I really struggled with what to call this book grouping, debating between using the word “death” or “loss.” And two of these books could actually be questionable about if the missing character actually died or just left, which potentially makes them even more useful. But when speaking to children about tough topics, semantics can cause more issues because of the literal nature and word associations due to age. Saying someone is “lost” or “gone away” or any of those terms just didn’t cut it for me and always confuses my daughter when the topic of death has come up. So, Picture Books About Death it is.
This is a sad group, I agree, but I hope you’ll stick with me because these books are beautiful, and necessary. You will most likely need one of these at some point in your or a child you know’s life. Two of these are new, joining an interesting flow of children’s literature about death more recently. The other book is one of my favorites from Oliver Jeffers that has just the right amount of mystery and heart to it. Grab a few tissues, just in case, and let’s read three picture books about the death of a loved one.
1. The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, 2010.
Oliver Jeffers’ books are always clever, strikingly beautiful, and intriguingly unique. Jeffers knows how to edit his writing to the very minimum and allows the words and pictures to weave in and out of each other creating the story.
The Heart and the Bottle is mostly about a girl who is incredibly curious and full of big questions. The text only tells of her curiosities, while the pictures show the faithful old man, always somewhere in her scene, partaking in the questioning, answering, or observing admiringly. But then one day, the girl discovers an empty chair. The old man has disappeared from the scene. There is no explanation, only descriptions of her feeling uninterested in questions and curiosities. She is lost and longs to protect her heart, so she puts it into a bottle on a string.
Life continues on this way – she grows, and she keeps her heart safe in that bottle. Until one day she is confronted by a tough question and knows the only way to answer it is with her heart. But she cannot remember how to get her heart out of the bottle. In a strange and yet, wholly satisfying conclusion, the answers come all in the form of something small.
There is so much wonderfulness, and strangeness in this story. Matters of the heart and emotions are always significantly more difficult to explain and understand than we realize, and I think Jeffers captures that in this book just right. I love that it is subtle, maybe a little more than a child might actually get; but kids are constantly surprising in their astuteness and as I always say, picture books aren’t solely for kids.
2. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley, 2015
This book just came out last year, and it is achingly beautiful in words and illustrations. This is Jessixa Bagley’s first picture book and it is full of her heart and soul.
The story is about Buckley, a little beaver who lives with his mother by the sea. Buckley loved to scavenge the shores and to make things with his hands, especially boats from the driftwood he collected. He really misses his papa and one day he makes a special boat to send to him with a note on the mast. That night, he and his mother send the boat out into the sea. Buckley knew that if it didn’t wash ashore again, it made it to his papa. He continues to make more and more boats and they get better and more beautiful. He sends his favorites out to sea in hopes of reaching his papa with their notes. And each night, his mama walks by the sea after Buckley is in bed, and misses his papa too.
One day, with a particularly stunning boat, Buckley is set to sail it when he realizes he forgot the note. He rushes back inside their cabin and makes a surprising discovery about his mama and his boats. The ending is adorable, and as a mother, incredibly tear-jerking.
I love so many things about this book, from the gorgeous watercolor illustrations and the composition Bagley uses on each page, to the heartwarming bond between mother and son. I appreciate that there is no information about where Buckley’s father is or was, but simply both Buckley and his mom grieving him in their own way.
3. Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village by Fang Suzhen and Sonja Danowski, 2014
This book also came out last year in the U.S., but it was originally published in Germany in 2014. It is breathtakingly beautiful, in the illustrations and also the text. Huang Xiumin did a wonderful job translating it.
Xiao Le (pronounced Shall La) is a very little boy who has a grandma that lives in the faraway Perfume Village. He does not see her often, and then surprisingly his mother announces a trip to visit her. Xiao Le is excited to ride the train and wants to show his grandma his truck. But when they arrive, he is scared by the grandma that he doesn’t know very well, who looks much older than the picture he has at home, and who is also laying in bed as if ill. It takes a while for him to warm up to her, but soon he is helping her and having a lovely time playing in her garden as she teaches him to twine sorrel in a game his mother used to play.
At the end of their visit, he looks forward to seeing her again. But that never happens. Xiao Le struggles to understand when his mother tells him his grandma has moved into heaven. He tries to comfort his mom as he watches her grieve and he continues to see things that remind him of grandma in the sun, the rain, and the wood sorrel in the yard. At the close of the book, Xiao Le and his mother are growing stronger in their grief and they discuss his grandma’s new Perfume Village and his concerns about his mother moving there someday too.
I find the illustrations in this book so achingly beautiful. The spread above is my very favorite. The palette of the images is so dark and yet lovely at the same time. I also love the young age of the protagonist and how he sets the tone for the way the deep topic is handled. There is no hiding the grief or disguising the truth about death, but it is discussed in an appropriate and respectful way – both for the boy and his grandma.
While I wish there was no need for books like this, I greatly appreciate their ability to open discussion on such a difficult topic, and also help adults and children alike grieve. I hope you find beauty and aid in these as well.