The Best Picture Books about Death for Children
Our kids have only had to deal with death one time in their lives - and that was when our pet fish Boppity died. Death is tragic and it’s hard to deal with, and it can certainly be confusing when you’re young and you’re trying to understand it for the first time.
And that’s exactly what it was like for our kids when Boppity died. It was sudden and surprising, and incredibly sad. We buried him in the backyard under a tree, we said some happy things we remembered about him, and we thanked him for being a good friend. Our son wanted to pour some water in the hole with him.
And that was it - the first time our kids had to try and process what death meant. And it was their first experience with some of the rituals we have surrounding death too. As a parent, it can be hard to know what you’re supposed to do for your kids during those sad times. What are the right words to say?
I feel strongly that picture books can be a very helpful way to process difficult topics like death - for the same reason I recommend them for teaching all sorts of important life lessons. Books are windows into other people’s lives, and living through their experiences alongside them can build empathy and expose us to a lot of new things. And, most importantly, you then have time to process those experiences from a safe distance.
Of course books can also be mirrors of your own life. For children that are trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one, it can be therapeutic to share those same experiences with others - and then watch and observe from a distance to see how they handle their feelings. And when you’re experiencing something for the first time, It can be welcomed news that there is nothing wrong with the way you are feeling.
Thinking back to when we buried Boppity, and I didn’t feel like I knew exactly what to say to our kids, I can safely say that picture books help me as a dad too. The books on this list give me a powerful toolbox full of many of the right words. And I hope they prove useful to you as well.
I wanted to provide a wide range of picture books about death with this list. Some of these books handle death with a touch of comic relief, while others are much more solemn. Some deal in euphemisms, while others tackle death head-on with an honesty that many kids will find refreshing. But all of these books are definitely beautiful, and many of them heartbreakingly so.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links that will lead you to view the books’ listings - where you can purchase them with affiliate partners like Amazon.com or IndieBound.org.
12. The Memory Tree
Written and Illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
The Memory Tree is the story of a fox who dies, and how all of his friends in the forest gather around to tell loving tales about him. As you can imagine, it starts out difficultly with fox lying down in the snow and going to sleep forever. But ultimately it’s a very tender story that reminds us exactly how our loved ones live on - in our memory.
The Memory Tree uses a beautiful metaphor of a tree growing where fox died. The more they remember about fox, the more the tree grows. In the end, it actually shelters the animals and gives them strength. I think it can be very soothing for kids to hear that people live on in us because of the impression they made on us in life.
11. Death is Stupid
Written and Illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham
What makes Death is Stupid stand apart from other books about death is how brutally honest it is. It throws the euphemisms out the window and embraces the types of honest questions that kids are going to have when someone dies.
Death is Stupid is the kind of book I’m very happy to have on my side to help my kids process death. And what an awesome title, right? I mean, death is pretty stupid, isn’t it? And kids like to hear it. This book is a decidedly different approach to exploring the topic of death with kids and for that reason I think there’s a great need for it.
Written by Judith Viorst and Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
The highly-acclaimed author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day also wrote this little tear-jerker of a book called The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. After the boy’s cat dies, the picture of his mother hugging him in bed gets me every time.
It’s hard to speak at funerals. Not only is it hard to know what to say, but it can be incredibly hard to get the words out too. At this funeral for his cat, Barney, the boy tries to list off ten good things about his cat, but he can only think of nine until the very end of the book.
A have to applaud Viorst for tackling the argument about where Barney is now that he’s dead - in Heaven, or in the ground. Ultimately, dad points out that we don’t really know. That’s a pretty healthy dose of wisdom for you to run with any way you choose.
9. Ida, Always
Written by Caron Levis and Illustrated by Charles Santoso
Ida, Always is inspired by a real pair of polar bears that lived together in New York’s Central Park Zoo. Ida gets sick and eventually dies, and Gus is left to grieve deeply. His sadness is palpable because Levis does such a remarkable job building up the strong bond between Ida and Gus.
I think the thing that really sets Ida, Always apart from other picture books about death is the significant amount of time that Gus and Ida spend together in the book after they already know that Ida is dying. It reminds me a lot of the powerful book A Monster Calls - in which a boy’s mother is dying of cancer throughout the book.
Knowing that your best friend is going to die can cause an entirely different range of emotions than the ones that arise after their death. And in that way I think Ida, Always fills a very important niche for exploring that time before death. Every single page between finding out that Ida is sick and her eventual death are absolutely spellbinding.
Written and Illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch
Wolf Erlbruch’s illustrations in Duck, Death, and the Tulip are outstanding and certainly worthy of framing on the wall. And he backs them up with a very creative, existential exploration of life and death.
Duck and Death develop a short-lasting relationship in this book - once Duck finally notices that Death is there that is. Duck wonders aloud what will happen to her after she dies, and Death pokes a little fun at the funny stories about the afterlife that ducks come up with. And to soothe duck’s concerns that her little pond will be lonely when she’s gone, Death points out that her pond won’t exist anymore - not for Duck anyway.
It’s certainly a grim book in many ways, with a very matter-of-fact portrayal of death. But it’s also incredibly enchanting and mesmerizing - and certainly very philosophical. In the end, after Duck dies, Death lays Duck in the great river and is “almost a little moved” by the whole thing. “But that’s life,” thinks Death.
Written by Lemony Snicket and Illustrated by Lisa Brown
Goldfish Ghost makes the list because it reminds us of our fish Boppity. The death of a goldfish is often a child’s first experience with death, just like it was in our house, and I think our 6-year-old son might be drawn to it for that reason. And although it’s the book on this list that deals with the grieving process the least, he’d likely tell you that this is his favorite book in the bunch.
Goldfish Ghost is an exploration of life after death for a a recently deceased fish. We’re big fans of Lemony Snicket’s picture books, and this is certainly no exception. And Lisa Brown’s illustrations give Goldfish Ghost incredible character that really inspires our son to grab it off the shelf. He likes taking this imaginary journey with a dead fish. And it’s soothing to imagine him ending up in a happy place.
Written by Margaret Wise Brown and Illustrated by Christian Robinson
The Dead Bird was written by the inimitable Margaret Wise Brown, and it was originally published in 1938. The newest edition is paired with the amazing illustrations of one of our favorite artists - Christian Robinson.
What really strikes me about this story is how matter-of-fact it is. The detailed description of the dead bird can really take you aback the first time you read it:
“And even as they held it, it began to get cold, and the limp bird body grew stiff…”
But honestly, that’s a big part of what makes Brown’s story so special. It’s an unabashed exploration of discovering death as a child - followed by a chance to have a funeral the way that adults do. And the honesty in the story makes the actions of the kids that much more meaningful.
The kids cover the grave with flowers, and they even sing the bird an impromptu song. And, best of all, they return to the grave every day to visit the bird and put fresh flowers on his grave - until they forget.
Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers never fails to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience in his books. His take on death in The Heart and the Bottle is impressively poignant and very beautiful. In it, he uses the metaphor of a girl locking her heart away in a bottle to keep it safe. And she does this after a very subtle, but very heartbreaking, scene of someone dying. She basically shuts out the world in a way I’m sure many readers who have lost someone can relate to.
What I really love about this book is that it also tackles the innocence of childhood and the sadness of growing up. After locking her heart away in a bottle, the girl forgets about her interest in the stars and the sea and all of her curiosities. But after she grows up, her relationship with a little girl turns out to be the key to rediscovering her childlike heart.
Written by Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic and Illustrated by George Ermos
The End of Something Wonderful is basically an instruction manual for what to do when a pet dies. It tackles the topic of death from a delightfully comic point of view. I would describe the entire book as a dark, comedic take on death - but with a heartfelt message still at its core.
Take, for instance, step one - the very first line of the book:
“First you need something dead, meaning something that was once alive but isn’t any longer.”
Humans have a longstanding tradition for dealing with difficult topics using humor - and The End of Something Wonderful does it masterfully. But the reason it’s such a special book is because of the many nods it gives to legitimate feelings in between the jokes. You know it’s a special work of art when it can make you laugh and bring a tear to your eye at the same time.
Written by Stein Erik Lunde and Illustrated by Øyvind Torseter
My Father’s Arms are a Boat is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I have ever read. It’s a masterful work of art - with details revealed very subtly and powerfully. I can’t recommend tracking it down any more highly. The narrator in the story is a young boy who tells us about a painfully sad night with his father - shortly after his mother has died.
I can’t put my finger on how it happens, but somehow I’m left with feelings of hope, despite the terrible sadness. The hauntingly-beautiful, paper-cutout art from Torseter probably has a lot to do with it. But so does the tender relationship between this father and son. By the end of the story I very much want to believe the dad when he says everything is going to be okay.
Written and Illustrated by Brian Lies
The Rough Patch is about a fox named Evan who suddenly loses his best friend - his pet dog. I can’t think of a single book that portrays the feelings of despair that you can feel when you lose your best friend. The Rough Patch stands out because Evan takes a deep dive not only into sadness - but anger.
Brian Lies’ illustrations convey Evan’s feelings in a truly masterful way. Evan is a gardener, and, after his dog dies, he decides he doesn’t want beautiful things in his life anymore. If he’s going to feel terrible, he wants everything around him to look just as nasty and terrible as he feels. Then he creates a dark and creepy garden that’s enough to literally scare our 3-year-old (in a good way). It’s emotionally very powerful, and it’s the perfect chance to explore the wide range of feelings you might be feeling when someone dies, and to commiserate with others.
Written by Glenn Ringtved and Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
Glenn Ringtved’s story about a dying grandmother is my personal favorite picture book about death for many reasons. Chief among them is the incredibly original plot. Death is personified as an actual visitor in the woman’s home. Some of the grandchildren like to pretend he isn’t there, while some look straight at him. But it’s definitely gloomy with Death around.
The very best part of the story is that the woman’s grandchildren don’t want her to die, so they hatch a plan to trick death. They would keep Death away from their grandmother by giving him coffee all night. But their grandmother’s time comes anyway, and one of the kids asks why she has to die.
As a reply, death tells a beautiful story - an allegory that ultimately explains the sometimes harsh reality that there is no joy without sorrow. What would life be without death? It’s a deep concept, to be sure, but an interesting one and an important one. And I find Death’s words when he takes their grandmother away truly comforting and inspirational:
“Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”
You can also find Cry, Heart, But Never Break on our list of the best picture books with life lessons.
Have you read any of the books on this list with your children? Did we miss your favorite picture book that deals with death? Please share them with us in the comments - and help other readers who may be looking for more resources on this difficult topic.