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7 Books to Help Kids Talk About Death, Illness and Grief

Wondering how to explain death to your child? Heavy conversations get a lift with these reading suggestions

Caitlin Flynn

Published on: May 16, 2016

Coping with the death of a loved one is an incredibly challenging and painful experience for people of all ages and, as parents, it’s one of the most difficult topics to address with kids. 

Books can help. Use these recommendations to start important conversations about death — from the loss of a pet to a parent. These books don’t shy away from the painful reality of losing someone. They also show how we can get through the pain and how our memories of someone can never be taken away.

Ocho Loved Flowers

By Anne Fontaine

Age recommendation: 3 to 6

Owning and loving a pet is one of the most joyful experiences a child can have, but sadly, a time will come to say goodbye to a four-legged friend. 

Annie loves her cat, Ocho, more than anything in the world and she’s devastated when the veterinarian tells her that Ocho has just one month to live. She makes the most of their time together, caring for Ocho by giving her cat medication and simply being there for Ocho's final days.

After a period of grieving, Annie buys two bouquets of flowers: one for herself and one in honor of Ocho’s memory. The book includes thoughtful discussion questions for your child. 

Boats for Papa

By Jessixa Bagley

Age recommendation: 4 to 7

In this book from Seattle author Jessixa Bagley, we meet Buckley, a beaver, who lives in a simple cabin by the ocean with his mother. He misses his father terribly, but is hopeful that he’ll see him again. Buckley crafts beautiful boats out of driftwood and sends them out to sea, complete with notes to his dad. 

After a full year of sending boats, Buckley makes a shocking discovery: His mother has kept all of them in her desk in an attempt to protect Buckley from the reality that his father will never return. Instead of reacting with anger, he recognizes that Mama was trying to take care of him in her own way. When Buckley sends his final boat out to sea, he includes a special message for his mother. 

Death Is Stupid

By Anastasia Higginbotham

Age recommendation: 4 to 8

After the death of his grandmother, a little boy feels frustrated and confused when the well-intentioned adults in his life repeatedly tell him “she’s in a better place.” Honest and direct, Death Is Stupid provides the important reminder that it’s OK to experience anger after losing a loved one and, in fact, that this emotion is often key to the grieving process. 

The sensitive storytelling will validate the feelings of children who are dissatisfied with the customary platitudes. By expressing and exploring his emotions, the young boy accepts his grandmother's death and while the pain doesn’t disappear completely, he finds solace in the wonderful memories they shared. 

The Leanin' Dog

By K.A. Nuzum

Age recommendation: 8 to 12

Traumatized after witnessing her mother’s death, Dessa Dean becomes anxious and suffers from recurring nightmares. She and her father live in an isolated cabin in the Colorado wilderness and Dessa is completely alone in the world until an injured, abused dog appears on her doorstep. 

As she befriends the dog, she learns that her new canine friend is claustrophobic. In order to care for the dog, Dessa must face her fears and venture outside. Dessa’s ability to save the animal empowers her and helps her begin to heal. 

The Tiger Rising

By Kate DiCamillo

Age recommendation: 10 to 14 

Six months after the death of his mom, 12-year-old Rob Horton has become a "pro at not-crying.” He and his father move to the Kentucky Star Motel in Florida for a fresh start, but Rob is bullied by his peers. Unable to express his emotions, Rob develops a strange, painful rash on his legs.

Then, Rob finds something strange in the woods behind the motel: a caged tiger that he thinks must be a magic trick. On the same day, he meets a new girl in town named Sistine; they quickly bond as they plot to free the animal. The tiger represents Rob’s pent-up emotions and he ultimately realizes that, like the animal, his grief does not belong in a cage. 

Sign Language

By Amy Ackley

Age recommendation: 12 to 15 

Abby is a typical 12-year-old whose biggest problems are her annoying brother and the crush who doesn’t know she exists.

Everything changes when her father is diagnosed with cancer and the entire family is forced to cope with his impending death.

Sign Language deals with each step in the process of watching a parent die from cancer, from the diagnosis to the death to the painful aftermath. 

Love Letters to the Dead

By Ava Dellaira 

Age recommendation: 14 to 17

Devastated by the death of her older sister, Laurel finds solace in an unlikely place: an English assignment to write a letter to a deceased person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain, her sister’s favorite singer, but she doesn’t stop with one letter. She fills an entire notebook with letters to celebrities who died young including Judy Garland, River Phoenix, Amelia Earhart and Amy Winehouse. 

Neglected by her parents, Laurel’s writing provides her a powerful way to heal as she works through her pain and finds her voice. Most importantly, she’s able to come to grips with her relationship with her sister and the complicated circumstances surrounding her death. 

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