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In a time of grief and loss, books can offer pathways to understanding, comfort, and healing. This bibliography of recent titles offers well-reviewed books for youth of all ages.
To state the obvious, COVID-19 has consumed us, and many families and communities are struggling with unprecedented grief. This bibliography offers stories that aim to help young people work through grief from the loss of friends, family members, and other loved ones. Rather than an exhaustive list, it comprises some of the most recent notable and relatable stories, with a few classics that still ring true.
Boats for Papa. By Jessixa Bagley. Illus. by the author. 2015. 40p. Roaring Brook (9781626720398). K–Gr. 2.Buckley, a young beaver, lives with his mama by the sea. He loves crafting boats from driftwood, but one thing is missing: Papa. When Buckley makes a special boat, he sets it adrift with a note to Papa. Over time he sends more boats to Papa. It’s only at the end that he discovers Mama has all the boats. Exquisite pacing and warm watercolors reflect Buckley as he absorbs and reacts to this information.
Cry, Heart, but Never Break. By Glenn Ringtved. Illus. by Charlotte Pardi. Tr. by Robert Moulthrop. 2016. 32p. Enchanted Lion (9781592701872). K–Gr. 2.Expressive watercolors illustrate this Danish import that depicts death in a matter-of-fact and never condescending tone. Four children live with their ailing grandmother in an isolated house. When a guest in a hooded cloak comes to visit, they immediately guess his purpose and attempt to delay him with coffee and hospitality. But Death uses a story to explain that life and death depend on each other.
The Funeral. By Matt James. Illus. by the author. 2018. 40p. Groundwood (9781554989089). K–Gr. 3.Norma is going to her Uncle Frank’s funeral, and while her parents are sad, she’s sort of happy because she gets to skip school and hang out with her favorite cousin, Ray. Accompanied by thickly painted, pleasantly busy artwork, this is a pretty accurate depiction of how young children with only a slight understanding of death experience a funeral and a warm reminder of some of the less somber elements of such an occasion.
The Goodbye Book. By Todd Parr. Illus. by the author. 2015. 32p. Little, Brown (9780316404976). PreS–Gr.1.With his trademark art style—simple shapes, bold colors, and thick lines—Parr offers an age-appropriate guide to grieving. As a bright-orange goldfish mourns the loss of its green, fishy companion, the orange fish experiences a wide range of emotions, affirming that there are lots of ways to feel about losing someone, and they are all OK. Parr’s encouraging ending also addresses healing over time.
Grandmother’s Visit. By Betty Quan. Illus. by Carmen Mok. 2018. 32p. Groundwood (9781554989546). K–Gr. 2.A young girl expresses love for her grandmother, who walks her to and from school, teaches her how to cook rice, and shares family stories. Then, one day, Grandmother is gone and a burial follows. The illustrations have a light touch with soft greens until the loss, when a darkness appears. The grandmother’s spirit returns to a lighted house for a final goodbye, emphasizing the connection to Chinese tradition.
Ida, Always. By Caron Levis. Illus. by Charles Santoso. 2016. 40p. Atheneum (9781481426404). PreS–Gr. 1.Inspired by a true story, this picture book focuses on Gus and Ida, a pair of polar bears in Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo. They spend every day together until one day, Ida doesn’t come out of her cave, and zookeeper Sonya explains that Ida is sick and won’t get better. Both Gus and Ida need time to process the news. Richly colored, quiet illustrations highlight this simple story of bereavement and friendship.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. By Michael Rosen. Illus. by Quentin Blake. 2005. 32p. Candlewick (9780763625979). K–Gr. 4.Illustrated with Blake’s signature scrawl, this book opens with an image of Rosen smiling. The heartfelt text reveals, however, that Rosen is actually sad and pretending to be happy. He’s sad because his son, Eddie, died. This provocative collaboration emotes Rosen’s intense grief but also how he manages bit by bit every day to continue living in the moment and find meaning despite the loss.
Mom’s Sweater. By Jayde Perkin. Illus. by the author. 2020. 32p. Eerdmans (9780802855442). PreS–Gr. 2.A young girl narrates the aftermath of losing her mother, taking readers through her various stages of grief. She deals with sadness and emptiness but also jealousy and resentment because other friends still have their mothers. When the girl comes across her mother’s favorite red sweater, her father explains that her grief is like the sweater: she will grow into it and won’t need to wear it every day.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden. By Heather Smith. Illus. by Rachel Wada. 2019. 32p. Orca (9781459821033). K–Gr. 2.Mr. Hirota likes to look for his daughter among the fish workers, while young Maiko looks for his dad. One day a tsunami takes both and many others in the Japanese fishing village away. When Mr. Hirota sets up an old-fashioned phone in his garden, Maiko and the community use the symbolic device to talk to their missing loved ones. Illustrated with traditional Japanese art forms, the story is based on actual events.
Rabbit and the Motorbike. By Kate Hoefler. Illus. by Sarah Jacoby. 2019. 48p. Chronicle (9781452170909). K–Gr. 3.Rabbit lives alone in a field of wheat just off the highway but never leaves. Instead, he relies on the stories of Dog who, in his youth, traveled the country on his motorbike, before growing old and sick. Then, one day, Dog’s visits stop and the motorbike is left to Rabbit. Without once mentioning death or grief, the gentle metaphors and soft illustrations evoke Rabbit’s range of emotions.
Remembering Ethan. By Lesléa Newman. Illus. by Tracy Nishimura Bishop. 2020. 40p. Magination (9781433831133). K–Gr. 2.Sarah wants to talk about her big brother, Ethan, who died, but her parents, often angry or sad, can’t even say his name. When Sarah draws a picture of her favorite memory with Ethan, it opens the door for the family to remember more good times with Ethan and begin healing. Illustrations with a soft touch help ease the tension. A concluding section offers tips on handling childhood grief.
The Yellow Suitcase. By Meera Sriram. Illus. by the author. 2019. 40p. Penny Candy (9780999658413). Gr. 1–4.When Asha’s family travels from California to India every summer, it’s tradition for Asha to pack her yellow suitcase with gifts for her grandmother and return with it filled with presents from Grandma. This time, however, Grandma has passed away, and the family is in India for the funeral. While the family goes through funeral rites, Asha isolates herself until her grief wells up and sadness bursts in this contemporary, bicultural perspective.
You’ll Find Me. By Amanda Rawson Hill. Illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. 2020. 32p. Magination (9781433831263). K–Gr. 3.While this book addresses death, it doesn’t identify a specific loved one. Instead, the digitally rendered pastel illustrations depict young children sharing fond memories with older children, adults, and seniors. An omnipresent narrator uses a soothing tone to explain that although the loved one is gone, readers can still use their senses to find and remember parts of them in everyday happenings.
The Afterwards. By A. F. Harrold. Illus. by Emily Gravett. 2019. 208p. Bloomsbury (9781547600441). Gr. 3–6. Ember and Ness are neighbors and best friends until an accident claims Ness’ life. Soon after the tragedy, Ember’s uncle takes her on a strange walk to his house, which is now illustrated in the black-and-white of an old movie. When Ember discovers a faded, subdued Ness, she’s sure that if she can get Ness back to the living world, everything will go back to normal. Gravett’s illustrations help temper hard truths with familial love.
The Canyon’s Edge. By Dusti Bowling. 2020. 240p. Little, Brown (9780316494694). Gr. 4–7.It’s been a year since the tragedy that stole Nora’s mother when another accident strikes, this time while Nora is hiking in a remote Sonoran Desert canyon with her father. After a flash storm carries away her father, Nora fights waves of panic. A mix of free-verse and concrete poetry describes her harrowing tale of survival as she searches for her father and struggles with the PTSD her mother’s death imprinted on her life.
Halfway to Harmony. By Barbara O’Connor. 2021. 256p. Farrar (9780374314453). Gr. 4–7.Walter, shy and friendless, doesn’t expect much out of his summer. His brother, Tank, died in an overseas war six months ago, leaving his mother in a depressed fog, and his father is often on the road. His life changes when outspoken Posey moves in next door. Together they find an injured man in the woods. As they help him find, then mend his hot-air balloon to enter a competition, Walter is finally able to face his grief.
Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero. By Kelly J. Baptist. 2020. 208p. Crown (9780593121368). Gr. 4–7.Isaiah Dunn needs a hustle to get himself, his mom, and his sister out of the motel where they’ve been living. It’s been tough since his dad died, and his mom has been drowning her sorrow in the bottle instead of working. The boy finds refuge in an old notebook in which his dad wrote a story casting Isaiah as a superhero. As he struggles with poverty and grief, Isaiah becomes the hero his family needs.
The Line Tender. By Kate Allen. Illus. by Xingye Jin. 2019. 384p. Dutton (9780735231603). Gr. 4–8.Five years after the death of her mother, who studied sharks, Lucy, 12, has carved out a life in her coastal New England town. She’s spending the summer working on a school project with her best friend, Fred, when the local capture of a great white shark stirs up interest in her mother’s work. Lucy’s grief is compounded when Fred dies in a swimming accident. Studying sharks on her own helps Lucy navigate her grief.
My Father’s Words. By Patricia MacLachlan. 2018. 144p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen (9780062687692). Gr. 4–6.Readers meet Fiona and Finn and, briefly, their psychologist father, who, hit by a truck as he swerves to avoid a toddler in the street, dies in the first chapter. The family attempts to right itself, but Finn is struggling. With suggestions from others, he volunteers at an animal shelter and is given special charge of Emily, a dog whose owner has died. In saving Emily, Finn begins to save himself, too.
Planet Grief. By Monique Polak. 208p. 2018. Orca (9781459815681). Gr. 5–8.Two teens, Abby and Christopher, meet at a grief retreat after each has lost a parent. In alternating narratives, they reluctantly open up to the other kids and share their stories, learning to talk about their grief and how to handle it. The story offers a helpful model to readers struggling with loss and healing, particularly the messages that they are not alone and there are many ways to grieve.
The Thing about Jellyfish. By Ali Benjamin. 2015. 352p. Little, Brown (9780316380867). Gr. 5–8.Suzy loses her best friend twice: first when Franny shifts into a “pretty girl” clique and irrevocably when Franny drowns at the beach. The seventh-grader who almost stops talking for many months, becomes fascinated with jellyfish, and is intent on linking the drowning to a sting. While secretly planning a trip to consult a jellyfish expert, she begins to deal with the experience, forgive herself, and move forward.
The Astonishing Color of After. By Emily X. R. Pan. 2018. 466p. Little, Brown (9780316463997). Gr. 9–12.Leigh shatters after her mother’s suicide, but when a huge, beautiful red bird calls her name in her mother’s voice, she’s sure the bird is actually her mother. And when the bird brings her a box of letters from her mother’s childhood in Taiwan, she convinces her white father to take her to Taipei to meet her mother’s estranged parents. With fantastical elements, Pan explores grief, loss, and Leigh’s search for connection.
Dancing at the Pity Party. By Tyler Feder. Illus. by the author. 2020. 208p. Dial (9780525553021). Gr. 9–12.Feder celebrates and mourns her beloved mother in this softly illustrated graphic memoir. She recalls the diagnosis, swift decline, and death of her mother from an aggressive cancer and the devastation she (as a sophomore in college) and her family experienced. Much of the story focuses on the “new normal” of living with grief and how it affects every part of your day.
Love Letters to the Dead. By Ava Dellaira. 2014. 336p. Farrar (9780374346676). Gr. 7–10.Tasked with the classroom assignment of writing a letter to someone who is dead, Laurel writes to deceased stars like Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, and others whose lives ended as abruptly as her older sister’s did. These quiet, savvy letters become Laurel’s way of working through her emotions as she begins high school, makes new friends, deals with a crumbling family, and continues to grieve.
A Monster Calls. By Patrick Ness. Illus. by Jim Kay. 2011. 224p. Candlewick (9780763655594). Gr. 7–10.As Conor watches his mother succumb to cancer, he is pummeled by grief, anger, isolation, helplessness, and something even darker. At night, he is visited by a monster in the form of a giant yew tree who tells Conor three ambiguous stories and then demands one from him that “will tell me the truth.” Atmospheric illustrations help convey the eeriness in this story, which was inspired by an idea left by the late Siobhan Dowd and ends with the honesty of grief.
Sorry for Your Loss. By Jessie Ann Foley. 2019. 336p. HarperTeen (9780062571915). Gr. 9–12.Pup Flanagan is the youngest of eight kids. While the whole giant family has a weekly dinner, no one talks about Patrick, the brother who died two years ago, leaving Pup with an ache no one else seems to feel. When a failing art grade leads to a photography assignment and a photo of his brother Luke, he begins truly looking at the people in his life: his family, who may be grieving after all, and his still-living brother who’s been quietly in crisis.
Angela Leeper is the Director of the Curriculum Materials Center at the University of Richmond, VA.
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