Inside: The amazing picture books on this list will help you explore the topic of death and start a conversation about this difficult subject with your children.
I think it’s very human to dwell on death. Even when our kids are still very little, they have lots of questions about it. And it’s better to address them rather than keep the subject taboo simply because it makes us uncomfortable.
When I was a kid, I lost a couple of close relatives and a few family pets. In each case, my grownups seemed to say the most unhelpful things (if they said anything at all), and I felt very alone in my sadness.
When I got older, I realized that my grownups were not trying to be insensitive; they just didn’t know what to say. When I became a mom and had to nurture my kids through their grieving, I found myself in the same position. And I, too, had a hard time finding the best (most comforting, helpful, real) thing to say.
I’m not a grief counselor, but I have discovered something interesting about the word “death” through the years.
I discovered that talking about death, and yes, using the word, helps to make it less scary, and so does reading books that allow us to explore the topic from many angles.
Even though you might feel like you don’t know the “right” thing to say about death, don’t let it keep you away from the topic. All you need is to open a book, read with your kids, listen to their questions, and ponder the answers together.
Death is a mystery for us all, not just for our children. But you might be surprised how much you can figure out with your kids when you think as you go.
I’ve been working on this list for a very long time. Whenever we came across a book that fitted well with my purpose, I added it. Let me know what you think.
Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I might get a commission from qualified purchases.
Picture Books about Death, Dying, and Grief
A Garden of Creatures, Sheila Heti
I love to believe that everything in the universe is part of the same fundamental whole, so I’m really excited to suggest this book. When a bunny dies, there’s a rose-and-buttercream-colored cat and a little white bunny left to mourn his death. “It is hard to believe that every creature who lives must die. Why does the world work that way?” asks the heartbroken bunny. With incredibly beautiful artwork and soft words, we are presented with the possibility that perhaps the departed don’t ever leave us but instead continue to hold us gently in their embrace.
Our life is full of many divisions – old/ young, insider/outsider, white/black, dead/alive, but this book invites us to ponder the idea of oneness, the sense of being everything and embodying all those twinned opposites at the same moment.
If we are one with everything, can we experience a sense of connection with nature, life, people on the other side of the world, and everything and everyone that has ever lived? I don’t have an answer, but the wondering helps.
A Stone for Sascha, Aaron Becker
I love wordless books for their ability to inspire kids to create their own meaning. This book starts with a young girl running through a field clutching yellow flowers that she places on top of her dog’s grave.
The story then takes us back to the beginning, but not just the beginning of Sascha’s life. Aaron Becker takes us back to the beginning of times, over 230 million years ago, in fact. In a heart-pounding and moving kaleidoscope of images, we follow the rise and fall of dinosaurs, humanity’s will to power, the clash and crash of empires, and, basically, the inevitable cycle of birth, life, and death through the lens of time.
The book puts me in a mood for Judith Viorst: “Teach me how to know death and go on with life.” Because this is exactly what people have been doing for a very long time. Watch the author’s fascinating video about his journey from the idea to the 48 pages of digitally created pastel images. My kids love the time map that takes the reader on the journey from Ethiopia in 5000 BCE and Babylon in 600 BCE through China in the Middle Ages to the present-day San Juan Islands. When facing a personal loss, it can perhaps be helpful to zoom out on the process of life as a whole.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Glenn Ringtved
We’re all born biologically programmed to avoid pain, but we don’t always get what we want. In this story, four young children live far in the cold north, in a snug little house, with their grandma, who’s been taking care of them for many years. And then, one day, Grandma dies.
It’s unfair. It’s cruel. And it’s heart-wrenching. But that’s the nature of things: old people die. The main idea behind the story is that we can feel terribly heartbroken, but life cannot help but go on – and maybe there is light on the other side of the dark tunnel.
“What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if that were no night?”
I think that making meaning from death is a fundamentally private experience, but with this book, we all can re-evaluate our thoughts about death and maybe gain room for a new perspective.
I love everything about this book: the title, the way the subject matter is presented and handled, and definitely the artwork. An award-winning Danish author, Glenn Ringtved, was moved to write this story when his own mother was dying. The touching, expressive, and gently whimsical artwork by Danish illustrator Charlotte Pardon combines watercolors and acrylics.
The Biggest Thing of All, Kathryn Thurman
When Grandma dies, Lily is devastated. What helps her begin feeling better is the decision to take care of Grandma’s garden, as well as internalizing Grandpa’s words of wisdom: everything is part of something bigger.
As our children learn and grow, they receive many messages about how things are in the world. The most profound are the ones that help kids grow mentally stronger, deeper, and more resilient. This splendidly illustrated story (as you know, I have a soft spot for watercolors) will help you share many vital messages that will stay with your kids long after you finish reading it.
Tim’s Goodbye, Steven Salerno
Loss ultimately teaches us to value the relationships and time we have right now in the present moment with the ones we love. Margo is sad because her turtle died, but then friends appear one by one, and they give Tim the turtle a heartfelt send-off into the stars “to a place where he baked in the warm sun and swam in cool waters, forever a happy turtle.” Love, loss, and friendships come together, and the weight of grief lifts a little, and finally, Margo can feel like herself again.
Salerno’s illustrations are done with a simple black crayon against a yellow background throughout; the artwork is simple but sweet, gentle, and touching. We might never understand why death happens, but we want to hope that healing is possible. And a last gift to someone passing to thank them for all that they’ve given us is a wonderful start to healing.
My Many Colored Days, Dr. Seuss
When something bad happens and we feel low, it can be incredibly difficult to move past the conviction that we will always feel that way. This wonderful Dr. Seuss book presents us with a different view. “Some days are yellow. Some are blue. On different days I’m different too.”
Our emotions are always changing. And one of the most important things to remember when we feel sad is that this sadness won’t last forever… We are made up of an ever-changing array of colors and shades and tones of colors.
Dr. Seuss did a fantastic job of presenting a variety of feeling words, associating emotions with a particular color (i.e., green is quiet and pensive like a fish deep down in the ocean), as well as exploring how emotions feel in the body. On red days it might feel good to kick like a horse; on the other hand, “on bright blue days I flap my wings” in a vain attempt to prevent the inevitable fall.
This book offers a powerful opportunity to help kids explore their “dark” feelings, guide them to articulate how they feel when they experience certain emotions, and on some days, perhaps, invite them to share their memories of being in different moods. You can ask, do you remember a time when you felt blue? What was it like?
Boats for Papa, Jessixa Bagley
This is one of my favorites on this list, and my kids adore it, too; that’s why we’ve been reading it regularly for years. Exquisitely well-written and with extraordinary gentle art that extends the story visually, this book will touch your heart.
Buckley lives with his mama in a small house by the sea. He makes boats out of driftwood and sends them off into the ocean to his dead Papa. The boats don’t come back, which means Papa got them. But one day, Buckley lifts the lid off Mama’s desk and finds all his boats. The ending is an absolute surprise. It’s still heartbreaking but also hopeful because it leads us to think of people who love us and that maybe (most certainly) their love will always be with us.
The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
When we go through a hurtful situation, we can subconsciously decide to avoid future situations so that we can avoid feeling this way ever again. With spare text and amazing artwork, Oliver Jeffers shows that when we choose to lock up our hearts, we avoid living our life to the fullest.
Everyone’s life is made up of a wide range of experiences. And even though we don’t welcome all of our experiences, putting effort into avoiding the ones we don’t want rather than pursuing the ones we do, doesn’t make for a happy life. To say yes to life and love is to say yes to loss as well, and that’s okay.
Dog Heaven, Cynthia Rylant
Losing a beloved dog is never easy. But it might be comforting to know that your pet is ok even while you’re not. Dog heaven is full of funny-shaped dog biscuits and clouds that are just right for napping in, and of course, dog heaven has lots of opportunities to run and bark. Sometimes an angel will even bring a dog back to Earth for a bit to sniff at the old neighborhood or to follow a child to school.
One of my children said that the book was wrong. Our dead (and thoroughly missed) German Shepherd is always with us in the house; we just can’t see her. And I explained that this is just one author’s view of the situation. We are all just trying to make sense of our experiences, and we’re all free to believe what we choose and share our ideas. This is the power of books to spark a discussion on a subject you didn’t even know needed to be discussed.
The Dead Bird, Margaret Wise Brown
The book is simple: children find a dead bird in the park and give it a proper burial with flowers, a gravestone, and a song. “Oh, bird you’re dead // you’ll never fly again // way up high // with other birds in the sky.”
Our bird dropped dead last year without any warning; giving it a proper burial was essential to stop (or rather slow down) the flow of tears and for my kids to feel that they were giving respect and love to the bird’s memory. There’s a reason funerals exist. We need rituals to help us transition through stages of grief.
I like the new illustrations in the latest edition much better than the original ones from 1952. It offers many possibilities for discussing death, grieving, and moving on.
Ida, always, Caron Levis
This true story opens with an idyllic picture of two polar bears (for some reason, portrayed as toy teddy bears) spending their day next to each other in the New York Zoo, swimming and frolicking. Then one of the bears starts to die … And then, she really does die.
My kids concluded that the male bear didn’t really care much for Ida since he didn’t change his habits after her death. Life went on as if nothing had happened. I suggested that maybe the author was trying to say that those we love never die: they continue living in our memories and accompanying us through the day as they used to.
Even though the author’s intent might not be readily apparent, the book will help you to start a discussion about the nature of moving on and that it isn’t necessary to keep ourselves miserable as a way to show ourselves (and the world) that we really cared for those who passed away.
Bluebird, Bob Staake
Through angular shapes, geometric shadows, and masterful use of grays and blacks, the author-illustrator, Bob Staake, presents a wordless story of a little bird that is hit with a stick.
Without reading a single word, we understand the whole range of the boy’s emotions when the bird dies at his feet. And just to prevent confusion: the boy didn’t hit the bird; someone else did.
The final pages are open to interpretation, so let your kids decide what happens at the end. Does the bird go to heaven? Are sacrifice and courage rewarded in the end? What happens to the boy?
Letting Swift River Go, Jane Yolen
This is a lovely (and true) story about loss and letting go that had me in tears. Written almost thirty years ago by multi-award-winning author Jane Yolen and illustrated by twice Caldecott Medalist Barbara Cooney, it narrates, in first-person, dramatic historical events that took place in western Massachusetts between 1927 and 1946.
It starts, “When I was six years old, the world seemed a very safe place.” Kids walked to school alone, fished in the river, caught fireflies, and slept under the stars. Then, the government purchased the land on which the city stood and flooded it to make a water reservoir for the nearby city.
This book is a great example of wonderful children’s literature doing what it should: gently showing you the world, both good and bad. What’s more, you can turn it into an amazing conversation about accepting what we can’t change (mom’s death, the loss of home), making sense of the dramatic losses, and moving on.
The Rough Patch, Brian Lies
Can’t you tell just from looking at the cover that this is a gorgeous book? It’s also smart and touching. Evan lives an ordinary life. He plays games, listens to music, and potters in the garden with his best friend until “the unthinkable happens.” This book is a great reminder that bad things can happen to anyone and that when they do, all we can really do is breathe, take small steps forward, and remember the light at the end of the tunnel.
Reading this book with your kids is a great excuse to talk about compassion, remembering that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something. And so we can always make an effort to be kind to our fellow human beings. We can smile and say “hi,” or stop and help. We can lend an ear, say “thank you,” and be more patient. Confronting the reality of death and suffering in the life of Evan helps us empathize with the sadness that we all feel from time to time as human beings.