It can be hard for children to process their feelings when they lose a loved one or experience a significant change in their lives that leads to the loss of something important. Empathy picture books can help children and their grown-ups’s explore, understand, and process their feelings. The very best picture books give the reader visual clues, such as where a character is positioned on the page or the use of colour and black and white to show emotions. Below are some of my favourite books to help children and young people deal with grief and loss and 2 picture books that explore war and refugees from a child’s perspective.
Rabbityness by Jo Empson (Childs Play)
This empathy picture book makes powerful use of images and colour to convey difficult emotions, which could be used to help children and adults experiencing loss of many kinds, not just grief.
There once lived a Rabbit who liked doing rabbity things, such as hoping and burrowing. Rabbit also liked doing non rabbity things such as painting and making music. His/her creative talents brought joy to the other rabbits. But one day Rabbit disappears. What is left is a big black hole.
The pictures help to illuminate in a visual way rabbits changing feelings and mood. From colourful and vibrant happy scenes to black sad and desolate scenes. A great picture book to support children and teenagers through difficult times.
Highly recommend for 3 to 89 years.
A Shelter for Sadness by Anne Booth and David Litchfield
This is one of my all-time favourite picture books. In a touching and heartfelt story this book gives you permission to let sadness in, but also that it’s ok to be ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. The story is beautifully complimented by David Litchfield’s eye-catching and colourful pictures.
The story explores the nature of sadness. A small boy creates a shelter in the garden for his Sadness, a safe place for it. I love how sadness is a character in his own right. By making sadness a character the author and illustrator are able to explain to the reader that sadness can take many ‘shapes’ and ‘sizes’, depending on what ‘Sadness feels like’. The passing of the seasons will be helpful to children and teenagers experiencing grief and those supporting them, as it makes it clear some sort’s of sadness are not done and over with, they come and go, but that’s ok. There’s also a delightful page, where the boy takes Sadness by the hand and takes it for a walk. The story is careful to portray that it’s ok to be happy and sad, one doesn’t exclude the other.
An important book for anyone supporting children or families with grief and other sadness caused by a deep loss.
Highly recommend for 4 to 89 years.
The Hare Shape Hole by John Dougherty and Thomas Docherty
This recently published picture book immediately got my attention and I had to be added to my top recommendations for children’s picture books about grief and loss. Told in beautiful rhyming text, this touching and sensitive story will help all ages to explore their emotions when they loose someone close to them.
Bertle the Tortoise and Hurtle the Hare are the best of friends, they do everything together. But, one day quite suddenly and unexpected Hurtle is not there anymore and all that is left is: “a hole in the air where a hare ought to be”.
When Hurtle the Hare has gone his loss is cleverly shown by a black silhouette, which follows Bertle where every he goes. This captures in a visual way that sense of emptiness that one can feel when you loose someone close to you, which could help a child experiencing grief process their emotions and the adults in their lives to support them.
“Now, Gerda was gentle and Gerda was steady, so we waited with Bertle until she was ready.”
A little while later Gerda the Bear comes along and waits patiently for Bertle to be ready before giving him a hug. He explains that life is not always happy and encourages Bertle to fill the empty black spaces, with memories of “All the games you have played and the ways you had fun.” and to take those memories with him. Again really clever use of illustrations is made and the black empty silhouette of his friend Hurtle is filled with colours and brightness as he remembers the good times they had together.
Highly recommend for 3 to 89 years.
Grandpa and the Kingfisher by Anna Wilson and Sarah Massini
“A positive story, about life, death and being part of the natural world.”
Another newly published gem of a book, which explores friendship, loss and new beginnings and the cycles of nature. This empathy picture book would be particular helpful for someone who has lost a grandparent or a someone who is older than them. The story begin with a child (who could be a boy or a a girl) exploring a local river with their grandpa. Whilst sitting by the river they spot some kingfishers. Grandpa points about a male and female kingfisher who are building a nest together. When the child can no longer see the kingfishers grandpa explains that they are nesting and the farther will be taking tasty fish to the mother whose keeping the eggs warm. The young child says:
“I’ll look after you Grandpa.”
The story takes you through a full calendar year and all the seasons, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring by the river. So could be used to support the KS1 Science curriculum too. It follows the life cycle of the Kingfisher, which turns out to be a good bird to use in this story as a Kingshfisher die’s after they have had young. Grandpa uses this to explain:
“They died” said Grandpa. It’s nature’s way, the grown-up’s die and the chicks live on.”
In the spring the young child’s grandpa is gone, but they discover that nature goes on, “just like grandpa told me”.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb
What a powerful story by a great author and illustrator pairing. Nicola Davies first person, child perspective of the impact of war on one child, and their subsequent experience of becoming a refugee is beautifully complemented by Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations.
This story helps the reader to imagine what it might be like if one day war came to your town and school and you lost everything. It covers the child’s dangerous journey and their arrival in a ‘safe’ country where they live in refugee huts. Then comes the most impactful moment of the story. When a child tries to go to school but there was ‘no chair’, so the teacher turned her away. But, then a child from the class turns up with a chair “so you can come to school.” A story about loss and about the kindness of strangers to reach out and help others.
I love how a connection is made between the young girl being at school before the war, where she was learning about ‘volcanoes and sang a song about tadpoles’ and then as a refugee she walks past a school where the children were learning about volcanoes and singing about and drawing birds.
Highly recommend for 6 to12 year olds.
Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
One of my favourite picture books to help children explore others experiences of war, and feelings of sadness, loss, fear and hope. Told from the perspective of a young boy called Yasan who lives in war torn Syria. The perspective in this story is clever as you don’t get to see the war, the focus instead is on exploring the immediate effects on Yazan and his parents as everything changes around them.
The messages of the story are beautifully supported by Nadine Kaadan’s illustrations, which help to convey powerful emotions and to reflect the boys feelings and experiences in a way that is meaningful to children. A simple colour palette of black, yellow and read is very effective. Black for sadness, fear and anxiety, red for happy memories and red and yellow for hope.
The messages in this story include a family supporting each other in difficult circumstances and the power of imagination and art to bring hope to dark times. There are some interesting parallels which can be drawn with some children’s experience of Covid-19 lockdowns, for example not being able to go to the park with friends or to school. About a month into the first lockdown, this book proved invaluable to explore mixed emotions with my son who was then 9 years old.
The careful use of colour and sensitive storytelling also mean this powerful picture book could be used to explore emotions in many contexts not just war and refugees.
I would highly recommend this for 6+, including young people and adults. It is a great story which encourages empathy and offers many opportunities for discussion.
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