Kids have dealt with a lot in the last year, from having COVID-19 to watching relatives struggle through it and even losing family members. It can be difficult for children to reconcile what adults already know to be one of the most startling parts of grieving: that the world keeps spinning around you, with little interruption or change in what is expected of you despite the fact that your world has forever changed. When it comes to helping children name and address these big feelings, the value in literature about loss is undeniable. Even as vaccination efforts offer hope for the pandemic’s end, and as more schools reopen, the road to healing may just be starting for many students. Here are 20 books recommended by educators to help along the way.
1. The Invisible String written by Patrice Karst and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. First published in 2000, this picture book has become a staple for educators, therapists, and caregivers helping children cope with loneliness and loss. It revolves around the idea of children being connected to adults through an invisible string of love.
2. When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief by Marge Eaton Heegaard. This one is an activity book with spaces for children to draw and reflect while processing emotions. This book was designed to teach basic concepts of death and help children understand and express the many feelings they have when someone special dies. Communication is increased and coping skills are developed as they illustrate their books with their personal story.
3. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. Well-meaning grown-ups sometimes talk about heaven, sleeping forever, or someone being in the sky instead of directly explaining death to kids. Those ideas can cause confusion, fear, and anxiety. Use this book to give children clear information about death, particularly for children under age 7, who struggle to understand the permanency of death.
4. I Miss You: a First Look at Death by Pat Thomas. Because adults understand story based books they often feel like it’s a better way to explain it to kids, but developmentally that’s not always true. It depends on where the student is in their understanding of death. I Miss You helps kids understand that death is a natural complement to life, and that grief and a sense of loss are normal feelings for them to have following a loved one’s death.
5. Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth. Featuring a friendship between an aging turtle and a young goose, this picture book features comforting words and images that aren’t just for children–they can even help adults through loss. A beautifully written and illustrated book that introduces a big subject to little ones, children learn, with Zelda, that true friendship is a gift that doesn’t die.
6. The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. A simple story with a profound heart. When things come crashing down (literally) in Taylor’s world, a stream of animals offer advice on ways to cope. But the rabbit offers what Taylor needs most of all: a steady presence and listening ear. The empathetic takeaway from this book resonates with middle schoolers, too.
7. Death Is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham. Part of the author’s “Ordinary Terrible Things” series, this frank picture book acknowledges that grief is hard and adult platitudes aren’t always helpful. Illustrated in magazine cut-outs and fabric scraps on a grocery bag background, it gives voices to the frustrations children may feel in addition to sadness after losing a loved one.
8. One Wave at a Time: A Story about Grief and Healing written by Holly Thompson and illustrated by Ashley Crowley. With lyrical text and washes of color conveying waves of emotion, Kai moves through daily routines as he heals from his father’s death. This book shows that there is no one way, no right way and no wrong way to go through the grieving process.
9. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson. Adults forget that kids feel especially powerless–they have no agency to make things better, and very little life experience to equip them with ways to handle grief. In this novel, three boys who most people don’t expect much from take action to give their beloved and terminally ill teacher a special day. Though their teacher’s death forever changes them, they also realize that her life will forever shape them.
10. After Zero by Christina Collins. Featuring a main character coping with anxiety that has progressed to mutism, this is a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Elise’s struggles with mental health and grief will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like the world was too loud, too demanding or too overwhelming.
11. King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. Not long after 12-year-old King’s brother dies, his best friend goes missing. In this middle grade novel set in rural Louisiana, the author explores how grief affects families while also masterfully tackling larger issues like race, masculinity, and identity, including LGBTQ+ identity.
12. When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. This is a story about a girl whose family moves in with her grandmother, but it is also so much more. A tale of grief, family and identity, the book is interwoven with Korean folklore and shows its main character, along with readers, the power of stories.
13. Many Points Of Me by Caroline Gertler. When Georgia finds a secret sketch her late father—a famed artist—left behind, the discovery leads her down a path that can reshape everything that holds her family and friends together. Georgia’s quest takes her from around her Upper West Side neighborhood in NYC to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and ultimately right back to where she’s always belonged—with the people who love her no matter what.
14. The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Reynolds is known for writing about tough topics in an authentic way that respects the emotions and struggles of his young readers, and this book about grieving is no exception. In this novel, the protagonist works at a funeral home while grieving the loss of his own mother.
15. The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos. While coping with the recent death of her best friend, Verdad finds herself falling for a new classmate. Her new relationship prompts questions about her own identity and tension with her mother. Many teens not only struggle with grieving for the loss of a loved friend or family member, but as they come-of-age, they grieve for childhood, broken friendships, and misguided parents. This novel shines a light on those challenges.
16. Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds. Themes of grieving and loss aren’t limited to realistic teen fiction. This book is a powerful and deeply moving YA contemporary novel with a speculative twist about love, death, grieving, and friendship. What if you could bring your best friend back to life—but only for a short time? Find out in this poignant exploration of friendship & grief, with a sci-fi twist featuring smart, witty banter and dynamic characters.
17. The Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. Words Alive, a nonprofit that organizes teen book clubs and other literacy programs in San Diego, wrote on Twitter that this 2019 National Book Award finalist “is a favorite for our students. It’s a beautiful novel about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.”
18. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. After Leigh’s mother dies by suicide, the biracial teen becomes convinced that her mom has turned into a bird. So Leigh travels to find her in Taiwan, where she also meets her maternal grandparents for the first time. Pan’s writing is beautiful and magical, and Leigh’s grief is wonderfully interwoven with issues like identity, stigma, family, love, and so much more.
19. Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder. In this graphic memoir, Feder recounts losing her mother to cancer while in college and the difficult moments that followed, such as cleaning out her mom’s closet or celebrating holidays without her. This book is part memoir, part how-to, and most importantly a celebration of her mother’s life. It’s the perfect book for someone who has suffered a loss, and the perfect book for someone trying to understand a friend who has suffered loss.
20. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks, not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from home at college, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart. This is not just a book about grieving, but a book about learning to move on, to be with yourself and be with your grief.
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