How to Talk to Kids About Death, According to Picture Books

Do you remember when you first understood, first knew, that someday
you were going to die? I don’t, but I can recall the next worst thing:
walking home from kindergarten one sunny afternoon by myself (that’s how
it was done in 1963) and realizing that, someday, inevitably, my mother
would die. I wish I could remember what prompted this realization;
whatever it was, it descended upon me, unbidden and terrifying.

I ran all the way home (not far), where my mom assured me that, yes, she
would die one day, but that that day was far, far away, and nothing for
me to worry about now. I probably ought to have wondered, How does she
know? But her answer must have soothed me well enough because, decades
later, with the shoe on the other foot, I fobbed the same parental
boilerplate off on my own young children. I did feel a twinge of guilt
over making a potentially false promise, but so far, so good. Knock

It is hard enough to be honest with ourselves about death, and
exponentially more so with kids. Yet, euphemisms about sending missing
pets to farms upstate notwithstanding, kids are well aware of it, just
as they are of sex. For those of us who are parents, one of our jobs is
to help our children understand the end of life, to whatever extent—if
any—we ourselves do. And, for those of us too faint of heart to engage
the subject head on, there is an entire category of children’s literature that has aimed to help, though not always in
the way one might hope.

When the very notion of children’s literature came into being, in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a bent for Christian moral
instruction combined with horribly high infant- and child-mortality
rates to produce works steeped in blunt fatalism. Take, for instance,
“The New England Primer,” which was published in Boston, circa 1690, and
is thought to be the first American children’s book. It remained popular
into the nineteenth century, though I can’t imagine any actual child, no
matter how pious or masochistic, reading with much relish the tail end
of its alphabet lesson, from a 1777 edition:

X: Xerxes did die

And so must I

Y: While youth do cheer

Death may be near

In time, this strain of hortatory morbidity would grow into a robust
genre of kids’ books, exemplified by popular titles such as “An
Authentic Account of the Conversion, Experience, and Happy Deaths of Ten
Boys,” which was published in Philadelphia, in 1820, and intended for
Sunday-school use. This excerpt, profiling a youth named William Quayle,
“who spent a life (short as it was) to the glory of God,” will give you
the flavor:

In September, 1787, he was seized with his last sickness, which
continued about a fortnight. . . . When his father used to express his
hope that he would recover, he replied, “I would rather die than stay

A few minutes before he died he cried out, “Father! Father! Mother!
Mother! O my heaven! My heaven!” He then sang a hymn . . . and
instantly fell asleep on the arms of his dear Redeemer, September
24th, in the ninth year of his age.

Modern readers may recoil, or laugh; so did some nineteenth-century
ones, among them Mark Twain, who, in 1870, wrote a parody, titled “The
Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper.” (“It felt a little
uncomfortable sometimes when he reflected that the good little boys
always died. . . .”) But the anonymous authors of “An Authentic Account”
and like-minded works were merely doing their generous best to save
children from what was then seen as a literal threat of being “driven
into hell” and “tormented there for ever, amongst devils and miserable
creatures,” as the afterword to “An Authentic Account” puts it. The
author, in his or her mind, was literally on the side of the angels.

In modern times, with our angels now of a less Manichean, more
touchy-feely persuasion, we have witnessed an increasing popularity of
books eager to usher kids through the “grieving process.” Writing in a
special 1991 issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly devoted to the topic, the scholars Louis Rauch Gibson and Laura M.
Zaidman cited a survey from 1977 that found that ninety per cent of all
children’s books dealing with death had been published since 1970—a
hefty percentage that, one imagines, has only increased in the time

Titles in this vein, which is often referred to as “crisis literature,”
are, unsurprisingly, heavy on stories about the passing of the elderly
(“My Grandpa Died Friday,” “My Grandpa Died Today,” “Why Did Grandpa
Die?,” “So Long, Grandpa”). Pets also tend to do a fair share of
yeoman’s work. “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney,” written, in 1971, by
Judith Viorst (also known for “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No
Good, Very Bad Day”) and illustrated by Erik Blegvad, begins, “My cat
Barney died last Friday. I was very sad. I cried, and I didn’t watch
television. I cried, and I didn’t eat my chicken or even the chocolate
pudding.” Asked by his mother to say ten good things about Barney at the
cat’s back-yard funeral, the nameless young narrator can only think of
nine—until the next day, when he’s gardening with his father and has a
revelation. The tenth good thing: “Barney is in the ground and he’s
helping grow flowers.”

While I wholeheartedly endorse Viorst’s circle-of-life sentiment, I find
the tone of her book cloying and its dénouement pat. I get stuck,
especially, on that bit about not eating the chocolate pudding; it’s the
kind of thing that an adult might think a child would find relatable,
but my inner six-year-old feels condescended to. Dead pet or no, I’ve
rarely known a kid not to be jollied up by a decent dessert, at least a

The picture book “Missing Mommy,” written and illustrated by Rebecca
Cobb, and first published in Britain, in 2011, offers a more nuanced
portrait of a far more devastating kind of loss. In it, a little boy
whose mother has recently died works through a series of sometimes
conflicting feelings: “I feel so scared because I don’t think she is
coming back. . . . And then I feel angry because I really want her to
come back. . . . I am worried that she left because I was naughty
sometimes. . . . The other children have THEIR moms. It’s not fair.”
Subtitled “A Book About Bereavement,” this is less a story than a
catalogue of troubling but normal emotions—more a therapeutic tool than
a book, per se. The last spread shows the little boy watering some
tulips (the circle of life again, though less literal than in Barney’s
case) while the text concludes, “I will always remember her. I know how
special I was to my mommy and she will always be special to me.” This
ending is sensitive. It’s heartbreaking. It’s validating. I hope you never have
cause to read it to a child.

If you are looking for a picture book that is also a true work of
literature, I would direct you to “The Dead Bird,” by Margaret Wise
Brown. Brown, who is best known as the author of “Goodnight Moon” and
“The Runaway Bunny,” published more than sixty children’s titles in her
abbreviated lifetime—she died from a fluke blood clot at the age of
forty-two—and has had dozens more published posthumously. She studied
to be a children’s writer and took her craft seriously; she was also
gifted with an innate, uncanny empathy for children’s concerns. As she
once put it, “To be a writer for the young, one has to love not children
but what children love.”

Kids have their own ways of making sense of the world, their own myths
and rituals, perhaps most so when it comes to topics as difficult to
comprehend as death. Brown captured this beautifully in “The Dead Bird,”
which was first published as a picture book in 1958 with illustrations
by Remy Charlip, and reissued last year with art by Christian Robinson.
Brown’s story is deceptively simple: a group of kids playing in a field
finds a bird on the ground, still warm but unmoving. They feel for its
heartbeat (so much for generations of parental prohibitions against
touching dead animals) and, finding none, they hold the creature as it
grows cold and stiff.

The children were very sorry the bird was dead and could never fly
again. But they were glad they had found it, because now they could
dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and
sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died.

The unnamed kids line the grave with ferns, wrap the bird in leaves,
cover the grave with more ferns and flowers, and sing a song together. “Then they cried because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns
smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead.”

As in “Goodnight Moon,” Brown’s rhythms in “The Dead Bird” are almost
liturgical, her details simultaneously specific and allusive. The self-awareness of her kids as they make up their rituals, the way
they’re moved by their own singing, the way they find excitement and
pleasure in their mourning, rings especially true; their burial is still
a form of play, after all. In the book’s last line, Brown writes, “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little
dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.”

Until they forgot. For an adult, that clause is a heartbreaker. From a
kid’s perspective . . . well, of course the children in the book
eventually forgot. They weren’t going to spend their the rest of their
lives, or even the rest of second grade, leaving flowers on an anonymous
bird’s grave—and thus, without either cornball sentiment or
Kübler-Rossian psychological determinism, Brown introduces the
possibility of what we now like to call closure. That is how you talk
to children about death.

This piece was adapted from “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading
Children’s Literature As an Adult
,” by Bruce Handy, which is out
August 15th from Simon & Schuster.

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