Picture books that explore themes of grief and loss

Digital Marketing Manager Lian Hingee shares some of her best picks for picture books that explore themes of grief and loss.

Grief and sadness are complicated feelings for anyone, and it can be difficult to have conversations about loss and bereavement – particularly with children who might be experiencing it for the first time. Sharing a picture book that examines those themes can be a good way to open up a discussion, answer challenging questions or even just allow a younger reader to understand that their feelings are normal.

Here are some of the books I often recommend for talking about these themes with children.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book should be at the top of everyone’s list – adult or child. This incredibly powerful picture book, illustrated to perfection by Quentin Blake, chronicles Michael Rosen’s experience of grief after the death of his son from meningitis at the age of 19. It’s not so much a book about death, but – as the title suggests – a book about sadness.

In his matter-of-fact way, Rosen explains that grief isn’t constant. Rather, it ebbs and flows. Sometimes he’s ashamed of it, sometimes it makes him angry. Sometimes he’s sad for no reason, sometimes it can make him do crazy things. By depicting grief in this varied way, the book can help children understand that it comes in different forms and for different reasons – and every way is okay, normal and valid.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

A young girl shares her deep and abiding curiosity for the world with her father. When one day her father is gone, the girl locks her heart away in a bottle, thinking to protect it from further harm. But without her heart she no longer finds joy in the things she used to share with her father, and it’s not until many years later that she realises the bottle has become a prison, not a refuge.

Oliver Jeffers allegorical story about loss, The Heart and the Bottle encourages kids to engage with the complicated feelings around loss, instead of avoiding them.

Small Things by Mel Tregonning

Mel Tregonning was a young artist who lost her battle with mental illness in 2014. She left behind a unfinished graphic novel called Small Things about a boy who struggles with with feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. After Mel’s death, her family approached Shaun Tan, one of Australia’s most respected illustrators, who stepped in to help finish the final pages of the book.

The result is a poignant, wordless, picture book that allows children the space to grieve, but also strongly encourages them to understand that they’re not alone.

Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between is a classic, and for good reason. First published in 1983, and beautifully illustrated by iconic Australian illustrator Robert Ingpen, it’s on the recommended reading list for almost every organisation dealing with terminal illnesses. Bryan Mellonie explains the cyclical nature of life in an empathetic but straightforward manner: ‘There is a beginning and an ending to everything that is alive. In between is a lifetime.’

If you want to discuss the ‘why’ and ‘how’ with your kids without getting too emotive, Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between is an excellent place to start.

The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup

In The Memory Tree, Fox has come to the end of his long and happy life. After he lies down in the forest and ‘falls asleep, forever’, his friends come together to share their memories of their time together. As they tell their stories a tree grows, growing taller and stronger.

This lovely book encourages children to remember the happy times, and to keep the memory of whoever that have lost alive by celebrating them.

Notable mentions

What happened to Daddy’s Body explains what happens to the body after a person dies. Written by Elke Barber and her son Alex, it’s based on real conversations that Elke had with her children after her husband suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 34.

The companion book, Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute is helpful for explaining a sudden, unexpected death.

Lian Hingee

Cover image for Small Things

Small Things

Mel Tregonning

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