Death is no longer a taboo subject in our society. New social forces – the AIDS epidemic, violent crime, the growth of the hospice movement, controversies about euthanasia and assisted suicide – have helped us to move beyond the denial of death and explore its psychological, philosophical and social aspects. But too often, children remain the forgotten mourners, excluded from the grieving process. Adults may shield children from death because they do not know how to deal with their sadness and grief. Can children’s books help? Margaret Rustin discusses recent picture books about death.
Old Pig, Goodbye Pappa, Drop Dead and Cloudland are recently published picture books which explore ways of thinking about aging, the loss of beloved grandparents and the nature of the anxieties aroused when the reality of death is encountered.
The Death of Grandparents
Two of these titles are explicitly concerned with the death of grandparents. They differ in interesting ways. Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks’ ‘Old Pig’ lives with her granddaughter. The peaceful rhythm of their lives is interrupted as Old Pig realizes that she is close to death. ‘I’m tired’ she says. This is a picture of a peaceful death, as Old Pig prepares to depart, handing over the responsibilities to her granddaughter and saying a tender farewell to all she has loved. The tone is gentle and elegiac. Granddaughter’s anxious foreboding and sadness is shared with Old Pig as they live the last days together. There is gentle observation of granddaughter taking on Old Pig’s maternal role as she encourages Old Pig to eat and cares for the house: we can see that though Granddaughter loves to be with Old Pig, she has the resources to care for herself. The last shared walk through the village creates a picture of the natural world’s continuity in the face of death – Granddaughter feels that the birds are joining her in mourning.
This very gentle treatment, brightened by the soft warmth of the illustrations, conveys the loneliness of a child facing a family death for the first time. The absence of an intervening parental generation is a striking device for highlighting the aloneness of emotional experiences which a child may feel others are distant from, or perhaps too close to have anything to spare. Parents preoccupied with their own loss may indeed be unavailable to share a child’s mourning of a grandparent. In the tender and idealized pastoral world of Old Pig, not many words are required, but emotional reality is shared.
Una Leavy and Jennifer Eachus’ Goodbye Pappa also explores the death of a grandparent but in a more restricted way. More nostalgic and more literal, it depicts a beloved grandfather’s relationship to his grandsons, grandfather’s death and funeral and the family’s distress. Grandfather is to be remembered for all the happy times shared, advises Mother. This is made too easy, since only delightful moments of companionship have been depicted. The children’s awareness of their father’s tears catches an important note, as the death of a grandparent can provide a strange realization for a child of their parents’ vulnerability to emotional pain. But this book does not offer any taste of the turbulent feelings evoked by loss – it is much too sweet, and the soft pastels of the illustrations emphasize this unreality.
A very different tone is adopted in Babette Cole’s Drop Dead. Here are two cheeky children in conversation with grandparents who are ‘bald, old wrinklies’. The old couple tell the riotous story of their lives, full of mischief and fun. As babies they made poo-bombs, as children they ran away, showed off. As teenagers they smoked under the bedclothes, agonized over disapproving parents and finally found each other and excitement as stuntman and film star, respectively. The grandparents of a small child’s dream indeed! Picaresque jokes abound: when they became parents they resorted to a ring of fire to put their son to bed. The declining powers of the elderly are gently mocked by the grandparent narrators, whose spirit of adventure still persists. Death is reduced to just dropping dead, and being comically recycled. No fears or sadness are allowed in this vision. While this book catches the ordinariness and inevitability of old age and death, its joking tone might well offend a child for whom these realities are painful.
Mastering Primitive Terrors
John Burningham’s Cloudland addresses a different theme – a child’s fall from a mountain, which could result in death (here it is the parents who are the mourners), is imagined as leading to entry into ‘Cloudland’, a land of children playing at cloud-jumping, making thunder-music, swimming in the rain and so on. The boy hero one day encounters a plane and begins to miss his home on earth. The Queen and the Man in the Moon, the replacement parents in this child-heaven, arrange for the clouds to drift to a place above his home, and he wakes up in bed – a child waking from a bad dream, or a near-death experience. Cloudland embodies an attempt to master primitive terrors; the boy’s fall is revisioned as cloud-jumping, the storm as made by the children. There is omnipotence here (the belief that wishing something can make it happen) but in the service of survival, not denial.
One can imagine that these books might be seized on by parents or teachers wanting a child to be helped to understand the profound fact of death. Certainly Old Pig could give comfort to a bereaved parent and child reading it together, as it is full of love but not sentimental. Finding the right tone is no easy task – manic flights of fantasy (as in Drop Dead) and the thinness of idealization (as in Goodbye Pappa) are poor consolation in the end.
Respecting the Child’s Needs
But there is also a question about whether stories offered to children for their message can ever be quite right. Somehow the child has to ‘find’ the story at the moment at which it can be meaningful, and this may not be the same moment as that intended by the adult who is trying to help. A library or classroom in which such books can be around, maybe read as part of a wide range of titles, provides a less over-determined space, and this might be more respectful of an individual child’s needs.
Tackling emotionally complex matters truthfully in books for young children is much to be welcomed, but too didactic a use may be intrusive and over-exposing, particularly in a group situation. The rituals of mourning protect and organize matters for adults, to some degree at least. Delicacy and respect are needed just as much by children. Coming to grips with the reality of our own mortality is after all a life-long task. Such understanding is only gradually achieved.
Children Can Understand Death
While young children have limited capacities to comprehend the final separation which death brings, they struggle all the time with smaller separations which are often unconsciously perceived as total, irretrievable loss. Our impulse to protect them from the facts is misplaced – it only engenders confusion and loneliness. John Burningham’s Albert (Cloudland) who almost falls to his death is in fact articulating a very widespread, unconscious representation of death – of falling into space. The child who lands on a cloud-cradle is the antithesis of this; the fall is safely broken by a vision of softness. In our dreams and imaginative lives such fundamental facts of dependence, vulnerability and mortality are present, and this is why the idea that children cannot understand death is wrong. Of course each child will understand it in his/her own way, and the understanding will be continually revised. Adults, too, have profoundly different ideas about death and what follows it, as the variety of religious beliefs testifies.
Children’s books on these matters perhaps have the function of putting things in the public realm, of giving permission for a child’s preoccupations to be explored. They can also be a support for grown ups who are shy or doubt their capacity to communicate about difficult aspects of living. The child reader is encouraged through identification with the characters in the story to develop his or her own capacity to think about loss and death, both consciously and unconsciously. Enriching children’s emotional range through books which touch on all kinds of emotional complexity is an important contribution to the development of their minds and characters, and the sharing of the reading experience inherent in books for very young children embeds this in their important early relationships with parents and others.
How one envies today’s children many of the books now written for them! Luckily there is always the chance to be the adult reader who introduces them to these delights, and thus to be part of this splendid aspect of modern childhood.
Old Pig by Margaret Wild, ill. Ron Brooks, Viking, 0 670 86706 3, £10.99 hbk
Goodbye Pappa by Una Leavy, ill. Jennifer Eachus, Orchard, 1 85213 713 4, £9.99 hbk
Drop Dead by Babette Cole, Cape, 0 224 04551 2, £9.99 hbk
Cloudland by John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 04581 4, £9.99 hbk
Margaret Rustin works as a child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London. She is the co-author with Michael Rustin of Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction.