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The Magic Tree

When I was growing up I used to revel in stories that my parents told me about their childhoods (particularly the ones when they were naughty). As Ben can’t regale Sas with these tales himself, it’s down to those who were with him – his parents, sisters, aunties, cousins – to share as much with her of the little boy Ben as they can possibly remember.

Ben’s Mum, Delia, did just this yesterday when she dug out some of his school books from when he was at infant school and told Sas and I about how he loved writing stories and showed great talent, even at the age of five. Then she started to read them out loud to Saskia, including this little gem, called ‘The Magic Tree’ (you can just about read it if you enlarge it a bit)

'The Magic Tree' by Ben, aged 5

‘The Magic Tree’ by Ben, aged 5

 

There was beauty in that act – it brought father and daughter together, through these treasured stories, now read in the arms of the woman who has in her life held both of them on her knee.

It gives me an image of our family not as a line, with a gap where Ben once was, but as an enfolding, encompassing circle, where shared stories and love across the generations continuously fuse us together.

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‘When Dinosaurs Die’ and other tales: Eight children’s books about death and bereavement

Although we don’t like to think about it, the truth is most children will experience the death of someone close to them. According to Childhood Bereavement UK, 92% of children will have experienced a ‘significant’ bereavement before the age of 16. So having a book or two to hand isn’t just a good idea for families like ours, it’s a good idea for any family.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve been on a bit of a spending spree lately – curious to find out more about the books that are available and to find one that fits with the conversations that Saskia and I (and her young friends and their parents) have been having lately about Ben. And I’ve discovered some amazing books – some heart-breaking, some bizarre, some practical, some metaphorical.

Though none is a perfect fit for where Saskia is right now, and our own unique situation, I envisage that all will work as useful resources at some stage, even if it’s just a page here or a bit of dialogue there. So here’s a bit more about the ones I’ve got so far…

1. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

This is a non-fiction book with page headings such as ‘What Does Alive Mean?’ and ‘Why Does Someone Die?’, and is all told in cartoon-strip style by a host of unusual looking dinosaurs (not like any I learned about at school). It deals with everything from reasons for death, to feelings about it, different ideas about what happens after life, and ways of saying goodbye. Its target audience is obviously older than Saskia as a three year old, and there are parts that are too sophisticated that I would skip over, but in general its pragmatism is a really good fit for the very literal kind of questions that Saskia, and her friends, tend to ask. Also, with its non-fiction format, it isn’t as emotionally charged as some of the story books – which can be saving grace sometimes.

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2. Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is one of the heart-breakers, as you can probably gather from the title. It’s a richly-illustrated picture book, with real life dialogue between Elke and her three-year old son Alex after the sudden death of his father from a heart attack. The latter half of  the book will be particularly valuable to us, as Alex asks Elke questions such as ‘Mummy, will you have to die?’ and ‘Who will look after me when you die Mummy?’ and she gives wonderfully vivid, easy to understand explanations, using pictures and nature to show what she means. I can definitely see myself turning to this as a reference book for inspiration on how to answer these tricky questions.

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3. What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is the Barber’s second book, and is again based on real conversations between Elke and Alex, this time about his Daddy’s cremation and the spreading of his ashes. There’s also a part where Alex asks about burial and Elke gives an explanation that I think I should memorise it’s so good! Amidst Jarvis’ gorgeous illustration of autumn woodland, Elke’s words compare the dead leaves that turn into soil and feed the ground to what happens to a buried body – ‘Wow’ says Alex. ‘That’s really cool.’

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4. The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb
This book will delight you then with the turn of a page completely take your breath away. The dancing rhythm of the words and childish simplicity of the pictures belie the rich and poignant subtext of loss, memory and regeneration that suddenly come into the story. Though the impact of this subtext is powerful to adults, for very young children it is so subtle that most would be unaware of it. At three, Saskia loves the book simply for its music, humour and imagination. As she gets older, its beautiful and positive messages will no doubt begin to sink in and move her as they do me.

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5. Missing Mummy: A book about bereavement by Rebecca Cobb

In this book, the illustrator of The Paper Dolls, Rebbecca Cobb, is both illustrator and writer. Told in first person by a young child (helpfully the gender is not explicit so we say she’s a girl) whose Mummy has died, the story deftly tells of her confused feelings about her Mummy’s death and then of how, through talks with her Daddy, she comes to understand more of what has happened and what her feelings mean. This book has worked out well for us and for a few weeks Saskia chose it every night as one of her bedtime reading books. The reason I like it is that it has a very light touch, the minimal text only glancing over the different emotions and themes. This makes it easier to weave our own story into it, and skip over less relevant parts and draw out and explore more relevant ones. Don’t get me wrong though – its lack of detail doesn’t mean lack of depth  – it’s simple text and pictures cut right to the heart.

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 6. Water Bugs and Dragon Flies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney

First published in 1982, this is the oldest of  the books I have. It’s an allegorical tale about a colony of water bugs who wonder what happens to their friends when they disappear above the water, never to return. They promise to come back to tell if it happens to them, but when one of them finds himself climbing up the lily stalk and transformed into a dragonfly, he realises that he cannot go back below the water any more. Instead, he flies away on the breeze, knowing that his friends will discover the truth for themselves one day. It’s a lovely way of painting the afterlife, and one that can be adapted to any creed. The big drawback, however, is that the small and delicate water colour illustrations are not like the large and engaging pictures that modern children are used to in their books. It’s certainly not a book that will catch Saskia’s eye, but then it’s an easy story to remember and retell so can stand alone without the book itself.

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7. Always and Forever by Debi Gliori and Alan Durant

Always and Forever is about a group of woodland animals whose friend, Fox, gets ill and dies. After a long period when they lock themselves away with their sadness, a visit from another friend, Squirrel, helps them to start celebrating their friend’s life rather than just commiserating his loss. It ends with them talking about how Fox will live on in their hearts and memories forever. This would be a lovely book for children who are suffering grief and seeing their families go through it, helping them to see ways back to happiness, and to know that it is ok to feel happy.

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8. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

This is a bizarre one and takes some getting used to. The two characters are Duck and yes…Death – no scythe or black hood, but he is a skeleton in a dress, and therefore not at all the kind of character most Brits would be comfortable with in a children’s book. I say Brits because Erlbruch is German – I don’t know much about German culture but perhaps it’s a more common sight in their children’s literature. I’m fascinated by its unconventionality, and my slightly appalled gut reaction to it. I also feel an affinity with its message that death is always with us, a part of life that we should not fear. I read it to Saskia once – she quite liked it, and asked for a second reading. It certainly didn’t spook her. But I think it’s too old for her in general – the colours are too washed out and spartan, the themes too abstract to appeal to her at this age. Maybe when she’s older – although she might be as weirded out as I am by it by then!

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So that’s the lot – a collection that I hope will be useful to us both going forward – and maybe to friends and family too as they face the little darlings’ tough questions. If you’ve read any of these books, or any others, and have any comments to add, I’d love to hear them.


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Reading with Sas about death

Not long after Ben died I started searching around online for books for children about death and bereavement. I found a few books that I ordered but nothing was quite right. For a long time I didn’t bother with any more, but recently, after conversations with friends who are keen to know what’s out there for them and their children (as they’re kind of in this with me – they need to answer their two or three year old’s questions about where Saskia’s Daddy is), I decided to do a bit more research and get hold of some more.

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I now have quite a stash (rundown of these to follow in my next post). Of course, as curious as I am to see what Saskia makes of them, it’s not right to inundate her. With reading, as with our conversations, I want to draw on the books in response to what she says and what’s going on in our lives, rather than force the topic on her. I actually see them more as a resource than anything – books to introduce when the need arises and pages to refer to for ideas about how to explain a certain thing. After all, unlike most books for children of her age, there’s inevitably a lot of sadness in them – why dwell on this if she’s ok and happy?

This is a bit of dilemma for me with one particular aspect of the books: the fact that most of them are told from the point of view of characters (some are animals, some are young children) who are grieving: suffering sadness, guilt, fear, anger. Saskia is happy – her very young age when Ben died (only 16 months) and the fact that he didn’t disappear suddenly, but slipped gradually from her life due to his illness – means that she hasn’t as yet suffered the typical feelings associated with grief.

So to an extent I’m concerned that these stories might give her the impression that she should be feeling sad, that this is the normal or right way for a child to feel. On the other I think, well if she ever did begin to feel feelings of grief, at least through reading the books we would have opened up doors for talking about it.

As usual, I’m probably over thinking and common sense is all that’s needed. I certainly won’t force the books down her throat, but I won’t hide them away either. They’ll be on the book shelf with all the others, and if she wants to read one then great, and I guess we can talk about the feelings that the characters are going through and chat about what she feels or doesn’t feel. It’s me that goes through all the angst about this after all – she tends to just proclaim ‘Next! or ‘Again!’ without a slither of apparent emotion!

I’ll write more in my next post about the books we’ve got and which ones I recommend.


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Death and The Snowman

When I picked up The Snowman DVD box set for Saskia’s stocking this Christmas, I was really just thinking of it as a cosy Christmas classic, feeling sentimental about watching it as a child and imagining how she’d love it. She has absolutely adored it, and this rainiest of Januarys has, in our household, been a snowy one, with regular viewings (I confess often several times in a row when I’ve bowed to her toddler-dictator demands) of both the original 1982 film and the modern sequel The Snowman and the Snow Dog.

But I’d completely forgotten, and perhaps just been so swept away with the gooey Christmas nostalgia that surrounds the film, that it’s as much about death as it is about flying through the air and meeting Santa. Both films end with a young boy knelt sadly beside a mound of snow and a few clothes – all that remains of his melted snowman friend.

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In the Snowman and Snowdog sequel, death appears right at the beginning of the story too, when the boy’s dog dies and he and his Mum are seen burying him in the garden.

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When I watch this scene I am struck by how resonant it is of our recent trip to Ben’s grave. There’s a tree, a mother and a child, and treasured objects laid on the grave. I’ve been watching to see if Saskia has made this link and I don’t think she has, certainly not as strongly as I have. I don’t want to push it, but I did mention once as we watched that the tree was like Daddy’s special tree. She didn’t really say anything, and usually now when we’re watching, she adds her own commentary for me (in case I’m getting lost in the complexities of the plot) and when we get to this point she let’s me know “the doggy’s died, Mummy” in the same, rather pleased with herself way that she narrates every other scene. No great feelings of poignancy apparent!

What I like, I guess, is that these films deal with death in a way that is matter of fact, and sensitive. I know that both films are sentimental, and that the 1982 film sugar-coated the original Raymond Briggs story by adding the Christmas elements, but I don’t mind that so much. I just appreciate the fact that on some level the stories are teaching Saskia the idea that death is a fact of life – we will all die, just like a snowman will always melt. So far we haven’t come across many stories (either in books or on film) that feature death so this has been an interesting first for us. I would be really interested in recommendations for stories that deal with death sensitively from anyone reading this – it’s a theme I’d like to revisit in a later post I think.

Finally, for your interest, here’s a link to an article in the Independent in which Raymond Briggs talks about the theme of death in his book and how the story was ‘hijacked’ by Christmas.