the title has two meanings—it represents both the family's loss (see the family portrait on the wall) and the place that may be waiting at the table for a new friend. The Goblin and the Empty Chair isn't the kind of book that tops the bestseller list, but it's one of those hidden gems, especially for a family that has suffered the loss of a child. It's the subtlest, strangest book I've ever seen about death and grief, and I highly recommend it.

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney is Judith Viorst's classic book about the death of a pet, illustrated by Erik Blegvad. In it, the small boy narrator tells about the death of his cat, the funeral in the backyard, his argument about heaven with a neighbor girl, and his list of good things—ending with a new idea about Barney now that he's "in the ground." Viorst doesn't discount the idea of heaven, but takes a pragmatic approach to the mystery. Her depiction of this boy's experience is frank and simply told, touching without being contrived. One reason the book is so effective is that the narrator's parents handle the situation calmly and supportively. I'll let you read about the ten good things for yourself, but here's an excerpt from the funeral:
In the morning my mother wrapped Barney in a yellow scarf. My father buried Barney in the ground by a tree in the yard. Annie, my friend from next door, came over with flowers. And I told good things about Barney... At the end of the funeral we sang a song for Barney. We couldn't remember any cat songs, so we sang one about a pussywillow. Even my father knew the words.
There's a reason the book has been in print for decades!

Badger's Parting Gifts is perhaps the most didactic book I'm spotlighting today, but I think it works. Again, the tone is matter-of-fact, which really helps. Those who don't believe in an afterlife might dislike the fact that Badger is shown going down a kind of tunnel when he dies, and there's a hint of "he's looking down on us from heaven," although this is never stated overtly. But mostly, what's nice about the book is the way it shows how natural death is for the elderly, how sad those left behind will feel, and how sharing memories can bring some comfort. In this case, author-illustrator Susan Varley particularly focuses on what Badger has taught each of the other animals, the "parting gifts" of the title. Nice to know you can communicate the concept of "legacy" to kids without once using the word! The watercolors in this book may remind you of Ernest Shepherd's illustrations for The Wind in the Willows, as they did me. They are just right for telling the story.

The next two books are out of print, so perhaps you can find them at your local library or order them used. Both are about the loss of a grandfather. Jane Yolen's book, Grandad Bill's Song, is illustrated by Melissa Bay Mathis. In it, a young boy asks different family members and a family friend, "What did you do on the day Grandad died?" Every person answers a different way, and the following page gives us that individual's memories of Grandad Bill in "photos," often when he was much younger. So the entire book is a dialogue, but Yolen has written each section as a poem, with the utmost mastery. Here's an example:

Mama, what did you do on the day Grandad died?
I looked in the mirror, and then, son, I lied.
I said to myself that my daddy's not dead.
But the mirror looked back at me, shaking its head.
Isn't that just beautiful? By the end of the book, we realize that the narrator is a little worried about his own reaction to losing his grandad. But his father has an answer for him, and it's a good one. Grandad Bill's Song is a powerful book about how different people react differently to a death, and how that's just fine.

The Magpie Song by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Dan Williams, has more of a narrative feel, although it, too, is structured, in this case by a series of letters between a little girl and her grandfather. Carla, who lives in the city in an apartment, exchanges letters with her grandad, who lives in the country. Carla's parents are struggling financially, and her grandfather is having some health problems. The motif of the old rhyme about magpies is used to tie the grandfather's letters together, and he even carves a magpie for Carla. The endpapers give us the complete rhyme, with themes echoed by different parts of the story ("One for sorrow/Two for joy/Three for a girl...").

In an age when the tie between grandparents and grandchildren is sometimes undervalued, this book shows how important that relationship can be. It's a fairly sophisticated story and the ending jumps chronologically, but I think The Magpie Song is worth a little extra thought. Events are handled subtly; for example, Carla starts writing little letters that just say, "Why haven't you written?"—and readers will realize that her grandfather is seriously ill. Considering that the grandfather's death is evoked rather than described, The Magpie Song is a surprisingly effective book about loss. The author also manages to touch on the connection between the father and the grandfather and even what it means to be true to yourself, all without being heavy-handed or derailing his narrative.

Now, I teach children who are recovering from surgery or seriously ill, and sometimes they die. The last book I'll mention is about the death of a child. It's a small book called The Purple Balloon, and it's by Chris Raschka. The author-illustrator chooses to represent people as balloons. Very few people could make this work, but the incredibly talented Raschka pulls it off. The book begins, "No one likes to talk about dying. It's hard work." First we see an elderly balloon who is going to die, and then we read about a young balloon who is very ill: "There is only one thing harder to talk about than someone old dying—someone young dying." Raschka emphasizes the many people who gather around to offer companionship and support. That's really the focus of the book: "Good help makes dying less hard." I looked through Amazon for alternatives to The Purple Balloon and didn't see anything else with this matter-of-fact quality. One thing I've found as a home teacher is that kids who are dying don't like being fussed over by people dripping with sympathy. They do like plain old, garden-variety human attention, however. (It's surprising how normal you feel when your teacher gives you math homework.)

We all know loss is part of the human condition. Most of the time, the children in our lives won't have to deal with it, at least in the form of death. But when they do, I hope you'll think of these books. Because, unlike platitudes, a good story can offer true comfort.

Suggestions from the Comments:

--Always My Brother by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill
--Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (for older readers, about losing a brother to drug addiction and then death; African American family)
--Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake (some find this too dark; see debate in Amazon customer reviews)
--Tess's Tree by Jess M. Brallier, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (about the loss of a favorite tree; can also be used as a metaphor for other losses and the grief process)
--Wishes for One More Day by Melanie Joy Pastor, illustrated by Jacqui Grantford (about a Jewish family, two children who lose their grandfather)


storyqueen said...

Thank you for this post. Our school suffered the loss of a child this year, and I have been looking for books that deal with such issues for my classes.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this list.

Lynn said...

Another great picture book, particularly with respect to the loss of a sibling, is Always My Brother. I reviewed it here:

Kate Coombs said...

Storyqueen and evbishop--You're very welcome.

IB--Thanks for this suggestion and the review link. Thinking of losing siblings in particular reminded me of a picture book for older readers, Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. It's about an African American boy who loses his beloved older brother, first to drug addiction and then to death. But his brother's legacy of art keeps him going. A sad yet hopeful book and beautifully done.

Jennifer said...

An excellent list, we need some of these for our tough topics collection. I have a lot of older chapter books dealing with death (including Jean Little's many excellent novels), but not as many picturebooks. We do have Michael Rosen's Sad Book - what's your opinion on that? I pulled it from our picturebooks and put it into our tough topics (sort of a parenting collection) but I hesitate to recommend it because it feels much more like an adult book - and I find it very grim and depressing.

Kate Coombs said...

Jennifer--I like the idea of a tough topics collection. I haven't read Michael Rosen's Sad Book, though I will look for it. I read the Amazon reviews just now to get a feel for the book, and I thought it was interesting that the actual psychologists who weighed in didn't think it was age-appropriate, while other readers did. I suspect that a young child needs to feel like the world is fairly steady, and that, not so much knowing about adult grief, but seeing the EXTENT of that grief, might be worrisome if not frightening. Or, as one of the psychologist reviewers puts it, "burdensome." Then, too, I wonder if Sad Book would be too mature for most 4- to 8-year-olds to grasp or dwell on later, but would be troubling to the kind of child with the sensitivity and intellectual depth to really get it.

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

What a wonderful selection of books. I saw The Goblin and the Empty Chair on Mem Fox's website, but wasn't clear what it was about. Now I'll definitely search it out.

Another book you might want to look for is Tess's Tree, by Jess Brallier. I reviewed it here:

It really was a comfort to a family who had recently lost a dog. This is not as heavy as some of the other titles, but its shows a young girl dealing with her grief and the power of sharing your feelings.

thanks again for a thoughtful post,
Mary Ann

Kate Coombs said...

Thank you, Mary Ann. I love the idea of grieving over the loss of a tree--thanks for sharing your review (which I just read!). Trees are one of the things that make me the happiest, so it makes sense to me.