What We're Reading, January 2020
Happy Tuesday, all! Just a quick note that the topic of today’s selections is a bit heavier than usual, as they both deal with death and loss.
My almost 5-year-old is going through a phase of deep philosophical thinking, with lots of questions about God, death, and the purpose of life (who is this kid??). So, it was serendipitous that on the “New” shelf at the library were two new picture books about death and remembrance: Grandpa’s Stories: A Book of Remembering, by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys (Abrams Books for Young Readers), and Maybe Dying is Like Becoming a Butterfly, written by Pimm van Hest and illustrated by Lisa Brandenburg (Clavis Publishing).
As a gerontologist, a branch of my writing involves stories and poems that incorporate themes of aging, dying, and intergenerational relationships, so I was also interested in these books from that standpoint—how would they approach the topic of death for the preschool set?
Considering them together, both books use the vehicle of a close grandpa-grandchild relationship, with conversation and interaction between the two characters driving the story forward. Both involve the death of the grandpa and present the subsequent thoughts and behaviors of the grieving grandchild. Neither book presents a specific belief system, but each emphasizes the unknown aspect of death and the remembrance aspect of loss. Now, for their differences:
Grandpa’s Stories is sweet and lyrical, an appealing read-aloud with vibrant, colorful illustrations throughout. It is structured seasonally, with each season bringing a new special experience with grandpa that spurs the granddaughter to imagine ways to keep grandpa with her forever. Come winter, it becomes clear that grandpa is sick, and before long his chair and slippers are empty. But he has left behind some special mementos that show how much he valued his time with his granddaughter. Now it is her turn to remember. She makes sure to record all of her special grandpa moments, so that they (and he) will be with her forever. I think this is a great book to read to a preschooler who is facing the loss (future or past) of a dear person in their lives. It is not too wordy or too deep, and therefore opens the door for questions or conversation while also keeping the child’s attention.
Maybe Dying is Like Becoming a Butterfly
Maybe Dying is Like Becoming a Butterfly reads much more on-the-nose than Grandpa’s Stories. It dives deep, using a conversation between a small boy and his grandpa to address questions like when death happens, why death happens, whether the boy will die, what happens after we die, and more. When grandpa does die, we see the grandson writing him a letter where he wonders if dying is like becoming a butterfly—that you’re not gone, you’re just different. Although some may question whether a small child would ask questions like this (and a couple do feel a bit off developmentally), my guy has asked some of these exact questions, so they do come up! This is not a short or light-hearted read, and is therefore much more appropriate for an older preschooler or young school-aged child who is dealing with the reality of death and loss and is asking hard questions. For its heavy subject matter, though, the book is still sweet, and does a good job of tackling these tough questions in a way that a child can relate to and understand. I also appreciate that there is back matter for parents on best practices when helping a child through a major loss. Not only is this book a good resource for the struggling child, but for his or her parent as well.
Overall, both books are good additions to the relatively sparse array of death-themed books on the market for young kids, and the fact that there were two new books on this topic out of about 15 on the shelf tells me a) that people are becoming more aware that kids have questions about death far earlier than used to be thought, and b) that we as a society are recognizing the importance of having these difficult conversations with kids.
Hmm, maybe it’s time for me to revise that grief and loss manuscript I have in my files…apparently, the market is strong!
Now to finish on a happy note! Do you have a favorite grandparent memory? Share in the comments!