Reviews from 4—7 years
1 May 2008Add to My Folder
Sally Nicholls takes a look at some of the best books to deal with death, divorce and other difficult issues
My Big (Strange) Happy Family! by Karen McCombie and Lydia Monks (Walker Books, ISBN 9781406300789)
This book is part of a larger series and is aimed at slightly older children, but don’t be put off – it works perfectly well as a stand-alone title. Ten-year-old Indie loves her Mum and her Dad. She knows her parents don’t love each other anymore, but can her big, complicated family hang together if the two most important members of it don’t even like each other?
This probably isn’t the best book to share with a child whose parents are newly divorced – Indie’s parents separated when she was very small and her situation is relatively stable. What it does do, however, is explore the complexities of growing up with divided parents and celebrates the fact that messy, unconventional families are often very happy ones. Indie’s family lives in two different houses and includes giant snails, didgeridoo-playing lodgers and deely-bopping stepbrothers. But it works, and that’s the most important thing of all.
Home Now by Lesley Beake and Karin Litttlewood (Frances Licoln Children’s Books, ISBN 9781845976382)
Some picture books are simply beautiful, and Home Now is one of them. Illustrated in soft, vibrant colours, it conjures up an Africa which is vivid, strong and instantly appealing.
Sieta’s parents have died of AIDS and she lives with her aunty in a place which is Home Now. But this little girl in a red dress prefers to live in the pictures in her head, where home is ‘a green garden in a dry land’, with geraniums, ‘one pink and one red’. Until one day she meets Satara, an orphaned baby elephant. Caring for the baby elephant helps Sieta to see that Home Now is full of people who are ‘not always happy’, but who are courageous and strong and are working together to build themselves new lives.
Sally recently won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2008 for her first book Ways to Live Forever (Marion Lloyd Books, ISBN 9781407104997). Click here to find out more about Sally and this inspiring debut
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake (Walker Books, ISBN 9781406313161)
Powerfully and beautifully written, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is a modern classic. Written as a response to the children who asked him about his son Eddie, who died of meningitis, it is an honest and revealing look at depression in general and grief in particular.
Unlike most children’s books on this subject, it doesn’t end with ‘Billy was still sad sometimes but things had got better’ – Rosen wrote it in the middle of a depression and the sadness is still very much there. He offers some suggestions on how to deal with your feelings, but the ‘happy ending’ is not there and the actual ending is deeply unresolved.
I suspect that this unresolved ending makes it a better book, and certainly a more honest one, but as an adult reader it left me feeling unsettled, and I think as a child I would have found it even more so. Definitely a book worth buying, but perhaps one best read with an adult there to talk it through with a child.
Death by Janine Amos (Cherrytree Books, ISBN 9781842344996)
I’ve always been a little suspicious of non-fiction picture books on emotional topics – I find it hard to connect with the thinly-imagined characters and overly simplistic lessons, preferring more textured stories like the others reviewed. This book is definitely one of the better ones available, however, and deserves a mention if only for one point: ‘Sophie’s dead and I don’t feel sad’.
With so many books concentrating on sadness, this one deserves praise for recognising that children – like adults – feel complicated emotions when they grieve, including relief and selfishness. It is structured as a mixture of imaginary letters, longer, more developed stories, and practical advice to grieving children. The advice is simple and sensible, and the longer stories give readers a real chance to connect with the characters, while being subtle enough to let them find their own similarities between the fictional children and their personal narratives.
Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr (HarperCollins Children’s Books, ISBN 978007149698)
Mog the cat is dead tired. ‘I want to sleep forever’ she thinks. So she does. But a little bit of her stays awake to see what happens next. What happens next is that her family get a new kitten, who turns out to be useless – it hates being stroked, is scared of everything and doesn’t want to play with the children. Can Mog help it become a real family pet?
The charm of this book lies in Mog’s complacent observations of her family (‘It’s quite true – I was very lovely’) and her matter-of-fact acceptance of her death and the new kitten. She remains her practical and egotistical self throughout – a valuable reminder not to canonise the dead.
This would be a good book to help a child with the death of a pet, though the happy ending provided by replacing a dead animal with a new one may be less appropriate for a child suffering a human bereavement.
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Motherbridge of Love Illustrated by Josée Masse (Barefoot Books, ISBN 9781846860478)
Based on an anonymous poem sent to the charity Mothers’ Bridge of Love, this is a celebration of the gifts an adopted child receives both from her adoptive mother and the birth mother she has never met.
While it is obvious from the illustrations that the girl in the story is a Chinese child with a Western mother, this book could be read with any child adopted as a baby – although it has perhaps less relevance to children with memories of their mother. At times the poem is a little literary, and a young child in particular may need it explained to them in more concrete terms. But the book itself is beautiful and the overall message is valuable to any child who feels isolated from the family or country of their birth.