Monday, May 09, 2016
‘Cry, Heart, but Never Break,’ - Children's Books on Death & Dying
You don’t want to talk to your kids about death. Not your death (dreary thought), their death (unspeakable), death in general: It’s all bad. They, however, may be undaunted, even unnervingly fascinated, by the bottomless mystery of inert forever-ness. (They are, after all, children.) Luckily, without any help from you, today’s tots will soon enough stray onto a vast field of inquiry — literature — fervently devoted to the insult of mortality. In the meantime, you’ll find that while picture books have grown increasingly frank on sensitive topics of family structure, disability, race and ethnicity, death remains largely absent, replicating your own woeful silence.
But all kids, and especially those who face the loss of a loved one, deserve more than denial, euphemism or sugarcoating. You, in turn, could use help with the conversation — the kind of help that intelligent, unflinching, empathetic stories could provide. A handful of new picture books step into this difficult fray. Each of them is serious, visually sophisticated and well intentioned, and each stumbles a bit when it comes to using its words.
Despite its icky title, “Cry, Heart, but Never Break,” a 2001 Danish work, is rich and affecting. You’ll know something is amiss in Denmark from the moment you open the book to a haunting watercolor illustration dominated by a dusky, rose-smudged sky, shadowy grasses traversed by a black cat, and a slanting old house with a watchful bird perched on top. A long scythe leans by the front door. We learn that four children live in this “small snug house” with their grandmother. “A kindly woman, she had cared for them for many years. Now she had a visitor.” The glum intruder, shrouded by a hooded black robe, is recognized by the children, who ply him with coffee to forestall his rendezvous with Grandma.