Oh, Susanna! – What Picture Books Can Help A Child Cope With Loss Of A Loved One?

Good Morning, Everyone!

So sorry to be late with this post!  Cable is coming to Blueberry Hill but it’s not here yet! and heavy HEAVY rain last night took out my internet (just for a change! 🙂 ).  Since I spent the weekend in New Brunswick at NJSCBWI (SO awesome, and SO great to see everyone I got to see!!!) I did not write this ahead of time and schedule the post.

(Okay.  Who am I kidding?  I’m always writing posts at the last minute!  You know me too well 🙂 )

Anyway, although today’s topic is sad, I think it’s a very important one for parents, teachers, kids, and writers, so I hope even though you might not have need of it right now, you’ll tuck it away as a resource just in case the need should arise.

Today’s question comes from Anonymous who says, “I am in the unfortunate and sad situation of needing to find picture books about loss.  My friend has two young kids – ages 6 and 3 – who lost their father 2 1/2 years ago, and now recently lost a cousin to SIDS.  I would love some recommendations for books to help them understand death and deal with it.”

First, let me take a moment to say how sorry I am for all the loss – to your friend’s kids, to your friend, and to you.  So much hardship, so much to cope with at such a young age… it is heartbreaking.

But one of the things books are good for – not just for kids, but for all of us – is helping us to understand the common life challenges we all share, and helping us to know we’re not alone in the experience.  There is comfort in knowing that others know and understand.

I’m sure there are many people besides our questioner for today – parents, teachers, grandparents, and other good friends seeking to help someone they love – who will find the following list of books useful at some point.  Although these are all amazing books, I recommend that you pre-read before sharing with your child.  Some books may not be quite right for your child’s personality or sensibilities or specific situation.  Browse the list and find the ones best suited.

A side note to writers: well-written books on difficult topics are always in demand, precisely because hard things happen even to the very young and they (and the adults in their lives who search for a way to explain) need help to find their way through the tough times.  The books listed below are excellent and may serve as mentor texts for anyone trying to write picture books on painful topics.

Boats For PapaBagley, Jessixa, Boats For Papa (Roaring Brook Press, June 2015): “”They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” So begins this spare tale of longing and acceptance. Buckley and his mother (a pair of beavers) spend their days near their ocean-front home, gathering driftwood treasures, playing together, and having picnics in the sand. His favorite pastime is using his discoveries to make miniature ships to send out to sea with a note that reads, “For Papa, Love Buckley.” He is sure the boats will reach his father if they don’t wash back up on shore. He works tirelessly over the course of a year to create new and beautiful boats for his absent parent. One evening when he forgets his customary note, he runs back to grab a piece of paper from Mama’s desk and discovers his ships hidden there.That night when Mama goes to retrieve Buckley’s boat, the note reads, “For Mama, Love Buckley.” Bagley’s tender watercolors and lyrical text give weight and volume to a family’s grief. Her portrayal of Buckley’s hope and his mother’s acts of love are heartbreakingly beautiful and authentic. The ambiguity of Papa’s absence allows this story to transcend specifics and gives it a timeless and universal appeal. VERDICT The only thing better than this title for anyone who has experienced loss is the redemptive nature of time.—Jenna Boles, Greene County Public Library, Beavercreek, OH” (from School Library Journal)

Where Is GrandpaBarron, T.A., Where Is Grandpa? (Philomel Books, January 2000): “Where is Grandpa? This question haunts a young boy on the day his grandpa dies. Grandpa has been so richly present in so many places–at the tree house, at the waterfall, at the door ready to carve pumpkins. But where is he now? As the boy searches for an answer, he makes a surprising discovery: perhaps Grandpa is closer to home than anyone ever realized. In this deeply moving tale, the poetic words of T. A. Barron and the luminous illustrations of Chris K. Soentpiet remind us all that a family’s sorrow can be shared–and that even in the greatest loss, love can still be found.” (from the Amazon description)

Sun KissesBernardo, Susan Schaefer, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs (Inner Flower Child Books, November 2012): “Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs is a beautiful picture book with a simple but powerful message: love lasts forever. Lyrical writing and delightful illustrations provide perfect bedtime reading for any child. The book is also ideal for supporting children through grief, separation anxiety, divorce, illness or other traumatic situations, by wrapping them in a warm and comforting emotional security blanket and opening a dialogue on the nature of love. Even when loved ones cannot be with us, we can feel their presence through our deep connections to the natural world. Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs has received glowing testimonials from parents, librarians, social workers, teachers, hospice caregivers…and most importantly, kids.” (from the Amazon description)

Tess's TreeBrallier, Jess, Tess’s Tree (Harper Collins, August 2009):
“Tess loved her tree.
She liked to swing on it
and sit in its shade
and catch its leaves in the fall.
When Tess’s tree has to come down, Tess is very sad . . . until she finds a way to gather friends and family and celebrate her tree’s remarkable life.” (from the Amazon description)  Reviewer Jack Keely adds: “This emotionally resonant picture book tells the story of Tess who is “nine years, three months, and two days old” and her love for a one hundred and seventy five year old tree. When the tree has to be cut down, Tess must find a way to deal with the anger and sorrow she feels. Jess Brallier has managed to craft a story about dealing with loss and grief in a way that a child can understand, and he has done it with charm, sensitivity, and a touch of humor. The illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds have a subtle, soft focus charm. With expert lines and a wash of color Mr. Reynolds creates memorable images that perceptively illuminate the text.”

When Dino'sBrown, Laura Krasny, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide To Understanding Death (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 1998): ” The authors explain in simple language the feelings people may have regarding the death of a loved one and the ways to honor the memory of someone who has died.” (from the Amazon description)  An added note from reviewers: although this book is written and intended for picture book aged kids and is nicely done, it does touch on many ways that people CAN die including some that may not be appropriate for your child’s specific situation.

Fall of Freddie LeafBuscaglia, Leo, The Fall Of Freddie The Leaf (Slack Incorporated, June 1982): “This story by Leo Buscaglia is a warm, wonderfully wise and strikingly simple story about a leaf names Freddie. How Freddie and his companion leaves change with the passing seasons, finally falling to the ground with winter’s snow, is an inspiring allegory illustrating the delicate balance between life and death.  Both children and adults will be deeply touched by this inspiring book.” (from the jacket)

RabbitynessEmpson, Jo, Rabbityness (Child’s Play International, November 2012): “I am an elementary school counselor and am using the book in my practice.
Sometimes I get requests from parents or teachers for books dealing with very specific grief situations. If I can’t find the perfect fit from my bookshelf I definitely feel frustrated. Rabbityness is a really special story I can use to cover a lot of different grief or tragedy situations. Rabbit disappears in the story – but no one knows why or what happened to him. I like that there’s no answer as to what happened because I can help the child relate their own story to Rabbit.
“One day. Rabbit disappeared. The other rabbits were very sad. They couldn’t find him anywhere. The woods were quiet and gray. All that Rabbit had left was a hole…a DEEP dark hole.”
Wow. The deep dark hole can represent a lot of different feelings for children. The second part of the story shows the other rabbits learning how to cope with their loss. What I see as a healing step for kids is to talk about how to fill the void they might be feeling. What coping skills could they use to fill that deep dark hole…….
Absolutely love this one and see it HELPING me as a counselor and the grieving children I work with throughout the year.” (from an Amazon review by an elementary school counselor)

Fox, Mem, The Goblin And The Empty Chair (Beach Lane Books, September 2009): “In a time long past, in a land far away, a family has suffered an unspeakable loss.
But a lonely goblin has been watching. And he knows what to do to help them heal.
From internationally acclaimed picture book masters Mem Fox and Leo and Diane Dillon, here is a rich and moving original fairy tale about family, friendship, and the power compassion has to unite us all.” (from the Amazon description)

The Next Place
Hanson, Warren, The Next Place (Waldman House Press, August 2002): “”The Next Place” is an inspirational journey of light and hope to a place where earthly hurts are left behind. An uncomplicated journey of awe and wonder to a destination without barriers.” (from the Amazon description)

Death Is Stupid
Higginbotham, Anastasia, Death Is Stupid (The Feminist Press at CUNY, April 2016): “This exploration of death and grieving begins with a boy mourning the loss of his grandma and his bold observation that “When a loved one dies/people can say some/…stupid things”—referring to the platitudes offered to him (e.g., “Just be grateful for the time you had with her.”). Through mixed-media collage, speech bubbles, and simple text, Higginbotham explores a child’s experience of loss: “Dying is not a punishment. But it mostly doesn’t feel fair.” The bold collages, set against a plain brown background, visually reinforce the child’s disoriented swirl of emotion. A few of the images are unclear or ambiguous, but the boy’s grief and responses are kidlike and recognizable. Readers follow along as he contemplates the reactions of his family members, imagines having a conversation with Gramma, and continues to feel her absence in his life. Eventually, he shares cherished memories with his father, and they work together in Gramma’s garden. The author recommends activities that may help (“keep someone and, at the same time, let them go”), such as reading the same books that they enjoyed. She also offers suggestions for dealing with the death of a pet. VERDICT Clearly written to validate and respect a child’s feelings, this book is a useful resource for parenting collections or patrons looking for a relatable exploration of death.—Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA” (from School Library Journal)

Heart And BottleJeffers, Oliver, The Heart And The Bottle, (Philomel Books, March 2010): “A little girl delights in the boundless discoveries of the world around her with an older gentleman, likely her grandfather. But then the man’s chair is empty, and the girl puts her heart in a bottle to help with the hurt. As she grows older, she loses her sense of wonderment, and it isn’t until she meets another young girl that she finds a way to free her heart again. This book showcases some absolutely captivating artwork. The way in which Jeffers employs pictures in word balloons to convey the limberness of imagination is brilliant: the man points to the sky to talk about constellations, while the girl sees stars as inflamed bumblebees. But what begins promisingly runs into trouble, and it’s not clear who the message is directed toward: children just opening their eyes to the world, or parents who have lost their sense of curiosity? Even if children don’t glean much from the abstractions and subtleties of the narrative, they’re nevertheless in for a treat with the unforgettable visuals of imagination at play. Preschool-Grade 1. –Ian Chipman” (from Booklist)

Invisible StringKarst, Patrice, The Invisible String (Devorss & Co, September 2000): “Specifically written to address children’s fear of being apart from the ones they love, The Invisible String delivers a particularly compelling message in today’s uncertain times that though we may be separated from the ones we care for, whether through anger, or distance or even death, love is the unending connection that binds us all, and, by extension, ultimately binds every person on the planet to everyone else. Parents and children everywhere who are looking for reassurance and reaffirmation of the transcendent power of love, to bind, connect and comfort us through those inevitable times when life challenges us!” (from the Amazon description)

Ida AlwaysLevis, Caron, Ida, Always (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, February 2016): “A beautiful, honest portrait of loss and deep friendship told through the story of two iconic polar bears.
Gus lives in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city, and he spends his days with Ida. Ida is right there. Always.
Then one sad day, Gus learns that Ida is very sick, and she isn’t going to get better. The friends help each other face the difficult news with whispers, sniffles, cuddles, and even laughs. Slowly Gus realizes that even after Ida is gone, she will still be with him—through the sounds of their city, and the memories that live in their favorite spots.
Ida, Always is an exquisitely told story of two best friends—inspired by a real bear friendship—and a gentle, moving, needed reminder that loved ones lost will stay in our hearts, always.” (from the Amazon description)

LifetimesMellonie, Bryan, Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death To Children (Bantam, October 1983): “When the death of a relative, a friend, or a pet happens or is about to happen . . . how can we help a child to understand?
Lifetimes is a moving book for children of all ages, even parents too. It lets us explain life and death in a sensitive, caring, beautiful way. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings. And about endings. And about living in between. With large, wonderful illustrations, it tells about plants. About animals. About people. It tells that dying is as much a part of living as being born. It helps us to remember. It helps us to understand.
Lifetimes . . . a very special, very important book for you and your child. The book that explains—beautifully—that all living things have their own special Lifetimes.” (from the GoodReads description)

The ScarMoundlic, Charlotte, The Scar (Candlewick, November 2011): “When the boy in this story wakes to find that his mother has died, he is overwhelmed with sadness, anger, and fear that he will forget her. He shuts all the windows to keep in his mother’s familiar smell and scratches open the cut on his knee to remember her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad anymore, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take–until his grandmother shows him another way to feel that his mom’s love is near. With tenderness, touches of humor, and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive illustrations.” (from the Amazon description)

Flat RabbitOskarsson, Bardur, The Flat Rabbit (Owlkids, September 2014): “When a dog and a rat come upon a rabbit flattened on the road in their neighborhood, they contemplate her situation, wondering what they should do to help her. They decide it can’t be much fun to lie there; she should be moved. But how? And to where? Finally, the dog comes up with an inspired and unique idea and they work together through the night to make it happen. Once finished, they can’t be positive, but they think they have done their best to help the flat rabbit get somewhere better than the middle of the road where they found her. Sparely told with simple artwork, The Flat Rabbit treats the concept of death with a sense of compassion and gentle humor — and a note of practicality. In the end, the dog’s and the rat’s caring, thoughtful approach results in an unusual yet perfect way to respect their departed friend.” (from the Amazon review) This book received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, but a few other reviewers felt it might be too humorous for children actively grieving, so again, check it out first 🙂

Goodbye BookParr, Todd, The Goodbye Book (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, November 2015): “This picture book shows young children that even when goodbyes bring sadness and unfamiliar emotions, those feelings will ease with the help of time, remembrance, and support. The Goodbye Book addresses the range of emotions someone might feel after a loss, including anger, sadness, lack of joy, and denial, as well as the desire to stop eating or sleeping. Parr explains that even when a person starts to feel better, there could be moments of grief or confusion, but at the end of the day, another person will always be available to provide love and comfort. The colorful illustrations, in an naive, childlike style and outlined in black, feature a goldfish that experiences the emotions discussed throughout the book. Young readers can infer what the goldfish is feeling by looking at the picture, and the imaginative representation gives the book a soothing tone. The Goodbye Book never specifies what the exact scenario is, making it an appropriate choice whether a child is dealing with death or another difficult situation. VERDICT An honest but gentle look at the grief that comes with saying goodbye. An essential purchase for all early childhood collections.—Liz Anderson, D.C. Public Library” (from School Library Journal)

Cry Heart

Ringtved, Glenn, Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Enchanted Lion, February 2016): “Aware their grandmother is gravely ill, four siblings make a pact to keep death from taking her away. But Death does arrive all the same, as it must. He comes gently, naturally. And he comes with enough time to share a story with the children that helps them to realize the value of loss to life and the importance of being able to say goodbye.” (from the Amazon description)


Waterbugs and Dragonflies
Stickney, Doris, Waterbugs And Dragonflies: Explaining Death To Young Children (Pilgrim Press, December 1998): “Waterbugs and Dragonflies is a graceful fable written by Doris Stickney who sought a meaningful way to explain to neighborhood children the death of a five-year-old friend. The small book is beautifully illustrtated by artist Gloria Ortiz Hernandez.” (from the Barnes & Noble description)

The Memory Tree
Teckentrup, Britta, The Memory Tree (Orchard Books, November 2014): “A beautiful and heartfelt picture book to help children celebrate the memories left behind when a loved one dies.
Fox has lived a long and happy life in the forest. One day, he lies down in his favourite clearing, takes a deep breath, and falls asleep for ever.
Before long, Fox’s friends begin to gather in the clearing. One by one, they tell stories of the special moments that they shared with Fox. And, as they share their memories, a tree begins to grow, becoming bigger and stronger, sheltering and protecting all the animals in the forest, just as Fox did when he was alive.
This uplifting, lyrical story about the loss of a loved one is perfect for sharing and will bring comfort to both children and parents. (from the Amazon description)

BadgerVarley, Susan, Badger’s Parting Gifts (HarperCollins, July 1992): “Warm and sensitive illustrations reflect the hopeful mood of this tale about woodland animals learning to accept their friend Badger’s death.” (from Publisher’s Weekly)
“Badger’s friends are overwhelmed with their loss when he dies. By sharing their memories of his gifts, they find the strength to face the future with hope.” (from School Library Journal)

Yeomans, Ellen, Jubilee (Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, January 2010): “This book works beautifully on two levels: it shares the simple joyous experience of a family reunion/picnic and, on a deeper level, if the adult reader chooses, it introduces the child to heaven. The book helps the reader envision a loving, light-filled place that exists beyond life as we know it. Beautiful illustrations, lyrical text. The author should be congratulated for approaching the very difficult idea of “what happens to us after we die” with a very tender hand.” (from reviewer Susan Keeter)

I’m sure this list just begins to scratch the surface.  There are undoubtedly others that have been reviewed for Perfect Picture Book Friday (actually, several of these have been.)  (And Perfect Picture Books also includes books that more specifically address loss of a pet or loss of a beloved item/object.)

If anyone has other titles they highly recommend to add to this list, Anonymous and I would be grateful.

Have a question for Oh, Susanna!?  Please send it to me!!!  Our next installment will be on Monday July 3!

Have a marvelous Monday, everyone (in spite of our heavy topic for today!) 🙂

24 thoughts on “Oh, Susanna! – What Picture Books Can Help A Child Cope With Loss Of A Loved One?

  1. viviankirkfield says:

    Wonderful post, Susanna! Sadly, children do experience loss…so these books can go a long way to helping them cope. You’ve given us a wonderful selection to choose from.

    And I’m so glad you enjoyed NJSCBWI. Connection with old friends and meeting new ones is always good for the soul. 🙂

  2. jheitman22 says:

    Great list, Susanna! I would add TA Barron’s _Where Is Grandpa?_ and Jessixa Bagley’s _Boats for Papa_.

  3. Wendy says:

    I feel so lucky! I got to hug you at the conference, Susanna! 🙂
    Great list to have as a resource.
    I have gone to Cynthia Rylant’s DOG HEAVEN and Judith Viorst’s THE TENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY when dealing with loss of a pet.

  4. Nancy Furstinger says:

    Fantastic post, Susanna, and much needed. I love Boats for Papa, Always Ida, and Cry Heart But Never Break; will add the remainder to my expanding list. And don’t forget Ellen Yeomans’ Jubilee. Can’t wait to hear all about the NJSCBWI weekend @ this Saturday’s conference!

  5. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Thanks for this wonderful list, Susanna. I also love the picture book titled RABBITYNESS by Jo Empson. The illustrations are beautiful, and the book shows how the loved one leaves something behind for the community to embrace and remember him/her by.

  6. Patricia Tilton says:

    Great selection of grief books — some of my favorites too! There is another book I recommend “Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs,” by Susan Schaefer Bernardo. It can be used for grief or separation. The message is so beautiful.
    Hope you get cable!

    • Susanna Leonard Hill says:

      Thanks, Pat. I appreciate your vote of confidence! I know you probably have a huge and amazing list of such books on your wonderful site! Thank you for the recommendation of Bernardo’s book. I will check it out and add it to the list! I hope I get cable too! It’s supposed to be soon…very soon…!!! 🙂

  7. Heather Pierce Stigall says:

    It was great meeting you last weekend! I had a great time too. I was going to add a few more books to the list, but the others beat me to it. One other I could maybe add is THE FLAT RABBIT by Bardur Oskarsson. It is definitely a different take on the theme of death, grief and loss.

    • Susanna Leonard Hill says:

      I know, Genevieve! I too am amazed and impressed by those who can do these books well. They are so hard to do, but so important for our kids, and for the adults who are trying to help them through tough times. Glad you liked the post! 🙂

  8. ptnozell says:

    Great post, Susanna, and wonderful connecting & chatting with you in NJ.

    To this list I’d add My Old Pal, Oscar, reviewed last year, https://patricianozell.com/2016/07/15/ppbf-my-old-pal-oscar/, Sammy in the Sky, and Mo Willem’s City Dog, Country Frog, all about dogs; Grandad’s Island, by Benji Davies, reviewed here, https://patricianozell.com/2016/05/13/ppbf-grandads-island/; and Duck, Death and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch, reviewed recently by Julie Rowan-Zoch.

  9. Angela Brown says:

    Dealing with tough topics like loss and separation is difficult for us as adults. I have great admiration for the authors who are able to take these topics and make kid-friendly so the door to discussion and healing can be opened.

    Thank you for this list.

  10. deborahunderwood says:

    What a wonderful list! A friend recently introduced me to BADGER’S PARTING GIFTS by Susan Varley, and I would highly recommend it.

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