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Reading books on illness and bereavement to my children? The thought filled me with heart-knotting dread. Why would I do it to them or me? Well, one reason is that children are natural philosophers who are intrigued by life’s biggest mystery, death. The right book on this subject can be informative and comforting—light is cast into the shadows.  I’d now encourage adults to add this topic into children’s literary diet early, to not wait until your family is forced to confront this conversation in extremis. Giving children a framework to think about death, provides them ballast when the inevitable hard time comes.


Recently I asked my seven- and ten-year-old sons to help me review a selection of picture books concerning loss and grief. These books sparked conversations that were thoughtful, pragmatic, candid and enlightening. The following is our joint review.


Cry Heart, but Never Break - Glenn Ringtved


A black cloaked figure visits a house of children the night their grandmother is to die. The children try to distract the uninvited guest who finally tells them a story explaining, 'Who would yearn for day if there was no night?' In our house, this book was a big hit. The visitor is revealed to not be so frightening. The idea of grief and sorrow being a counterweight to joy and delight made intuitive sense.


The Memory Tree - Britta Teckentrup


Animals in a forest hold a memorial for their beloved friend, a fox. As they share their recollections, a beautiful tree grows to give them shelter. 'I absolutely loved this' said the older co-reviewer, 'especially the way emptying out their sorrows made them lighter.'


Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between - Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.


Both younger reviewers thought this was fantastic. 'Most of the other books were a story about death, but this was unique in that it explained death,' said my ten--year-old.


The Invisible String  - Patrice Karst


'Ten out of ten,' says the seven-year-old. Personally, I am not a huge fan of this bestseller, but I’ve noticed the comfort to be had in imagining a magic thread connecting us to those we love best: 'The idea of the string makes me happy.'


The Boy and the Gorilla


After a boy’s mother dies, he is followed by a gorilla. Both reviewers loved the stunning watercolour illustrations and the idea of a child’s grief morphing into a spirit animal that gives protection. They also liked thinking of 'where you might go' after death.


I’ll Say Goodbye - Pam Zollman


A boy stays with his terminally ill uncle by the sea, offering a metaphor about a person outgrowing their body as a crab outgrows their shell. The book lead us to an interesting conversation.


What Happens Next? - Sinsuke Yoshitake


We all loved this quirky, original book. After his grandfather’s death, a boy finds his grandfather’s notebook containing often hilarious ideas on an afterlife: 'it makes death seem like a holiday in a luxury resort,' said one child. The boy decides to write his own book on how to best live. Highly recommend.


If All the World Were… - Joseph Coelho


A granddaughter recalls all the ways her grandfather has made her life richer. We all loved Allison Colpoy’s illustrations, and the message that our loved ones live on in our memories.


Death, Duck, and the Tulip - Wolf Erlbruch


A duck has the feeling of being followed. Looking over its shoulder, it spies a skeletal character: 'Good,' said Death, 'you finally noticed me.'I think this is a solid 9 out of 10, but have to admit the kids only gave it 6.5.


Michael Rosen’s SAD Book - Michael Rosen


Written after the death of his son, Rosen gives incredibly eloquent expression to the experience of grief, 'a cloud that comes along and covers me up.' This is complemented by the stormy palette of Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations. Again, this is a book that older readers might appreciate – let’s not pretend children’s books are only for children!


Leaf Litter: Exploring the Mysteries of a Hidden World - Rachel Tonkin

I can’t not mention this stunning book, which chronicles a year of change in a forest’s undergrowth. ('Leaves teach us how to die,'wrote Thoreau.) A blue-tongue lizard decays, and we see in cross-section the carcass breaking down, its nutrients moving through the soil.


The Tenth Good Thing About Barney - Judith Viorst


In this classic from 1971, a family holds a burial for their cat and a child is asked to recall the ten best things about the pet, the tenth thing being the cat fertilising the earth.


Let’s Talk About When Someone Dies - Molly Potter


This is an excellent practical guide to helping kids understand the mechanics of death, the mixed emotions of bereavement and our different cultural beliefs regarding an afterlife. 'Basically an encyclopedia of death,' one co-reviewer suggests.


Bedtime Story

From the best-selling author of The Tall Man and The Arsonist, a personal tale about death, life and the enchantment of stories. With illustrations by Anna Walker.

Let me tell you a story…

When Chloe Hooper’s partner is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness, she has to find a way to tell their two young sons. By instinct, she turns to the bookshelf. Can the news be broken as a bedtime tale? Is there a perfect book to prepare children for loss?

Hooper embarks on a quest to find what practical lessons children’s literature—with its innocent orphans and evil adults, magic, monsters and anthropomorphic animals—can teach about grief and resilience in real life. From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett and Tolkien and Dahl—all of whom suffered childhood bereavements—she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favourite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives.

Both memoir and manual, Bedtime Story is stunningly illustrated by the New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of worldwide uncertainty, here is a profound and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.

'Everything you’d ever want in a bedtime story – heroes and heroines, puzzles and dangers, invisible forces, birds, trees, beasts, poetry, sadness and joy. Stories within stories. I was spellbound from the start. As for the ending... I can’t tell you that.' Paul Kelly OA

‘Chloe Hooper has a formidable talent to take complex stories and ideas and truths, and to distil them into a language of direct and powerful beauty. This is a story of grief and of patience, of hope and acceptance. It is also a reminder of the solace that books give us, and of how the imaginary worlds we dive into as children remain with is for all our lives, of how they guide us into adulthood and maturity. There is a quiet courage and strength in this book. It is both gentle and uncompromising, a love letter to family and to literature that is bracingly unsentimental. I was profoundly moved, and profoundly grateful.’ Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Damascus

‘This book is a miracle of light and meaning-making from one of our finest writers. Venturing inward with extraordinary grace, Hooper explores – and extends – the long literary line surging with our deepest inherited wisdom about how to embrace our finite lives. The result is nothing less than the hero's journey we have been collectively starving for. Telling you this is like trying to describe the sun; it is a book so powerful and beautiful – so utterly its own – that it can only be experienced directly.’ Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer

‘Exquisitely beautiful. This book is an act of love.’ Anna Funder, author of All That I Am and Stasiland 

'Deeply engrossing and honest, human, full of love and tenderness, with moments of sparkling humour in the struggle. I loved everything about Bedtime Story. I loved particularly what it taught me about authors who write for children, the ways that writing and reading provides compensation, balancing the scales between loss and love.’ Sofie Laguna, author of The Eye of the Sheep and Too Loud Lily