Secular Books for Kids – by Octavia

I work in a children’s library, and to be honest I don’t do all that much. Mostly I just skulk amongst the picture books. Hey, I like picture books! Anyway, one day I came across Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, so to fill my day I went around looking for other picture books that dealt with death – and didn’t have any mention of religion.

It was surprisingly hard. Lots of books mentioned church services, prayers, heaven, and God, although many confined these things to a throwaway line, or an illustration of a church funeral. The books that were open-minded enough to say “No one knows exactly what happens” almost always included religious viewpoints with the non-religious ones. Even my perennial favourites (Judith Kerr’s Mog books) had Mog the cat return as a ghost to help her family adjust to her death. It wasn’t specifically religious, but it was definitely after-lifey. I found that the picture books that were completely non-religious in tone were mostly the ones that dealt not with death itself, but with the grieving process afterwards.

So this month’s kids section is on secular picture books about death. I’ve picked the best ones that I know (both fiction and non-fiction) and there’s a list of links at the bottom to others.


Sad Book by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake

rosenMichael Rosen is currently the UK’s fifth Children’s Laureate, a position he will hold until 2009. The Sad Book benefits not only from Rosen’s writing, but from the illustrations of the first elected Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake (who most kids will know by picture if not by name as “the guy who illustrates the Roald Dahl books”).

The Sad Book is a picture book about dealing with grief – and it is a true story, dealing with Rosen’s reaction to the death of his 18 year old son, Eddie, from meningococcal septicaemia in 1999.

Rosen is brutally honest about his reactions to his son’s death. There is nothing pretty about the anger or depression or the desire to “disappear” – reactions that continue to haunt him as the seasons change. It’s the passage of time that is one of the most interesting facets of this book. It doesn’t address Eddie’s death itself, or his funeral, just the long, dreary months afterwards and the ongoing grief of the author.

There’s no happy ending, of course. How can there be? What ending there is is bittersweet – the author sitting in the dark staring at a picture frame that we can only see from the back, with only a candle to provide light.

It’s depressing. In many ways, it’s also a picture book for adults, one of the few that crosses the generation gap. So why add it to your child’s bookshelf?

For one thing: the sheer genius of Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are simple but wrenching – the most affecting being a blank box, symbolising the end of Eddie’s life. The first illustration in the book was drawn fifteen times before Blake got it right. It accompanies the words “This me being sad. Maybe you think I’m being happy in this picture. Really I’m being sad but pretending I’m being happy. I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad” and shows Rosen with a big cheesy grin – but look a little closer, and you can see the grin is too broad, the eyes too manic. Those eyes will degenerate into scribbles as memories overwhelm the narrator. Blake uses a muted palette, matching the mood of the text to the illustrations, often showing a progressively more washed out scene where the similar pictures barely change apart from the lack of colour, and the tones reflect perfectly the understated text. It really is a tour de force of illustration; there is nothing in the Dahl books that comes close to matching it.

Primarily, though, it is Rosen’s sparse commentary that gives this book its emotional punch. His feelings are made quietly plain without hysteria or melodrama, and are easily translatable across the generation gap, and his attempts to explore different ways of making himself stop feeling sad all the time, interspersed with his memories of his son, are heart-breaking, and wholly understandable. There’s even a touch of black humour (exactly what did happen to the cat, and why is it unfair on it to tell?) amidst the bleakness. There is also, strangely, hope. This resonates particularly well with children. It tells them they are not alone, and that the desire to disappear into their sadness need not be a permanent one.

If you only get one book for your kid to teach him or her how to deal with grief, make it this one. The grateful reviews from parents on say it all. It really is wonderful.


The Very Best of Friends by Maragret Wild, illustrated by Julie Vivas

Winner of the 1990 CBC Book of the Year Award, Australian Margaret Wild’s book tells the story of farm couple Jessie and James, and James’ spoilt moggy, William. When James suddenly dies, William is left alone with Jessie, who is not fond of cats. While she doesn’t exactly mistreat William, she becomes very unfriendly to him – almost completely ignoring him, and this treatment, combined with his own grief for James, turns William into a wild cat: “He grew mean and lean, and hated everything and everyone.”

Kids who read this book are likely to initially feel sympathy only for the unhappy cat. This is helped along by Vivas’ illustrations, which change from rounded, bright shapes to darker and spikier pictures. She has an interesting eye, and all her animals (including the humans!) are particularly good. What sets this book apart from the rest, however, is its subtle portrayal of Jessie’s grief, and it’s here where Mum and Dad might need to step in to help expand their child’s sympathy past William. Parents who read this book with their kids will be able to point out that Jessie has fallen into a deep sadness, and cares for herself no more than she cares for William. Their eventual reconciliation emphasises the need to treat bereaved family members and friends with care, even when they hurt you in their grief.

A Little Bit of Rob by Barbara J. Turner, illustrated by Marni Backer
This book explores the idea of the death of a child from the perspective of the surviving sibling. A month after Rob’s death, his little sister Lena and her parents go crab fishing for the first time without their son and brother. The family is obviously struggling to deal with Rob’s death, and Lena is afraid to show her grief or even mention his name in case it upsets her parents even more: “If I cried, Mom would, too. Maybe even Dad. And we were all trying to be strong. We were all trying to pretend nothing had changed.”

Obviously, the fact that the book is narrated in the first person by a child gives it an immediacy to young readers that many books of this kind don’t have, and it allows them to easily sympathise with Lena. The unusual setting – night fishing for crabs – also gives interest, especially as the illustrations resonate with the text. Backer’s evocative oil paintings are rather sophisticated illustrations for a picture book, but the initial darkness is punctuated by the lights meant to draw out the crabs (reflecting the reminders of Rob that begin to seep through the family’s reluctance to directly address his death) and ends with a more golden palette as dawn approaches and the family take comfort in remembering Rob.

Lifetimes by David L. Rice, illustrated by Michael S. Maydak

This one’s a bit of an odd duck to include, as it more about life than death. I’m adding it into this section, however, because of its emphasis on the cycle of life and death as part of the natural world – although the naturalness of death is more implied than stated outright.

Lifetimes focuses very strongly on the natural world and the differences between the lengths of life in different species – and even, at the end, the Earth and the Sun. It begins with the mayfly: “A lifetime for a mayfly is about one day.” A brief life cycle follows, with some interactive questions included to get kids to wonder about a life that length: “Tell about a time when you got a lot done in just one day.” This sets the pattern for the rest of the book, which includes such lifetimes as a hermit crab, a Venus flytrap (18 years!), a chimpanzee, bacteria, dinosaurs, and the universe.

It’s a nice, factual little book that strongly emphasises life cycles, science and environmentalism. An especially interesting touch is the questions, experiments, and activities suggested by each creature/object. The illustrations are bright and interesting, although in all honesty they are fairly generic, and don’t rise to the level of Blake or Vivas (both of whom have styles that could be instantly recognised at ten paces).

Other secular picture books on death
(with thanks to Ana H. for providing the list):

If you and your kids have come across any books that would fit well here, drop us a line and we’ll add your find to the list. Books should be either completely secular or (if including some references to spirituality) be so vague as to not cause offence to nontheists.

Am I Still a Sister? – Alicia M. Sims
The Fall of Freddie Leaf – Leo Buscaglia
Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying – Joyce C. Mills and Cary Pillo
The Gift of a Memory – Marianne Richmond
The Goodbye Boat – Mary Joslin and Claire St. Louis Little
Goodbye Mousie – Roby H. Harris and Jan Ormerod
Help Me Say Goodbye – Janis Silverman
I Miss You: A First Look at Death – Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker
Losing Uncle Tim – Marykate Jordan and Judith Friedman
The Next Place – Warren Hanson
Sad Isn’t Bad – Michaelene Mundy and Robert W. Alley
Sun and Spoon – Kevin Henkes
Tear Soup – Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and Taylor Bills
Water Bugs and Dragonflies – Doris Stickney
What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? – Trevor Romain
When Someone Very Special Dies – Marge Heegaard
When Your Grandparent Dies – Victoria Ryan and Robert W. Alley

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