5 Children’s Books to Help Kids Understand Death
You don’t want them to grow up too fast, but you do want to prepare them for the world. Children’s literature is a perfect way for parents to approach the tricky topic of death. From explaining the basics to exploring how we manage grief, these books teach valuable life lessons and open the door for deeper conversations.
The Goodbye Book
This picture book by Todd Parr tells a moving story in beautiful bright colors and is a good choice for introducing loss to younger readers. The story follows a pet fish whose companion has suddenly disappeared from the fishbowl. We go through the stages of grief as the goldfish experiences them, and the simple statements on each page prepare children for all the feelings that come with losing someone you love; depression, isolation, lack of appetite. But eventually, there’s a turning point when the goldfish is able to look back with fondness and to bravely begin moving on.
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs
Tomie DePaola had a unique gift for writing for the way children think. Perhaps that’s what makes Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs so poignant. The book spends its first half setting up the wonderful relationship between a young boy, Tomie, his grandmother, Nana Downstairs, and his great-grandmother, Nana Upstairs. Tomie spends his Sundays chilling with Nana Upstairs, eating candy mints, and shooting the breeze. It’s ridiculously cute. Which makes it even more tragic when Tomie’s mother tells him one morning that Nana Upstairs has died. Tomie learns to deal with his grief and when he gets older, Nana Downstairs also passes away. When he ponders “Now you are both Nana Upstairs” while looking at the stars in the book’s closing page, you’ll reach for the tissues.
This E.B. White classic is a mainstay of children’s lit for a reason. The story is magical and the illustrations are fantastic. The story follows a poor pig named Wilbur, who is sold for slaughter after growing too large to be a pet. Wilbur has trouble making friends in his new barnyard until he meets a spider named Charlotte, who vows to help Wilbur cheat death. She does so by spinning intricate tributes to Wilbur in her webbing, making the farm and Wilbur a local tourist attraction. Knowing that the farmer now cares for Wilbur, Charlotte is able to pass away peacefully. She leaves behind her baby spiders who keep Wilbur company for years to come, which is touching but also slightly terrifying.
Ladder to the Moon
In this mystical journey into the afterlife, author Maya Soetoro-Ng tells the story of young Suhaila, who never knew her grandmother. One night, Suhaila sits and wonders what traits she may have inherited from her when suddenly a golden ladder appears outside the window. Her grandmother stands on the bottom rung and welcomes Suhaila to join her. Together, they climb to the moon. Down on earth, they see the struggles of humanity. They see people of all faiths praying for each other and for world peace before Suhaila returns to her bed for the night. Soetoro-Ng shows readers not only how the present is intertwined with the past, but the global connectivity we all share as humans.
I’ll Always Love You
The death of a pet is often the first loss a child experiences in their life. Author Hans Wilhelm’s lovely story of Elfie the dog prepares younger readers for the experience. The story is told from a boy’s perspective. He and Elfie grow up together, playing every day and occasionally getting into some mischief. The boy gets big and Elfie’s age begins to show. Soon, the boy must carry her up the stairs to his room and one night, Elfie passes away in her sleep. The boy refuses to get another puppy right away, choosing to deal with his grief first and knowing that one day, he’ll have another pet he loves just as much.
The books about heavier things are best mixed with books they love, but it’s also important to prepare young ones for the inevitable. But be prepared to tell your kids, “I think I’ve got something in my eye.”