Death is one of the hardest things to talk about with children. The topic brings up so many unanswerable questions and parents can sometimes be at a loss as to how to thoughtfully engage in a discussion about death and grief with their children. Even if children haven't encountered the death of a loved one, a friend, or a pet, they are sure to see it in films or read about it in books. This list of picture books will help children understand death and process their feelings about such a tough subject.
These picture books all approach death and sadness in different ways, so be sure to preview them to find one you are comfortable with. I've included suggested age recommendations.
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Picture Books about Death
For more books that help children with sadness and other feelings, visit my list of picture books that teach emotional intelligence.
Addy's Cup of Sugar
by Jon J. Muth
As with his other books, Muth draws upon Buddhism to help kids understand big emotions and tough subjects. After Addy's kitten is killed by a car, she turns to Stillwater the Panda to help her through her grief. Stillwater tells her he can help her, but only after he gets a cup of sugar from a household that has never experienced death. Addy sees that her feelings are shared by many and learns that her kitten will be treasured through memories. As always, Muth's illustrations are majestic and moving. Ages 4 and up.
by Charlotte Moundlic, illustrated by Oliver Tallec
Find it: Amazon
The Scar begins, "Mom died this morning" and we know that here's a book that will directly address what it feels like to lose a parent. Moundlic's text is honest about the range of emotions kids will feel like anger and resentment, as well as grief and concern for his father. After he scrapes his knee he imagines him mother comforting him and his grandfather reassures him that his mother is still in his heart. Superb. Ages 5 and up.
Bon Voyage, Mister Rodriguez
by Christiane Duchesne, illustrated by François Thisdale
The enigmatic Mister Rodriguez takes a walk every day at 4 o'clock. With each stroll he is accompanied by a different animal. A group of curious children observe his walks, and witness his mysterious levitation, until one day he plays a piano hovering in the air. Duchesne's story is a surreal allegory of death. It's not a substitute for any of the other books on this list, but rather a companion read, and is sure to provoke some imaginative questions. (Translated from French.) Ages 5 and up.
The Cloud Lasso
by Stephanie Schlaifer, illustrated by Melodie Stacey
Clouds are often used as metaphors for grief and sadness. Here, Delilah remembers life moments with her grandfather on the farm. She takes up his lasso and begins to try and lasso the clouds. As the clouds become representative of her fears and scary emotions, she keeps trying until she succeeds. Ages 6 and up.
Cry Heart, but Never Break
by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
You'll notice more than a few picture books in translation on this list. I've found that European children's book author tend to recognize that children don't need to be shielded from death and that the best way to process grief is to address it head on. Death enters the house of a grandmother and four children. The children question why he must come and he comforts them with a parable about the marriage of sisters, Joy and Delight, to the brothers, Grief and Sorrow. Ages 6 and up.
The Memory Tree
by Britta Teckentrup
This is a tender story that will help children process grief over a lost loved one. Fox is very tired and lays down to "fall asleep forever." One by one his friends gather to say goodbye and share their memories of Fox's life and friendship. As they talk, they smile and their hearts start to recover. Meanwhile, a small tree, the same color as Fox, begins to grow, higher and higher, giving shelter to the new animals who start to live amongst its branches. Ages 4 and up.
Death is Stupid
by Anastasia Higginbotham
The title is direct and reminds us that children appreciate direct answers. Higgenbotham's book recognizes that sympathetic looks and condolences are not enough to allay the grief kids feel when someone they love dies. Death is Stupid tells the honest truth to children and validates their complicated feelings in this important book. Higgenbotham's collage illustrations are also wonderful. Ages 6 and up.
Where Do They Go?
by Julia Alvarez, illustrated by Sabra Field
After losing a loved one, most children will have questions about where they go after death. Alvarez's book reads like a poem, "“Who can I ask? Does anyone know?" "Do they go where the wind goes when it blows?" "Do they wink back at me when I wish on a star?" Many of the ideas connect the loved ones back to the natural world. Each thought is expressed by a different child, with their deceased loved one is depicted as a silhouette. Ages 3 and up.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad
A boy narrates a tale of his experience after the death of his cat, Barney. He describes his sadness and the funeral his family has for Barney. His mother tells him to think of ten good things about Barney to say at the funeral. At the funeral he only comes up with nine. After discussing Barney and life after death with his various family members, he finally comes up with the tenth good thing about Barney. Ages 5 and up.
by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso
Gus and Ida are two polar bears in a city zoo. They spend their days playing and Ida teaches Gus to listen to the heartbeat of the city. But then Ida falls ill. Gus is distraught, he pleads with Ida not to leave him. During her final days, their friendship deepens and when Ida does pass away, Gus takes comfort in her memory. Ages 4 and up.
Duck, Death and the Tulip
by Wolf Erlbruch
This is a unique tale, translated from the German, and perhaps my favorite on the list. One day Duck notices that Death is following her around. Duck confronts Death but Death acknowledges that his is always nearby "just in case." Duck and Death maintain a kind of strange friendship, their conversations centering around existential questions about life and death, but still quite accessible from a child's point of view. One day, Duck is tired and asks Death to warm her. The reader knows what is coming and understands the final line, "'But that's life,' thought Death." Ages 6 and up.
Felix After the Rain
by Dunja Jogan
Felix After the Rain, translated from the Slovenian, helps children understand the importance of confronting their sadness instead of burying it. Felix feels burdened by a dark and foreboding suitcase he carries around with him after the death of his grandmother. The suitcase makes him unhappy but he can't seem to get rid of it. He drags it up a hill and a small boy opens it while Felix sleeps, releasing all of Felix's fears and grief in a storm. Descending the hill, Felix now feels joy and is relieved of his cares. What prevents the ending from being too easy are the hugs he receives and gives at the end. Ages 3 and up.
by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
In this touching story, a girl describes a year of special moments and events spent with her grandfather. Now she must process the grief and loneliness she feels over the loss of his companionship. She narrates her wishes for his presence and takes comfort in the last gift he gave her, a notebook, in which she can now record her memories. Ages 4 and up.
Saturdays are for Stella
by Candy Wellins, illustrated by Charlie Eve Ryan
This gorgeous and moving book follows a George, a young boy, as he describes how he loves spending Saturdays with his grandmother, Stella. I love their close relationship and how they enjoy both going out and staying in. When Stella passes away, George is devastated. He misses his grandmother and has a hard time coming to terms with the new, empty Saturdays. But when George gets a new sister and learns her name he discovers that his grandmother's memories can be a blessing even as he makes new memories on Saturdays with the new Stella.
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