Death is a sensitive and difficult issue for almost everyone, “the last taboo” as it has sometimes been called. Children today are protected from it and unprepared for it in a way that would have been impossible a century ago, but they cannot be completely insulated from it: pets die, grandparents die, sometimes even parents or siblings or friends die. Can books help pupils to understand and accept death, without being morbid or undermining the beliefs of pupils and parents?
I do not want to suggest that the best or only way to help a bereaved child is to dole out a book. But, for many readers, books offer more than just access to knowledge or vicarious experience, though both of these can be useful. Reading a book permits you to withdraw, to be private, to reflect, to feel that you are not alone because others have experienced and felt what you are going through. They can also be a stimulus or focus for talk, which can otherwise sometimes be hard to initiate.
I set out to find books for children which acknowledged the range of beliefs about life after death – and treated them as beliefs, not fact. I wanted in particular to find books that would be acceptable to non-religious families, and I enlisted the help of some humanist families in the reviews that follow. But I believe that the approach taken by many of these books – open-ended, exploratory, eclectic – is unlikely to offend anyone unless they objected to their child being exposed to other people’s beliefs or being faced with a question to which there are few certain answers: “What happens when we die?” It is true that some of these books only begin the discussion, and parents and teachers may have to continue it, but this seems to me no bad thing. The books reviewed below offer a range of perspectives, from practical suggestions about handling grief and bereavement to good-humoured narratives about remembering and commemorating. Many of the storybooks are good reads in their own right, well worth a place in the class library. I have tried to organise the reviews by age group, but suspect that some older children would find some of the picture books engaging, thought-provoking and comforting. Two favourite picture books with humanist parents, Sue Limb’s Come Back, Grandma and John Burningham’s Granpa are now out of print, so I will not be reviewing them here, but if schools already have copies, they are worth hanging on to.
For infants and the very young
John Burningham (pb Puffin, 1998, ISBN 0099-43408-3)
Designed to stimulate discussion rather than to tell a story, the book has a series of scenes of a little girl and her grandad, with comments from each or both of them. At the end, she is shown staring at his empty chair, without comments. The book allows the adult to direct discussion about not only the good things that the child remembers, but also the not so happy memories.
Grandad, I’ll always remember you
De Bode and Broere (pb Evans / Helping Hands, 1997, ISBN 0237-51755-8)
A picture book about loss and memories, and potentially a good stimulus to talk about a bereavement.
When Dinosaurs Die
L & M Brown (Little, Brown, 1996, hb, ISBN 0-316-10197-7)
Charming busy anthropomorphic pictures of dinosaurs illustrate topics and questions and a range of answers about death: Saying Goodbye; Customs and beliefs about death; Why do people die? What does “dead” mean? Some religious answers are included, but so are other perspectives, including basically humanist ones, and metaphysical answers as presented as people’s (or dinosaurs’) opinions – excellent stimulus for exploration and discussion. It is also quite acute psychologically, acknowledging that disbelief, anger, fear, and sadness are common feelings when someone dies. “Why dinosaurs?” was a typical comment from humanist parents, but apart from this, the book was generally liked as “direct, realistic, healthily frank and fun”, “a wise book to have around” with “the potential to be very useful.” Expensive, but attractive and appealing to children.
Sheila and Kate Isherwood (Oxford, ISBN 0-19-272368-5)
A girl’s grandfather has died and looking back over the happy times they enjoyed together helps her to cope with the loss. Very specific episodes and illustrations give it a life-like feel, and could encourage a written response on similar lines, but were also felt to be a little too specific by some readers. Considered sensible and sound by humanist parents and teachers, if a little stereotyped in its pictures of family life, it could help children to think about how to remember someone.
Jonathan London and Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 1994, ISBN 0-8118-0505-0)
Liplap the rabbit’s grandma has died, and his mother tells him of the rabbit legend that “long ago, when the first rabbits died, they became stars in the sky. And to this day, they come out at night and watch over us. And they remind us that our loved ones shine forever in our hearts… When Liplap asks if a star might be his grandma, his mother replies, “I think you could wish it were.” One humanist grandfather who described himself as “something of a pantheist” though it excellent, and did not mind the possibility that children might think that stars were the souls of the deceased. I admired the clever way that it was left open, with at least the possibility that it is wishful thinking. Humanist family responses ranged from “Lovely!” to “Terrible”, but the majority found it “twee” and lacking honest engagement with the subject, probably best avoided. On the other hand, a humanist head teacher liked it, praising its “lovely illustrations and appropriate story, one that children would want to read for themselves.”
Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (Belitha Press, 1997, ISBN 1-85561-760-9)
Or to give it the full title on the cover, Beginnings and endings with lifetimes in between – a beautiful way to explain life and death to children. This book places human life and death firmly in the natural world, and the tone is quietly reflective: “All around us everywhere, beginnings and endings are going on all the time. With living in between …It may be sad, but it is the way of all things, and it is true for everything that is alive. For plants. For people. For birds…Even for the tiniest insect.” It uses repetition effectively for poetic effect. Whilst not exactly comforting, it tells the truth, puts death in perspective, and was well liked by humanists, though a teacher and a grandparent both felt that children would need encouraging to read on, and that it covered too much. Don’t let the rather murky cover put children off – it belies the attractive illustrations within of plants and creatures, alive and dead. A humanist head teacher thought it could contribute to a science topic too.
Posy Simmons (Jonathan Cape, 1987, ISBN 0-2240-2448-5)
When Fred the cat dies his owners, Nick and Sophie, attend his funeral and learn about his secret life as a famous singer. The story raises the idea of celebrating a life in a good-humoured and touching way, with entertaining pictures and not much text.
Badger’s Parting Gifts
Susan Varley (Collins Picture Lions, pb, 1992)
An old favourite, a charming illustrated book in which a very old and much loved badger dies. The forest animals gather and reminisce about the important part Badger played in their lives, and as time passes memories of Badger make them smile. These memories were different for each of them, including very recognisable things like a favourite recipe or showing someone how to knot a tie – Badger’s “parting gifts”. Humanist parents and teachers had found the book useful, and liked the message about recognising the usefulness and meaning of ordinary life. But they had mixed feelings about the ambivalent ending: “Thank you Badger,” he said softly, believing that Badger would hear him. And…somehow…Badger did.” Some felt that this was usefully open-ended, allowing a teacher to tell a class that some people believe that one lives on only in other memory, whilst others believe that there is an afterlife – but others found the quite strong suggestion of life after death off-putting.
We Love Them
Martin Waddell (Walker Books,1990, ISBN 0-7445-7256-8)
Death is seen very much as part of life in this nicely illustrated story of life in the country, which conveys the idea that life goes on and that old creatures give way to young ones. But it is a bit too matter of fact about loss – barely is the old dog dead than the children have found a new one, and humanist parents disliked the implicit message that dead pets (and people?) are easily replaced.
Martin Waddell (Macdonald Young Books, pb, ISBN 0- 7500-0307-3)
Bill’s grandma is a widow, and he learns about her “other Bill” by looking through her photo album with her. Some parents felt that the story was too specific for children to empathise with, and a bit too stereoptypically suburban and middle class for general appeal. Because of this, it might be more suitable for some homes than for the classroom. But some humanist families liked its ordinariness, gentleness and factual accuracy, and although they could fault the social context, they couldn’t fault what it had to say about death and living on in memories and in the family.
I’ll always love you
H Wilhelm (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985)
A touching story of the love between a little boy and his dog, who have grown up together. When the dog dies, the boy says that, although he is very sad, it helps that he used to tell the dog “I’ll always love you” every night. An opportunity to discuss the importance of telling how you feel. Aimed at 4 to 7 year olds and delightfully illustrated.
I feel sad
(Wayland, ISBN 0-7052-1406-6)
Not specifically about death, but about different ways of expressing sadness. Could be a useful opening for a conversation about a bereavement, or about coping with feelings.
A Birthday Present for Daniel
Juliet Rothman (Prometheus Books, ISBN 1-57392-054-1)
This story of a little girl whose brother has died is intended for children aged 8-12. It was generally liked by humanist parents: “A difficult subject handled very well and movingly”, “I liked the birthday ritual with the balloons as, for me, it symbolises letting go or acceptance”, “In the event of a tragedy in the family, I’m sure it would help”. But there were some reservations: “Honest and direct but the ending is a little contrived and I’m not sure about birthday parties for dead relatives.” A humanist primary head teacher thought it would help children to empathise with others and to think about their own feelings in an honest and unsentimental way.
For older children
The Time of Your Life
Ina Taylor (Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-72546-X)
This new text book for KS3 has a balanced approach to the rituals and beliefs that mark important stages of life. In the section on death the author describes religious funerals and beliefs, but also looks at alternative and secular ones, and asks some pertinent questions in the “What do you think?” and “Things to do” sections.
Janine Amos (Cherrytree Books, hb, ISBN 0-7451- 5272-4)
Stories, fictional letters and advice about feelings and coping, covering the deaths of a parent, of a sister, of grandparents and pets. Comprehensive enough to include most situations and to make a death in the family seem more normal. Humanist families found it honest, balanced and wise, and a family that had recently experienced the deaths of both grandmothers thought that it would have been very helpful at the time for their 10 and 12 year old children. A humanist head teacher found it “appropriate and sensitive” and liked its emphasis on continuity and moving on.
Billions and Billions
Carl Sagan (Headline, hb ISBN 0-780747- 220268
The final essay in this collection, “In the Valley of the Shadow” is a moving reflection on facing death by this eminent American scientist and humanist. Sagan describes his struggle with bone marrow disease: “I’ve learnt much … about the beauty and sweet poignancy of life, about the preciousness of friends and family, and about the transforming power of love.” Written for adults, but very readable and recommended by humanists.
Recommended books for primary and secondary level children for more books for children.
The Childhood Bereavement Network for lots of good advice and resources for carers, teachers and trainers.
Children and Bereavement, Death and Loss: what can the school do?
(National Association for Pastoral Care, University of Warwick , CV4 7AL , 0203 523810)
Contains useful suggestions for INSET and staff discussion, with guidance about different beliefs about death, including humanist ones.
The preceding article by then-BHA Education Officer, Marilyn Mason, was first published in the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, December 2000