Stories of love to help kids cope with loss


July 16, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Helping children deal with death has become a growth industry, with grief counselors flocking to the site of tragedies and offering workshops for parents who want to ease their children's pain.

But books have been doing that for a long time. From "Old Yeller" to "Charlotte's Web" to "Bridge to Terabithia," stories have taken kids into worlds in which they learn about losses. The term "bibliotherapy" never cropped up when I was a kid, but crying with Wilbur when Charlotte died helped me sort through my confusion when my grandmother died.

Nowadays, more and more books for kids ages 4-11 deal directly with the death of a loved one. Here are some to check out:

* "Poppy's Chair," by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Kay Life (Macmillan, $14.95, ages 4-8) is sentimental without getting sappy. Ms. Hesse lives in Williamsville, Vt., but she grew up in the Pimlico section of Baltimore, and provincial types like me will enjoy the reference to chocolate-top cookies from Silber's.

But this picture book has much more going for it. Leah, a girl of about 8, has always spent two weeks each summer at her grandparents' house. But Poppy has died, and Leah is mixed up about her feelings as she and Gramm go through the day without him.

Finally, when she comes downstairs to find Gramm asleep in Poppy's chair, she is able to talk about it.

"Gramm, I couldn't find you," Leah says. "And then I did find you and you were in Poppy's chair and -- Gramm, I don't want you to die!"

And Gramm, perfect in her flowered housecoat with her stockings rolled down around her ankles, tells of how terrible she felt when Poppy died, how she was sometimes mad at him for leaving her.

"Sooner or later, you'll let those awful feelings go," Gramm says. "Then you'll have room for the good feelings to come back again."

Ms. Life's illustrations are in hues of pink and lavender, and when Leah snuggles against Gramm's neck and breathes in the smell of roses, readers can almost smell them, too.

* Another way to help cope with the confusion and helplessness of losing someone you love is fantasy. A stunning new book does just that: "I'll See You in My Dreams," by Mavis Jukes, illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Alfred A. Knopf, $15, ages 5-10).

"If she were a skywriter," it opens, introducing a young girl who puts on a brown leather bomber jacket and silk scarf and climbs into an old biplane, "she'd go through the checklist: controls, instruments, gas, trim -- she'd check everything, just the way her uncle would have done it." Then she takes off, buzzing the roof of the hospital where her uncle lies dying.

Against the jeweled colors of a sunset, she draws a heart with an arrow through it, and the word "Good-bye." Later, when her uncle awakens and the moon rises, she takes off again. "I love you," she spells out in silver script. "I'll see you in my dreams."

The next page, she is sitting next to her mother on an airliner, and her mother is saying, "Don't forget, if you change your mind, you don't have to go to the hospital. . . . In any event, you must remember: He might not wake up. He might not even know you're there. . . ."

Although the hospital is frightening, she isn't scared. Her uncle doesn't awaken, but she holds his hand. He can't hear what she wants to say to him, but she has the courage to say it anyway. After all, she wrote it in the sky.

Ms. Jukes wraps you up in imagery. The biplane sits beside the airstrip "like a moth." The airliner seems "to sag and grow heavier," the closer it gets to the ground. And Ms. Schuett's paintings shimmer with life, just as they did in "Is It Dark? Is It Light?" a couple of years ago. This is a great book.

* Ms. Jukes also wrote "Blackberries in the Dark" about a boy whose grandfather has died. Although it's hard at first, the boy and his grandmother gather strength from one another in this 1985 book, which has been reissued by Knopf ($14, ages 7-11).

* "Saying Good-bye to Grandma" by Jane Resh Thomas, illustrated by Marcia Sewall (Clarion paperback, $5.95, ages 5-10), helps answer questions for children who have never been to a funeral. It provides plenty of details, easing the fear of the unknown, without glossing over the hurt and emptiness.

* "My Grandfather's Hat" by Melanie Scheller, illustrated by Keiko Narahashi (McElderry Books, $13.95, ages 4-8), is the only book in this bunch that didn't make me cry. Two months after his grandfather's death, Jason, who is about 5, has only fond memories of Grandpa, a fun man who once had an egg break in his hat while he was carrying a dozen home from the chicken house. "I guess the yolk's on me," he said, wiping out the hat and putting it back on his head.

It's a down-to-earth story told from a point of view that grandchild- ren can appreciate.

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