Using books to speak to children about death and grief

I watched the Rio Ferdinand documentary about grief and family life after a parent/partner dies last night, and it was heartbreaking. His major concern was his 3 young children, and how to talk to them about their Mother’s death, he was finding it extremely hard to talk about himself, but he was very concerned that his children were ok, and able to talk and grieve as much as they needed to.

Death is a part of life, but it’s not really talked about in day to day life, and when a death occurs it can be shocking, painful and sad for everyone, but also perhaps difficult for little children to understand. My 2 grandmothers died within a few months of each other when my daughter was almost 2. She had seen one of them very recently, so it was easier to explain to her why I was sad and what had happened. It was hard to explain she was gone and we couldn’t see her anymore. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and had found it comforting to hold cuddly toys, my mum had got her a guinea pig toy which my daughter had loved so we gave it to her when my grandmother died – which was helpful to explain that the guinea pig used to belong to Nana Julie but she was gone now and she wanted my daughter to have it. She did understand that Nana Julie was gone and would say “Nana Julie give to me, she died so she’s not here anymore” I’d say “yes it’s sad that she’s gone but lovely we have things to remember her by”. My daughter is now 7 and has been reading Anne of Green Gables which she loves – on Friday evening she called me and said Matthew had died (Anne’s lovely guardian in the story) she was very upset, but we spoke about it together. Matthew was old and had a lovely life, Anne loved him and he loved her. It was very sad that he had died, but Anne could remember all the good times they had together. I read it to her for a bit as she was so upset, she started to feel better and we spoke more about it. I think it’s not a bad thing to expose children to the feelings that surround death – and for them to explore them. Books are a wonderful way of allowing children to do this they can understand the feelings and are able to feel empathy it also prepares children for the times in their life when they will have to deal with death close to them. Please see below a list of books to help your child understand death.

  1. Goodbye Mog / Judith Kerr – This is an excellent book for helping younger children understand death – the character is a well-loved identifiable one for children so they are able to understand what Mog’s death means to them and parents can use the story to talk about death that may be closer to home
  2. The Sad Book / Michael Rosen – A lovely book that shows it’s ok to be sad sometimes – being sad is part of life
  3. A Monster Calls / Patrick Ness One for older children – but beautifully written and full of emotion – evoked even more powerfully by Jim Kay’s breath-taking illustrations
  4. Badger’s Parting Gifts / Susan Varley – Badger knows he is going to die, so he gives everyone gifts to remember him by. A good story to show children it is good to remember their loved ones
  5. Anne of Green Gables /   Though this book isn’t specifically about death it is good for helping primary school age children understand and come to terms with death. We see the relationship between Anne and Matthew develop throughout the story and his death comes as a shock – we see how it affects Marilla and Anne and how they cope. This helps children to think about and understand death, and as the story is over 100 years old it engenders discussion about attitudes to death then and now.


Books as Birthday Presents – good or bad?

I was reading an article the other day about a woman who gave a book as a present for a child’s birthday party, the mother of the child didn’t accept it as her child ‘wasn’t really into reading’ and suggested that ‘anything else would be fine’!

I was really shocked, firstly at the rudeness of not accepting a present and also that the mother thought books weren’t a suitable present. I LOVE it when my daughter gets books  and so does she, though obviously we are both pre-disposed to actually welcome books as presents. I’m not so keen on the craft type presents which seem to be boxes full of tiny bits of glitter and feathers etc with really hard to follow instructions to make things that look nothing like the picture and usually elicit shouting and tears from both me and my child! However I would NEVER not accept a present that someone went out and spent time and money choosing to give to my child. (She on the other hand loves the craft based presents and delights in spreading the contents of the box all over the house)

I accept that not all children are into reading, but I think that having a few books aimed at them and the things they are interested in can’t hurt in helping to pique their interest. I do buy books as birthday presents for children, it was easier when they were younger as I’d fall back on a classic picture book. Now, unless I really know the child, and their reading stage I don’t always get books. Lego is good, and beany boos are crazily popular in my daughter’s friendship group. So all in all I think books can be an excellent thoughtful present and I will continue to buy them for birthday presents when I think it is appropriate!

Biff, Chip and Kipper – Learning to read

My daughter started reception in 2014 and took to school fairly well. There were tears at times, but we were blessed with an excellent teacher who made the transition as stress free as possible for all of the children.

I was really excited about her learning to read, we’d read lots of books to her, and she was interested in books and looked at them on her own and at bedtime, but I’d made the decision not to teach her to read myself before she started school as I didn’t want to confuse her. She knew some words by sight and could write her name, but I’d steered clear of trying to teach her too much.

She learnt phonics (as I had done at school too, though I think that was pretty radical when I started school in 1982!) and quickly understood how to sound out words, first she bought home books without words and made up a story from the pictures (this was fun!) and slowly she started to bring home books with more and more words in until we got to the Biff, Chip and Kipper books. I loved them! Though wtaf were the parents thinking when they named their children? And calling the dog Floppy?! I think that was for the parents! I would look forward to Friday each week to see what amazing adventures the children would get up to. I also loved the brilliant 80’s cars, fashion and interiors that the books sported! But my absolute favourite was when my daughter started bringing home the Magic Key books, so many crazy adventures – the only problem was that we didn’t get the books in order which was ok sometimes but we read one once when Floppy gets lost and doesn’t come back with them… We never got the next book, and didn’t get many Biff, Chip and Kipper books after that. I still wonder what happened to Floppy and how they got him back. If anybody knows please do let me know! So yes, I know some parents can’t stand Biff, Chip and Kipper but I will always look on them fondly!

Suggesting books to your reading age child

My child is now 7 and an avid reader, when she first started reading on her own I suggested books that I had loved and read as a child, and she read them, and then we got to chat about them afterwards which was magical. I loved seeing what she had enjoyed and got from the story, and how it had differed from what I had got. The suggestions I made that she loved are:

  • Milly Molly Mandy / Joyce Lankaster Brisley
  • The Mrs Pepperpot stories / Alf Proysen
  • The Ramona Quimby books / Beverly Cleary (and then all of her back catalogue)
  • The Superfudge book / Judy Bloom (and all her age appropriate back catalogue – no Forever yet!)
  • My Naughty Little Sister / Dorothy Edwards
  • Famous Five / Enid Blyton
  • Roald Dahl books (she said Matilda was the best book she had ever read!)

Not everything that I had read as a child went down as well as the above, she is most certainly not up for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe yet, which was my absolute favourite book as a child. She says she’ll read it when she’s 8 though, I hope she does. Especially as I’d love her to read The Magician’s Nephew which I read after reading the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and it just blew me away, I still think about it now! I won’t force it upon her though – I want her to think of reading as a joy and not a chore, and something that stays with her throughout her life as it has done for me.

She reads other things which she chooses herself; books that hadn’t been published when I was a child, such as the David Walliams books and the Daisy Meadows fairy books. She likes different genres to me, loves books about animals, and especially horses which I was never into as a child. I tried to read Black Beauty so many times and never got into it!

I love suggesting books and authors to her, but I also enjoy watching her explore and widen her own tastes. It’s a wonderful adventure to experience for us both.