Featuring death and grief in children’s books can equip them with skills to navigate emotional terrain

<span>Photograph: Hirurg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hirurg/Getty Images

When I was eight, mum read me EB White’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. We took it in turns to cry. Hers were the tears of a mother fearing leaving her babies, and mine were the tears of a kid feeling everything for Wilbur the pig when his beloved friend Charlotte died.

When I was 10, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia broke my heart. Huddled under blankets, I read late into the night, between gulps of tears. I had to know if Jesse would survive his grief and guilt after his best friend, Leslie, drowned in the river.

The book also grapples with class and poverty, bullying and religion. An ambitious work, it won many literary awards. It has also been banned and challenged hundreds of times in American schools and public libraries. The reasons are complex but include the fact the book deals with death, witchcraft, swearing and atheism (Leslie doesn’t attend church).

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Bridge to Terabithia was my literary introduction into the idea that a girl like me could die. Yes, it upset me, but it didn’t scare me or make me wary of living. Instead, it allowed me to feel the depths of sadness, anger and acceptance that Jesse feels.

As parents, we want to protect our children from experiencing unnecessary heartache. We want them to feel safe, loved and happy. The world is grim enough without handing them books that make them contemplate death. But dying isn’t something we can shield them from. They watch films, they talk to their friends, they lose grandparents and pets and sometimes even parents, and they understand that life isn’t forever, and that sometimes people can die too soon.

I believe that death, grief and other intense emotions have a place in children’s fiction. We must trust authors and illustrators to know how to present these experiences to children in age-appropriate ways. We don’t need to overload young people with everything that adults carry, but we do need to honour them by being as truthful as we can for their age, and we can do this by leading them gently, and by giving them hope that things can change, or be survived.

Now more than ever, in the light of everything that is going on in the world, we need to equip children with the skills to navigate emotional terrain – not protect them from it. Books can help children to process emotions while feeling safe.


My latest middle grade book, The Jammer, is about a 12-year-old girl called Fred whose mother has died before the story starts. It is not about her death, it is about Fred’s journey to finding a new family of disparate people, and about her realising that it is OK to feel sad and happy and everything in-between. It is also about love, hope, friendship and joy, because those are often the feelings that accompany the grief and the loss.

We can explore death in children’s books through humour, fantasy, ghost stories and realism. And the beauty of books is that children will take what they need when they are reading. If they don’t understand something, then they’ll skip that bit or simply close the book.

In The Jammer, Fred doesn’t talk about her mum dying. She won’t discuss it with anyone, not even her dad. And then slowly she starts to let her step-uncle Graham share little moments of her grief because his mother died when he was young, and he understands what it feels like to mourn.

Related: How should I talk to children about death? Be brief but honest – and answer their questions | Sarah Ayoub

When my kids lost their dad, they didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want to be known as the kids with the dead dad when they went back to school after the lockdowns ended. So much so that six months after he had died, some of my daughter’s social group still didn’t know.

My teenage son made a new friend this year. A girl whose mum died when she was two. They never talk about death. Or losing a parent. They just understand.

I think books are like that too. Characters can seem like our best friends when we are kids. They don’t have to be the same as us. They just have to make us feel like we belong. Like we aren’t alone. Like we are understood.

Not every kid will want to read about a parent dying. It won’t happen to most children in their young lifetimes. But it does happen to some. And I think it’s important to help children understand the incomprehensible so they can be more empathic and kinder. Books are a way we can teach young people how to understand the world is not just theirs. It is not just one experience. But many.

And I think we owe it to young readers to be honest, and not to pretend things are easy just because they are children. Regardless of the genre and of the tone of our stories, books are a place children come to hide, to learn, to laugh, and sometimes even, to cry. And when they finish a book, it might stay with them and change their world, just a little, like Wilbur the Pig did for me.

  • Nova Weetman is a writer of 16 books for children and young adults, including Sick Bay, The Edge of Thirteen (winner of the ABIA Award 2022), Elsewhere Girls and The Jammer. Her books have been shortlisted for many awards including the NSW Premier’s History Award, the Readings Children’s Prize, and Japan’s Sakura Medal