Death, Dying and Grief as Classroom Subject or Theme, Grades Preschool through Ninth

An Annotated Booklist of Some of Our Favorite Children's Books, Some with Links to More Material for Teaching This Topic

Death, Dying and Grief in Children's Books Complex and emotional issues like dying and grieving often bring us the very best in literary writing. Putting story, images and language to that which is, at times, inconceivable is one of the great gifts from the books in our lives. Sharing these books with children can be one of our gifts to them.

I (Rebecca) remember the first time my mom (Carol Hurst) read my sister and I a book where one of the characters died. It was a revelation to me that books could be really sad. It was also a revelation to hear my mom, who never cried in front of us, choke up when reading. It was a rare glimpse into a way of looking at the world that didn't require me to keep my chin up at all times and that allowed me to grieve with the people I loved.

cover art People sometimes look to books about death as a way to help a child who is currently facing death in their life. I'm not sure this is the best time to present a book about death. I think this is a time to give one's simple presence and unconditional love. It is a time for open-ended questions and frank conversation. It is a time, with younger children, to share books the child is already familiar with. A time to spend extra time reading aloud anything that might bring the two of you closer, but probably not the time to read about death.

That said, when reading any of these books in a school setting it's important to be aware that, although you may be unaware, some of your students may be having an all-too-personal experience around death. Mom had this to say about it:
"Any time we are using literature that deals with sensitive topics, we need to watch and listen to our children carefully. Books are powerful things. They can open doors we didn't mean to open and we need to be aware that true bibliotherapy is probably best done by a skilled counselor."

Here are some of our favorite titles. You can also find many books that deal with death in any of our articles on specific wars. See the links at the end of this article.

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Grades 3 - 7
Heartlight by T. A. Barron. Novel. 272 pages.
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While this captivating fantasy's theme of the role of death is a somber one, the writing is not. That's partly because of the attendant theme of love conquering all. The book has elements of physics, metaphysics, adventure, science fiction and fantasy, broadening its appeal to many audiences. Even the author recognizes similarities in plot to Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, which many students will have read. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 3 - 6
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. Illustrated by Garth Williams. Novel. 282 pages.
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This book, that's brought tears and laughter to so many generations, is a book that we tend to take for granted. No other book in the field has handled the inevitability of the cycle of life with more skill and wisdom. At the same time, White pokes gentle fun at advertising and human nature while he celebrates the simplicities of farm life. Another beauty of the work is that it can be understood on so many levels. Children much younger than eight may be too young to deal with the death of a favorite character, but kids from that age up can usually handle it. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.


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Grades PreK - 2
Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris. Illustrated by Ormerod, Jan. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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With her typical sensitivity and the help of wonderful illustrations by Jan Ormerod, Harris deals with the end of life. Mousie doesn't respond to his accustomed morning tickle and our young narrator is worried enough to bring Mousie to his father for explanation. The explanation is not the one he wanted, however, and when his father explains that Mousie is dead, the child is furious. The stages of grief are right up front for the child who goes quickly through them all from denial to final acceptance in one agonizing day. The parents are sympathetic and help him through his grief.

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Grades 6 - 12
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Nonfiction. 144 pages.
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This outstanding nonfiction book brings the wildly popular science of forensics to the historical discovery of 17th century graves in and around Jamestown, Virginia. The on-the-scene author follows the scientists as they work to uncover mysteries about the bodies of a Captain, an African slave girl, an upper class woman and more. Great photographs, fascinating content and brilliantly written. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 8
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Novel. 180 pages.
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This thought-provoking, delightful book has got to be one of the all time great fantasies for children. The writing is superb, the plot engrossing and the images and themes can last in the reader's mind for a very long time. When Winnie, a rather bored and overly protected child, becomes friends with the Tuck family, her life is changed forever. The Tucks, mother and father and two sons, have inadvertently drunk from a well that halts aging and gives them everlasting life. They will never grow old, never die. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 5 - 9
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Novel. 227 pages.
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It's 1934 in Oklahoma and life is already tough, it's about to get worse. Billie Jo, her mother and father are struggling on through hard financial times on the farm during the Dust Bowl. Out of the Dust is written in free verse and intended for kids in about fifth grade and up. This format gives a sparity to the text, which makes it a fairly quick read, but the novel has great depth and a strong sense of time and place. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 4 - 7
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. Novel. 256 pages.
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Kira-kira means glittering and this book glitters. It's narrated by Katie, the middle child in a hard working Japanese American family. Katie idolizes Lynn, her older sister, who takes time to teach Katie all the things she ought to know. In Katie's eyes, Lynn is beautiful and brilliant--kira-kira. While few people in Georgia are deliberately hateful toward the Japanese Americans who have come there to work in the factories, the racism is apparent. This is the 2005 Newbery Award Winner. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.


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Grades 4 - 9
Pyramid by David Macaulay. Nonfiction. 80 pages.
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This pyramid is an imaginary one, but it's patterned after the real ones built by the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Macaulay picks a site west of the Nile and makes his pyramid rise 470 feet above the surrounding area. He carefully describes each step in the building process leading up to the pharaoh's death. Macaulay then takes us through the preparation of the body and the sealing of the entrance to the pyramid with the mummy and his accouterments inside.

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Grades 4 - 7
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. Novel. 128 pages.
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This is the story of a miserable boy, Rob, and an equally miserable girl, Sistine. Rob grieves for his recently deceased mother, but he must do so without tears for his father has forbidden tears. Sistine is miserable because of her family's divorce and her relocation here in this awful town. When Rob discovers a caged tiger, he shares the secret with Sistine who is determined to free the tiger. This runner up for the National Book Award is brilliantly done. It's a tale of loss and redemption, of humans made whole by each other. Read More.

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Grades 5 - 9
Sounder by William H. Armstrong. Novel. 116 pages.
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Set in the south in the late 1800's, Sounder is based on a true story of a family of Black sharecroppers and their beloved hunting hound, Sounder. The family depends on Sounder for hunting game, until one year when there is not enough game in the woods to sustain them. The father steals a pig for meat and goes to jail and then to hard labor. The oldest son, who is still a child, narrates this story of love and faith, cruelty and death.

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Grades 5 - 7
Kit's Wilderness by David Almond. Novel. 240 pages.
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Kit has recently moved to Stoneygate where his ancestors worked in the mines along with most of the other villagers. Evidence of the coal mines is everywhere but, most compellingly, it is in a monument on which are engraved the names of those who died in the mines. Kit's name is on it as he is named for a distant uncle. Likewise, the name of John Askew appears on the monument and his namesake has become a leader in a game of death played by the present-day children of the village. The rituals surrounding this game, the tales told by those who have lain "dead" in the abandoned mine, become ever more important and it is inevitable that, sooner or later, Kit will take his turn being "dead." Read More.

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Grades 4 - 7
Skellig by David Almond. Novel. 208 pages.
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Michael first discovers Skellig in a broken down-garage on the property of his new home. Skellig lies amongst the dirt on the floor of the structure, eating flies. He can hardly move due to arthritis. Unsure, at first, that he has actually seen Skellig, Michael finally brings his new friend Mina to find out if she can also see Skellig. Skellig's very definition is hard to come by. Is he a man? An owl? An angel? Some combination of all three? Whatever and whoever Skellig is, he haunts Michael, who already has enough to worry about. Read More.


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Grades 4 - 9
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Novel. 280 pages.
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Salamanca's mother has left without explanation and has not returned in this Newbery Award winning novel. Now, 13-year-old Sal is traveling across the country with her grandparents, following the route her mother took. Along the way her kind and fun-loving grandparents ask her to tell them a story. She shares a long tale about herself and her best friend whose mother has also left her family. Throughout the book the cross-country trip and the story Sal tells are interwoven. There is comedy in the grandparents' eccentricity and poignancy in the story Sal tells. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 4 - 8
Weasel by Cynthia DeFelice. Novel. 128 pages.
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Nathan Fowler and his sister are alone in their cabin when Ezra, a mute Indian, arrives and beckons them to follow him into the wilderness at night. With trepidation they follow and find their wounded father. Set in Ohio, in 1839, the book explores the concepts of evil, guilt and revenge. It also concerns the time in US history when the government paid "Indian fighters" to kill Indians in territories in which settlers were arriving. Weasel is one of these people, a psychopathic killer who has now turned on the settlers as well as the Indians. This is a harsh story about a family on the frontier of Ohio. Healing comes through music in the end. Read More.

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Grades 8 - 12
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Novel. 204 pages.
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The novel is told as a flashback when Gene Forrester revisits Devon School in New Hampshire, fifteen years after he was a student there. His best friend at that time is Phineas, called Finny, a natural athlete and idealist who Gene envies Finny so much that he contrives to make him fall from a tree, crippling him. Guilt causes Gene to confess what he has done to Finny but the results are not what Gene expected. This coming-of-age tale follows the actions of a group of boys as they struggle with academics, sports, friends and their impending involvement in World War II.

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Grades 5 - 8
A Summer To Die by Lois Lowry. Novel. 160 pages.
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Meg and her sister Molly share a room and constantly fight. However, all is not well with Molly; her bloody noses reach a crisis and she spends a long time in the hospital. When she returns, she is never really her same self again—she's grouchy and moody or far away and quiet. In this book, as in most of Lowry's work, there is a good deal of humor and hope as well as a deep understanding of suffering.

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