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Posts Tagged ‘young children and death’

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From “Tim’s Goodbye.”

Right this moment, somewhere in the world a parent is being skewered by the existential questions of a 3-year-old. Do dogs have birthdays? Do all the ants know each other? Why is that lady crying? When my son was 3, he wanted to know where he was when I was that age. I told him he didn’t exist yet. “No,” he said, firmly, “I was just very, very small.”

But the hardest questions to answer are those about death, because death is so very hard for any of us to understand. Every death leaves a gaping hole and a pile of questions. Where did they go? Can they still think? If we talk to them, can they hear us? And what do we do with our grief and confusion and aching hearts?

At 4 years old, my first child, Olive, found a wilting sparrow on the sidewalk, named it Betty and asked if we could take it home to fix it. We tried our best with a shoe box bed, an eyedropper of mush and a blanket from the doll’s house, but we failed. Betty the bird was dead. Having recently read Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Dead Bird” (the original edition had drawings by Remy Charlip, but it has been newly illustrated by Christian Robinson), we knew we must organize a proper funeral. But there was a problem. We lived in a third-floor walk-up without a patch of dirt big enough to bury a sparrow. Our neighbors rose to the occasion, offering their garden and a barbecue wake, and in the end it was quite a send-off. Their 8-year-old son wiped his eyes solemnly and said, in a thick Brooklyn accent, “I’m tearin’ up and I didn’t even know Betty!”

Olive’s first small experience with death was eased with community and a picture book.

We read to our children for the same reasons we read books ourselves: to be entertained, to feel less alone, to find help navigating things we don’t understand. There are picture books about where babies come from and about losing a tooth and about the first day of school. And now and then a brave author gives us a book about the end of life.

For me, the gold standard of picture books about death is “Duck, Death and the Tulip,” by Wolf Erlbruch. Duck meets Death, and she’s horrified to realize he’s been with her all along, waiting. It’s hard to describe how this extraordinarily tender book manages to be both heartbreaking and comforting, but it does.

Continue reading the main story

And now three new books tackle the subject, in very different ways. TIM’S GOODBYE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8),written and illustrated by Steven Salerno (“Wild Child”), has retro, Ludwig Bemelmans-inspired illustrations in black crayon line on a flat, digital, yellow background. The main character, Margot, is sad because “Tim is gone.” Salerno rapidly introduces a cast of characters who help Margot give her dead pet turtle, the titular Tim, a send-off. It is a mystery what’s happening for most of the book as the children come and go, one of them floating in on a trio of balloons, until the rock, which has been static on each page, is revealed to be poor Tim. The balloons come into service again to lift the turtle, now in a cardboard box, up to the heavens where he possibly becomes a constellation. This gentle story might be just the introduction some readers seek, but for me, the slow reveal that Tim is a dead pet was so light-handed, it left me feeling detached.

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From “A Stone for Sascha.” Credit

A STONE FOR SASCHA (Candlewick, 48 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), written and illustrated by Aaron Becker (the “Journey” trilogy), is the wordless story of a girl trying to process the death of her dog. Initially, at least. Lushly illustrated in digital pastels, it soon expands to take on time and history and cosmology and the interconnectedness of things. On vacation at the beach with her family, seeing another child with a dog, the girl hurls a stone into the sea. On the next page, a golden meteor plummets toward Earth, is lodged deep underground during the Paleozoic era, erupts in a dinosaur-scattering earthquake, and then across various ancient civilizations is alternately worshiped, sculpted, erected, celebrated, crushed, sold, neglected, discovered, plundered and lost to the bottom of the sea. Where, washed by time to a smooth golden stone, it is found by our girl on the beach, who takes it home to place on the dog’s grave. Everyone’s experience of death is personal and the same might be said of books. Some children might consider the leaps in this book too great, others will return to ponder the cinematic images and puzzle out the connections.

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From “The Funeral.”

Matt James’s THE FUNERAL (Groundwood, 40 pp., $18.95; ages 4 to 8) is an oddly exhilarating story of Norma’s first experience of a funeral. In fact, she approaches it more as a “fun-eral,” as the book’s cover makes clear with the bright acrylic and collaged blossom-laden tree, the exuberant children and the separation of “fun” from “eral” in the title typography. Like Viorst, James (“When the Moon Comes”) has an ear at child level and beautifully and convincingly shows us children who fidget during the service and consider a mourner’s hairy ear perhaps more than they think about the deceased. But they are not completely irreverent, just children, who are full of life.

For most books about death are also about life, and we are lucky to have them to help us through both.

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