Narratives and storytelling are universally a part of the healing process after a major loss or crisis. Children’s picture books serve a valuable purpose in giving voice to big things little ones may not be able to explain, validating their thoughts and reactions and equipping them with ideas to cope and move toward healing. We don’t have to underestimate the power of storytelling for older children (young people, students) as well – even junior high or high school students can see the poetry and narrative elements in books designed for young readers and use them as a mold or template to tell their own stories.
After you read, consider engaging in a discussion to process the story and make connections, opening the door to ongoing communication using the language and framing of the story. Specifically when stories use analogies or metaphors, it is helpful to make things concrete and clear for young people and adolescents alike.
A few questions that you can offer students to consider while reading together or when processing the story:
- What did you connect with in this story?
- How are you and the main character similar? Different?
- Which part of the story felt like something you have felt recently?
- What questions do you want to ask after reading this story?
- How are you feeling after reading this story?
- What are you learning about yourself from this story?
Here are a few recommended picture books.
The Rabbit Listened (Cori Doerrfeld, 2015)
The emotions and reactions children feel in sadness and loss vary and change. One book, The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, follows Taylor, a young child processing the loss of something beautiful. Each animal comes to visit the child and offer advice or support in one specific way, until Rabbit comes along and let’s Taylor just sit, until Taylor is ready to feel what they need to feel. This book moves through a range of emotional responses to loss, from anger, revenge, sadness, remembering, and more. Order the book or watch a virtual read-aloud.
One Wave at A Time (Holly Thompson, 2018)
Using an extended metaphor, the book One Wave at A Time by Holly Thompson explores the cycle of grief in a way accessible to young children by comparing it to a wave. Sometimes the water is flat and feels dull, other times it is turbulent and crashes, just like our feelings and energy relating to loss. While this book deals explicitly with Kai and the loss of Kai’s dad, the themes can transcend through experiences. Order the book and check out this classroom guide from the author.
A Land Called Grief (Maddie Janes, 2020)
This book tracks the journey of the stages of grief, and readers walk through each stage of emotion and response as the main character journeys through a new strange land. This story does not linger on grief, however, but opens the door to hope and possibility, even within and after something sad. The main character, Jack, tries to adapt and respond to this new land, and readers will be able to connect and relate to each of his actions and decisions. Order the book and access a companion guide.
The Memory Tree (Britta Teckentrup, 2013)
The tree becomes a central figure in this story as a symbol for what can grow after a difficult loss. This story follows Fox, who becomes tired and falls into a forever sleep: death. His other animal friends begin to gather in his favorite spot, retelling memories and special stories of their friend Fox. As they share, the tree begins to grow bigger and fuller with each memory that is shared. This addresses themes of memorialization and remembering, and how something new can grow from sadness and loss. Check out the video telling of the story and / or order the book.
A Kid’s Book About Death (Taryn Schuelke, 2020)
This popular series of books covers a wide range of topics, and has been critically acclaimed. This iteration engages practically and carefully around the topic of death in clear and straightforward ways, and would make a great companion to read along with any of the books listed above. While many use analogy or metaphor, this book explains concepts in a nonfictional way, addressing emotions and facts clearly and sympathetically. Order this book.
Vacío (Anna Llenas Serra, 2015) en español
Vacio is a beautiful story narrating the process of grieving, connecting the emotional experience to a physical one. The main character has an unexpected loss, and feels a deep emptiness within herself, and she is unsure how to understand it. She experiences a range of emotions that cause her to search out possibilities to fill that emptiness, only to discover that she can learn to live with that emptiness, and complete herself in other beautiful ways. Order a copy of this book.
La balada del Rey y la muerte (Various Authors, 2012) en español
Featuring short illustrated stories from a variety of authors, this book follows the journey of a king who is looking to understand death. His advisors can explain how, but not always what or why, so the king decides to try to catch death herself. He looks to defeat her, living on for ages and ages, only to realize that without death, life is not life. Order a copy.
Native Stories on Grief and Loss (Various Authors)
Explore this book list from Strong Nations Publishing featuring books from Indigenous authors and storytellers around grieving and loss. Books offered range across ages and topics, offering beautiful storytelling, illustrations, and biographical stories.
Looking for more?
- Check out this downloadable list of recommended books for a variety of ages from the National Association of School Psychologists.
- The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has lesson plans, publications, and video resources to help open up discussions with students about death, dying, and grief by engaging their curiosity and creativity: Classroom Resources on Grief and Loss (Abdulhadi, 2021).
It’s never too young to talk to children about grief
These stories focus on grief and loss in a variety of ways, from analogy, storytelling, and nonfictional accounts.
Coupling these texts with conversation is important to help young people process what they read, and we are encouraged to use direct and concrete language: “this person died; their body stopped working” versus “they are no longer here or with us” which can create confusion.
Through storytelling, we build conversational bridges, finding ways to connect and create shared language.