Kids have dealt with a lot in the last year, says Ashley McCall, a third grade teacher in Chicago.
“Our students have had COVID-19, have watched relatives struggle through COVID-19, and lost relatives. And yet the world keeps spinning around them with seemingly little interruption or change in what’s expected of them,” she said. To help students name their emotions and develop coping strategies, McCall and her colleague Lindsay Singer developed social studies and reading units centered around children’s books about “big feelings.”
In Brooklyn, when schools were closed last spring, social worker Maria Garcia also turned to books to connect with grieving students. She partnered with a local bookstore to send “bereavement baskets” to students at her Brooklyn elementary school who lost family members to coronavirus. Garcia said the baskets were a way to “acknowledge their grief until we were able to provide something more solid in terms of counseling and services.”
Adriana White, a middle school librarian in San Antonio, Texas, also sees the value in literature about loss. She has shared books with grief themes through individual recommendations and a virtual book display. “Kids may not be ready or willing to talk about their feelings of grief right away,” she said. “They need time to process. And books about grief can help bridge that gap between being alone in your pain and reaching out to others for healing.”
Even as vaccination efforts offer hope for the pandemic’s end, and as more schools reopen, the road to healing may just be starting for many students. Here are 18 books recommended by educators to help along the way.
The Invisible String
written by Patrice Karst and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
This picture book was one included in the bereavement baskets for Garcia’s students. First published in 2000, it has become a staple for educators, therapists and caregivers helping children cope with loneliness and loss. It revolves around the idea of children being connected to adults through an invisible string of love. In 2019, Karst co-authored The Invisible String Workbook: Creative Activities to Comfort, Calm, and Connect, with art therapist Dana Wyss.
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief
by Marge Eaton Heegaard
This one is an activity book with spaces for children to draw and reflect while processing emotions. It was also included in the bereavement baskets for Garcia’s students.
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown and
I Miss You: a First Look at Death
by Pat Thomas
Well-meaning grown-ups sometimes talk about heaven, sleeping forever or someone being in the sky instead of directly explaining death to kids. Garcia said those ideas can cause confusion, fear and anxiety. She uses both of these books in her office to give children clear information about death. Particularly for children under age 7, who struggle to understand the permanency of death, didactic books can be important, Garcia said. “Because adults understand story based books they often feel like it’s a better way to explain it to kids, but developmentally that’s not always true. It depends on where the student is in their understanding of death.”
by Sebastian Loth
Featuring a friendship between an aging turtle and a young goose, Abby Harrison, a school librarian in Addison, Texas, said this picture book is her go-to purchase for grieving families. And its comforting words and images aren’t just for children. “It helped me as an adult when I lost my beloved grandmother and my kids when they lost their grandfather,” she said.
The Rabbit Listened
by Cori Doerrfeld
A simple story with a profound heart. When things come crashing down (literally) in Taylor’s world, a stream of animals offer advice on ways to cope. But the rabbit offers what Taylor needs most of all: a steady presence and listening ear. Reading teacher Dena Rice wrote on Twitter that the empathetic takeaway from this book resonates with middle schoolers, too.
Death Is Stupid
by Anastasia Higginbotham
Part of the author’s “Ordinary Terrible Things” series, this frank picture book acknowledges that grief is hard and adults’ platitudes aren’t always helpful. Illustrated in magazine cut-outs and fabric scraps on a grocery bag background, it gives voices to the frustrations children may feel in addition to sadness after losing a loved one.
One Wave at a Time: A Story about Grief and Healing
written by Holly Thompson and illustrated by Ashley Crowley
With lyrical text and washes of color conveying waves of emotion, Kai moves through daily routines as he heals from his father’s death. “This book shows that there is no one way, no right way and no wrong way to experience grief,” said McCall.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
by John David Anderson
“Adults forget that kids feel especially powerless. They have no agency to make things better and very little life experience to equip them with ways to handle grief,” said Harrison. In this novel, three boys who “most people don’t expect much from” take action to give their beloved and terminally ill teacher a special day. Though their teacher’s death “forever changes them” they also realize “that her life will forever shape them,” Harrison said.
by Christina Collins
Featuring a main character coping with anxiety that has progressed to mutism, this is “a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful,” said White. “Elise’s struggles with mental health and grief will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like the world was too loud, too demanding or too overwhelming.”
King and the Dragonflies
by Kacen Callender
Not long after 12-year-old King’s brother dies, his best friend goes missing. In this middle grade novel set in rural Louisiana, the author “explores how grief affects families while also masterfully tackling larger issues like race, masculinity, and identity, including LGBTQ identity,” said White.
When You Trap a Tiger
by Tae Keller
“This is a story about a girl whose family moves in with her grandmother, but it is also so much more,” said White. A “tale of grief, family and identity,” the book is interwoven with Korean folklore and shows its main character, along with readers, the power of stories.
The Boy in the Black Suit
by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds is “known for writing about tough topics in an authentic way that respects the emotions and struggles of his young readers,” said White. In this novel, the protagonist, Matt, works at a funeral home while simultaneously grieving the loss of his mother.
The Truth Is
by NoNieqa Ramos
While coping with the recent death of her best friend, Verdad finds herself falling for a new classmate, who is transgender. Her new relationship prompts questions about her own identity and tension with her mother. “Many teens not only struggle with grieving for the loss of a loved friend or family member, but as they come-of-age, they grieve for childhood, broken friendships and misguided parents,” according to Harrison. This novel, she said, “shines a light” on those challenges.
by Justin A. Reynolds
Themes of grief and loss aren’t limited to realistic teen fiction. High school English teacher Laura Malafarina described Early Departures as “a poignant exploration of friendship & grief, with a sci-fi twist” featuring “smart, witty banter and dynamic characters.”
The Patron Saints of Nothing
by Randy Ribay
Words Alive, a nonprofit that organizes teen book clubs and other literacy programs in San Diego, wrote on Twitter that this 2019 National Book Award finalist “is a favorite for our students. It’s a beautiful novel about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.”
The Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X.R. Pan
After Leigh’s mother dies by suicide, the biracial teen becomes convinced that her mom has turned into a bird. So Leigh travels to find her in Taiwan, where she also meets her maternal grandparents for the first time. “Pan’s writing is beautiful and magical, and Leigh’s grief is wonderfully interwoven with issues like identity, stigma, family, love and so much more,” said White.
Dancing at the Pity Party
by Tyler Feder
In this graphic memoir, Feder recounts losing her mother to cancer while in college and the difficult moments that followed, such as cleaning out her mom’s closet or celebrating holidays without her. “This book is part memoir, part how-to, and most importantly a celebration of her mother’s life,” said Harrison. “It’s the perfect book for someone who has suffered a loss and the perfect book for someone trying to understand a friend who has suffered loss.”