Do you remember when Charlotte crawled across her web and wrote “SOME PIG!” about her beloved Wilbur?
How about when Jess and Leslie discover the Bridge to Terabithia?
Both these children’s books bring us joy and fill us with nostalgia. While their scenes and special moments remain with us, they also contain one of the hardest and heaviest topics that make even adults stir uncomfortably: death.
And yet, Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia are both stories that have endured within our cultural psyche and earned their place among the classics on our shelves.
Death may not seem like a topic we broach with children unless we absolutely must, but the pain of loss, the complexity of grief — simple as it may sound — is a part of life’s learning process. Whether the pain of Charlotte’s death due to old age, or Leslie’s sudden passing after a tragic accident — the sadness remains with us, and that’s not a bad thing.
C. S. Lewis wrote “a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say … the form makes it easier to see into the depths, even of death.” Childhood may be thought as a blissful state of innocence and naivety, leaving many adults skittering around emotionally heavier topics. But if done with care, introducing children to concepts loss and grief through books can aid during major transitions and difficulties.
Gustave by Remy Simard and Pierre Pratt is a picture book that contains strong colours and compelling imagery. It’s marketed to children as young as four, and while a simple story — it’s also a difficult one. Gustave has lost his brother. In the silent yet suspenseful plot that ensues, with the use of a select few words; Gustave comes to terms with what has happened. It may seem “too much,” after all; no child should be exposed to such a horrific idea of a mouse losing his brother to a cat.
But this is something, writes academic Judith P. Moss, which must be discussed. Otherwise, we would be blind to what child psychologists have already affirmed — children know about death before we give them credit. Moss says her own children began asking about death from the age of three. To let their questions go answered, to let their fears fester because our own fears of ageing and dying are so great, is to ignore questions that come as naturally as any other. “Death has replaced the topic of reproduction,” Moss goes on to write. “Dying has replaced reproduction as the hush-hush topic between parents and children.”
We cannot inure ourselves, no matter our age, from the topic of death. It will always make us uncomfortable. But stories compel healing and deepen understanding.
Not all books that deal with the subject matter of death are forthright in their approach. Take Raina Telgemeier — author of the phenomenal bestseller Smile — with her recent graphic novel Ghosts. A family moves to a foggy town to get younger sister Maya better treatment for her cystic fibrosis, which as we know, is a chronic condition with a grim prognosis. Her old sister Cat is also contending with the struggles of an ill sister. Together, they are introduced to a town immersed in the Day of the Dead celebration. And while not as direct as Gustave, through engaging narrative and imagery, both sisters tackle the issue of dying and the loss of loved ones. Many people have told me Ghosts is their favourite Telgemeier book.
To think of death in children’s book is to reassess our perception not only of children’s content, but a child’s own level of understanding. Books are a powerful medium that allows for quiet contemplation and brings to light subjects some may otherwise, be too nervous to discuss aloud. So, as we continue to buy and give kid’s books, we should not be afraid to pick up the ones that make us a bit uncomfortable; they will do our children and us a great service.
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